Translator’s Blues

Franco Nasi

October 26, 2015 
The following is from Franco Nasi’s book, Translator's Blues. Nasi is the author of numerous books on translation, of several anthologies of poetry in translation, and is himself the translator into Italian of, among others, Liverpool poet Roger McGough. He teaches in the Department of Language and Cultural Studies at the University of Modena-Reggio Emilia.

In Vermont, I found, there is an awful lot of wood. It’s a bit like being at the foot of the Apennines, except there’s nobody there, just a few low, unobtrusive, wooden houses. And there are no fences either, so anyone can wander at will. Since there are no fences, there is also an absence of automatic gates; an absence, too, I suppose, of burglar-alarms.

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Near the centre of Vermont there is a town that my architect friend wished me to visit since, given its high percentage of inhabitants of Italian origin, he thought it might relieve me of my homesickness. In Barre, Vermont, many years ago, hundreds of Italian families arrived to work in the granite quarries. It’s almost like being in Carrara, except that the quarries, instead of being on the mountainside, are on the plain, and instead of being white, are grey. The Barre cemetery exudes an air of tranquillity: a lawn, carefully tended and trimmed; maples, oaks, firs, a few alders shaped like cypresses; a pond with a small bridge; squirrels, brightly coloured birds, tortoises, deer, the occasional racoon.

All the tombs are fashioned out of grey granite. There are none of what I’ve called “condominiums”–those walls of burial niches–but lots of steles of various forms and dimensions, plenty of American flags to indicate who among the dead fell in battle, and an almost complete lack of crosses. On the steles are visible only some light ornamental motifs carved into the granite: a sprig of vines, a funerary urn, a Greek fret. Then a series of Italian names: Bardassi, Bedia, Bettini, Brusa, Carmolli, Corti, Ellero, Novelli, Rusconi, Tomasi; the names of stonecutters, dead for the most part of silicosis.

But there are also many tombs on which the stonemasons have sought to defy the intractability of granite. Certain of them are veritable sculptures, of a sort I’d never have expected to see in a cemetery, such as the rally automobile, “Number 61,” belonging to Arman J. Laguerre (born 6.10.1963, died 2.2.1991); or the biplane of Mark Willets (4.4.1911 – 6.3.1936); or the settee in the Frau style, this one too in lifelike proportions, belonging to Tom Teinstein (12.5.1924 – 3.7.1986); or the nuptial bed of Mike and Cathy Oldcorn, depicting the deceased couple hand in hand. Davis, a thirteen-year-old boy, is buried under an enormous granite football.

Here and there the odd epitaph, among which the most essential and touching, also because it was in Italian:

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m. 11.7.1903

d. 11.7.1903

I lingered, contemplating this inscription, for quite some while. Is it indeed an epitaph? Would it be appropriate for my notebook? If so, in which subcategory would it fit? Had Belli wanted it so, or was this his relatives’ choice? The stone was rectangular, very small. Belli, a stonecutter, who had come all the way to Barre, Vermont, to start some revolution or other, then died at some undefined age, with granite dust in his lungs and his native language on his lips. I sensed that Belli, who had passed away without leaving anything but this shortest of epitaphs, might at any moment rise from the grave, as far as his waist, and ask me, with a disdain worthy of Dante’s Farinata, what ever had become of his revolutionary campaigns and his political enemies.

For my part, I started coughing and staring silently at my shoes, then distancing myself–all the way to Chicago, where my architect friend currently lives and works.

* * * *

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So now it’s Sunday, I’m in Chicago, and it’s snowing.

I woke up this morning, I went to the shops, and I found that on Sunday mornings it’s not possible to buy alcohol.

“But this is non-alcoholic beer,” I said to the cashier.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “but before eleven I can’t sell anything from the alcohol counter.”

I trudged home under the falling snow, my mind teeming with questions: Would the ban be in operation only on Sundays or on every other day too? Why should non-alcoholic beer be sold from the alcohol counter? Is non-alcoholic beer an oxymoron? Is this the case only at Dominick’s? And then, why before eleven? What happens in America after 11 a.m.?

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Yesterday evening towards eight I went to Dino’s, the other grocery store near the house, to buy milk. On the walk home I saw a group of youngsters enter a house carrying cans of Miller beer. Then I crossed paths with three older men and a woman who were chatting away merrily, each carrying a pack holding eight bottles of beer. I with my gallon of milk, and they with their eight-packs of beer: united in advancing age and in suffering from the cold.

Perhaps, since everyone here tends to get drunk on Saturday nights, the Illinois legislators decided to impose a moratorium on the consumption of alcohol on Sunday mornings? Such was my hypothesis. To get a more reliable explanation I asked Malcolm, my American friend, and discovered that it’s only on Sunday mornings before eleven that alcohol cannot be bought, and for the reason that these are the blue hours.

“Yet another expression with the word blue! What is it with that word?’”

Malcolm did not follow me: he was not to know I had just finished reading On Being Blue: A Philosophical Enquiry by William Gass, a book I had been given so I could judge if I thought it could be translated into Italian. I’d read it out of curiosity but also from a translator’s angle, drawing a blank as I did so. Firstly, it was difficult, and secondly, it constantly played upon the double, triple, quadruple significance of that colour. Translating a book like this into Italian would be sure to induce melancholy: a malady that takes hold of you whenever, after a thousand false starts, you feel yourself being invested by an overwhelming sense of inadequacy and impotence. This blue-tinged malady makes the translator wish that Babel and the multiplication of languages were only a legend, and that all the various languages in the world did not exist and had never existed. With melancholy comes nostalgia for an ur-language, in which colours and all their meanings were the same for everyone, in which plants were identical for all and sundry; in which flowers, and sounds, and ceremonies, every object, sensation, and belief was expressed in a single, universal, manner, in which a rose was a rose was a rose.

But alas, the multiplication of languages is no fairytale, and in English the word blue has come to signify many things, among which sadness and melancholy, which are expressed in other ways and by other colours for an Italian. True blue, bluenose, blue Communist, blue water, blue law, blue counties, bluestocking, blue ribbon . . . Not to repeat it ad nauseam (or until I’m blue in the face), English and Italian do not share many expressions when it comes to colour. Feeling blue gives umor nero, meaning a black mood, not a blue. Perhaps the most curious difference relates to cinema: Why in Italian are pornographic movies red whereas in English they are (or were) blue? Experts do appear to agree that there exists a close relation between sexual activity and the colour blue–an archetypal relation that stretches across cultures. The Chinese, for instance, tint the walls of their brothels blue. The colour of Satan’s sulphurous flame is blue for Americans. Blue was the puritanical pencil used in the nineteenth century by the public censor when prohibiting printed matter unsuited to the eyes of the innocent . . .

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This thought of blue pencils puts me in mind of how, when I was at school, errors marked in blue were more serious than those marked in red. In translations from Latin, for example, the blue errors subtracted one point, those in red only half a point. It always seemed to me it should be the other way round: in my mind red was the colour of maximum error (one didn’t cross a red traffic-light, one didn’t enter a cinema projecting red movies, and one didn’t visit Communist-run workers’ centres with their red flags at their entrances, and which, according to the curate instructing us in catechism, were strictly out of bounds); while blue seemed more neutral, closer to the azure of the national football team, to the veil of the Madonna, or to Pinocchio’s Fairy with Turquoise Hair. But of course the teachers were right: blue minus one point, red minus half a point.

* * * *

Yesterday evening, out of the blue, after thinking about all those folk in the snow with their crates of beer, I got to feeling like a drink. So I parked the milk in the fridge, and set off for Buddy Guy’s Legends, on Wabash. Even if it is a rather mournful dive, decked out for European tourists in search of authentic blues, one can still sit quietly in a corner and listen to some excellent music. Last night, there was a young local group whose song, “The First Time I Met the Blues,” reminded me of how the blues can become a sort of demon taking possession of the musicians. The blues don’t get made by those who are light of heart. The blues are piercing and lacerating, like the arrows of love in the poetry of Guido Cavalcanti. There’s a physical battle between the palpable melancholy that propagates, pursues, paralyses, and the musician who attempts to flee but succumbs. This is a hunt that repeats, rhythmically, with defined cadences and structure, following symmetrical patterns (the blues’ famous twelve bars) with their three-line stanzas in which the words of the second line echo those of the first and prepare those of the third which close the circle in a rhyme, but always in movement, as if the hunt were never done, as if nothing could ever be definitive–and this from the outset with the notes themselves, the blue notes that are a dissonant particularity of this type of music.

While listening, I was struck by how our usual necessities and nostalgias, our cultures and habits, when they seek expression, oblige us to invent new and beautiful and disturbing forms. It is said that blue notes were first heard in the voices of black slaves stooped in labour, then in guitars played with bottlenecks, then in harmonicas played a little out of tune. These are half-way between the notes to which Western traditions of refined music have accustomed us. Nearly all our instruments are manufactured so that the interval between one note and another, between one semitone and another, should be precise. Similarly, our musical scales are composed of twelve semitones, where African scales are often pentatonic, with different intervals. And this is so, when trying to obtain a certain note on an instrument conceived for different notes is rather like trying to translate the Divina Commedia into English, or Hamlet into Italian. Those African singers who tried to celebrate their gods, mixing their own musical cultures and adapting these to Western instruments, effected a translation, an adaptation which permitted them to keep alive (or revive) their own musical sensibilities and cultures, in a musical creole–a fruitful contamination. If in the blues C major is the principal chord, blue notes correspond to the third, fifth, or seventh note in the major scale lowered not by a semitone, but sung or played slightly flatter, or lower in pitch than is correct by Western standards. Not only, therefore, an E flat in the place of an E, but rather a somewhat declining E flat, on which the slide guitar or harmonica lingers, dipping our ears towards a different sonority. This may amount to a non-standard note, or even an ungainly note, yet it is the miracle of such a translation that it succeeds in making audible the melancholy and nostalgia of a lost language of sound, the language of a violently extirpated African musicality.

As I made my way home from Buddy Guy’s Legends, under the snow that had not ceased falling, I thought to myself: Could it be that any translation, if it seeks to be more than a cold and sterile transposition, must contain blue notes? A translation needs blue notes to hint at an elsewhere, at nostalgia, and with nostalgia the tension provoked by unappeased desire for whatever is distant and unreachable. As William Gass puts it, “So it’s true: Being without being is blue.”



From TRANSLATOR’S BLUES. Used with permission of Sylph Editions. Copyright © 2015 by Franco Nasi.

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