Deconstructing Authorship-in-Translation

'With-ness’ and ‘Polilogue’ in Giuseppe Ungaretti’s Writings on Translation

By Anna Fochi (Cardiff University, UK)

Abstract & Keywords


Recent advances in research on multiple subjectivities in translation, notably Hayes (2009), can fuel innovative criticism on authorship-in-translation. It is the intention of this contribution to promote a step in this direction through a promising case study of Poet-Translator. Choosing the Modernist decades in Italy and a poet who has devoted great efforts to translation, the paper opts for the analysis of his writings (rather than his translations), reading them not in isolation but as part of an articulate web of contemporary voices. Thus, idealistic statements of unified subjectivity in the author/translator relation are deconstructed, ultimately questioning notions like appropriation vs. self-annihilation.

Keywords: literary translation, plural subjectivity, with-ness, canon of translation, authorship-in-translation, italian modernism, poetry translation

©inTRAlinea & Anna Fochi (2012).
"Deconstructing Authorship-in-Translation", inTRAlinea Vol. 14.
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Permanent URL:

Poetry Translation in Modernist Italy

The first half of the XX century is generally said to be characterized by great interest in translation. As Steven Yao has shown (2002: 4-5), this is particularly the case for Anglo-American Modernist poets, with their sheer abundance of translations as well as critical reflection on the subject.  However, the phenomenon is far from being limited to Anglo-American Modernism.  In Italy, for example, the decade 1930-40 was a ‘golden’ age, both for prose translation (Elio Vittorini, Cesare Pavese, Emilio Cecchi), and for the contemporary young generation of Italian poets who were clearly attracted to and challenged by poetic translation: Ungaretti, Montale, Quasimodo, Soffici, etc.  Many years later, this is what Mario Luzi aptly remarks when looking back to that period:

Era di rito negli anni trenta e quaranta scrivere un saggio sul tradurre: poteva essere un trattato o un compitino, ma quella prova di finezza problematica bisognava darla, quell’ossequio un po’ da iniziati all’epoca che stava elaborando ab imo una cultura poetica non poteva mancare in chi era veramente o voleva apparire, appunto, ‘in’ [Luzi (1983: VII)]

In the Thirties and Forties it would be a rite to write an essay on translation. It did not matter if it was a treatise or only a short essay, but a poet was supposed to offer such evidence of problematic sophistication. Those who were, or at least hoped to be regarded as cool, could not miss that almost esoteric act of deference to an age that was ab imo elaborating a poetic culture [my translation].

The last decade has seen interesting studies on poetic translation in Twentieth Century Italy, particularly Caselli, La Penna (2008) and Dolfi’s authoritative volume on the third poetic generation of literary translators (2004). However, in-depth research on the meaning and construction of translation for the first and second poetic generation has still to be undertaken. In a bottom-up approach, this contribution intends to promote discussion by starting with a case study focused on one of the most outstanding Italian poet-translators of the first decades of the XX Century. Giuseppe Ungaretti is certainly one who has devoted great effort and attention to translation. His sustained interest in both the practice and critical issues of poetic translation cannot be reduced to just a temporary infatuation for a literary mode, nor can the striking quality and number of his writings and observations on the subject of translation be approached as mere ritual acts.

We are indebted to Julie Candler Hayes (2009) for having shed new light on the complex issue of authorship-in-translation. In line with contemporary philosophers, like Emmanuel Lévinas, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Jacques Derrida, Hayes highlights how the notion of individual autonomous authorship is questioned by translation, which, she argues, is a privileged site for multiple relations and presences, with meaning circulating in a continuous dialogue or ‘polylogue’. If according to Nancy, the condition of the ‘singular plural’ is common to all, Hayes states that “translation […] is a practice that enables a particular awareness of such ‘with-ness’ with regard to language” [Hayes (2009: 21)]. Understandably, Hayes’ contributions can provide a stimulating and innovative methodological framework for translation criticism of a specific case of authorship-in-translation, that of the Poet-Translator.

Therefore, in step with Hayes’ research model,  this contribution decides not to focus on Ungaretti’s works of translation, but rather on his critical writings on poetic translation (introductory notes, academic lectures, essays, letters, etc.), reading them together with those other voices (of contemporary poets and scholars) who prompted, or were prompted, by them. Thus, through sustained close reading of such an articulate web of critical reflections, a complex, albeit at times far from linear, approach to translation will be outlined. De facto, the result will be a multifaceted and deeply contextualized sort of ‘translation theory’, revealing an innovative form of subjectivity and authorship-in-translation, as well as confirming the potentialities of a poet-translator to contribute to the process of canon formation within his contemporary poetics of translation.

Ungaretti’s Translations and Related Writings

Ungaretti has left a translation production which is undoubtedly rich, complex and multilingual. Actually, his name (the only one from Italy) is included by Antoine Berman among those great XX Century Western writers who incarnate the French Scholar’s ideal of criticism in translation [Violante Picon (1998: 25)]. Although Ungaretti was not a precocious poet, and even less a precocious translator, translating gradually became more important for him. If his first volume of translations appeared only in 1936, at the age of 48, since then there were moments when his activity as translator was more intense than poetry writing.  For example, during the Second World War, in the immediate aftermath, and in the 1960s, his published volumes of translation certainly outnumbered those of his creative poetry. Besides a number of single translations spread and scattered in journals, newspapers and booklets, or sometimes not even published (as in the case of Rimbaud’s poems), and after the 1936 miscellaneous and multilingual book of Traduzioni (containing, among others, poems from Góngora, Blake, Saint-John Perse, Jean Paulhan, Esenin),  his main translations, are grouped in four main volumes, all of which are devoted to one single poet or text, at the most to two poets: XXII sonetti di Shakespeare scelti e tradotti da Giuseppe Ungaretti (1944)/Vita d’un uomo: 40 sonetti di Shakespeare (1946), Vita d’un uomo: da Góngora e da Mallarmé (1948), Vita d’un uomo: Fedra di Jean Racine (1950), Vita d’un uomo: Visioni di William Blake (1965)[1]

Most of these translations are introduced by notes or comments, which at times can be particularly lengthy and articulate. Like many other translators’ writings, Ungaretti’s introductory notes can also be read as a sort of cahier de bord, since they offer a ‘live’ and detailed memory of the concrete difficulties as well as the moments of exaltation, he experienced when translating. Moreover, these writings reveal precious clues for the deconstruction and appreciation of Ungaretti’s own reading and interpretation of authors and texts. Finally, to make them more relevant, they are often the result of sustained reflections on literature, poetry, aesthetics, as well as on language and translation, thus providing the critic with precious materials to reflect on.

This supports the initial methodological decision to focus on Ungaretti’s translation notes rather than on his actual texts of translation. We believe that Ungaretti’s writings on translation are striking texts not just for their sheer number, but for the interesting features they share. In particular, this contribution will privilege the long introductory ‘Nota’ to his 40 sonetti di Shakespeare (pp.7-41 in the 1946 edition). The text is not a smooth and integral piece of writing, but this is perfectly in line with most of Ungaretti’s writings on translation. It is rather a ‘patchwork’ of texts written at different times, although linked by a common topic: his translation of the Sonnets, a ‘work in progress’ until 1946, and partly even later. All the texts the 1946 ‘Nota’ is based on were mostly written between 1944 and 1946, as accompanying notes to the publication of individual sonnets. Later, the ‘Nota’ itself was taken up twice in the 1960s for two different conferences, one in Rome and one in Paris (in French), which were then respectively published as new texts, thus revealing a fluid and open view of the written text (see Ungaretti1974: 971-2).

In the ‘Nota’, Ungaretti openly states the origin of the texts that compose the final version of the note presented in the 1946 edition: 1) the introductory note to the 1944 edition of XXII sonetti di Shakespeare scelti e tradotti da Giuseppe Ungaretti; 2) the note to the publication of six other sonnets in Poesia. Quaderno I (1945); 3) a reply (in Poesia. Quaderno III-IV, 1946) to a review to the XXII sonetti by Napoleone Orsini (1945); 4) some textual observations on his translations, mostly as a follow-up to another review, by Salvatore Rosati (1945). However, there could be something else: an immediate follow-up to the‘Nota’, and therefore still virtually part of it, is the essay ‘Della metrica e del tradurre’, which Ungaretti wrote only a few months later as a passionate reply to a fundamentally negative review by Camillo Pellizzi in La Fiera Letteraria. At any rate, the translator’s ‘Nota’  is an unorthodox introduction: an open text, which lives on multiple texts, past and future, and is overtly characterized by a dialectical and dialogical tone, inviting to be read together with the other ‘voices’ directly mentioned. The result is a clear stress of the ‘axiological’ dimension in the translating process [Venuti (2008a: 37-8)].

In fact, this is a recurring feature in Ungaretti’s writings on translation. For example, it is shared by the introductory note to the translation of Racine’s Fedra, which incorporates a good part of a previous text (a note on his translation of John-Perse’s Anabase, 1931), and is later deconstructed, modified and freely re-combined with other previous texts to produce the 1950 essay “Sulla Fedra di Racine” (1950).

At this point, the ‘Nota’ already appears to be much more than a mere example of discourse on translation, but, to use Candler Hayes’s phrase, it almost performs the work of translation [Candler Hayes (2009: 112)]. Besides being a patchwork, it is a text filled with other texts (not only by Ungaretti), and with a myriad of other voices and presences.

On the Canon of Translation

In the first half of the XX century, the Italian literary panorama was dominated by the authoritative thought of Benedetto Croce, and the canon of translation was equally influenced by his neo-idealistic aesthetics and the notion that all works of art are unique and therefore neither transferable nor translatable. According to Croce, it is possible to interpret the content (the result is the so-called brutta fedele translation), but a translation which is ‘aesthetically faithful’ is simply not possible. What is achievable, however, is the re-formulation of the aesthetic expression which will be based on the intuition and the new development of the original contents, after being mixed and melted in the ‘crucible’ by the translator’s own feelings and perceptions. The new expression, the new text, therefore, is an independent work of art, although with a certain air of ‘family likeness’, but not to be regarded as translation: a bella infedele [Croce (1928: 19, 76)].

The principle of the uniqueness of the work of art implies other important notions in translation theory: from an individualistic concept of original authorship, to the near fixation on the issue of fidelity with the relative dominance of normative poetics, or to the view of translation as a process of identification and self-annihilation of the translator, with the consequent development of what Lawrence Venuti defines the simpatico strategy of choosing only those authors who the translator finds simpatici and therefore closer and easier to identify with [Venuti (2008b: 237-9)]. This way, translation norms tend to be to the result of a dualistic perception of the translating process, which appears to be characterized by unbalanced antitheses: creative poetry/translation, author/translator, original text/translated text, bella infedele/brutta fedele, etc., where the first term is usually regarded as more valuable.

In his sustained writing on the subject, Ungaretti has often dealt with all these issues. It is an extremely varied material, which being obviously far from expressing a linear and systematic critical reflection, can be properly understood only through contextualized reading within the whole ‘web’. It could be misleading to read such texts in isolation, and they should rather be contextualized as moments of the poet’s open dialogue with his whole self, as well as with the ‘other’ voices, past and present.

Creative Art vs.Translation

A personal approach to translation can already be perceived in Ungaretti’s firm intention of stressing the close complementarities of his activity of translation to all his other important interests, starting with creative poetry. Actually, what distinguishes Ungaretti’s remarkable literary experience is the close connection and fusion of his multiple interests. Carlo Bo, in his preface to the posthumous volume Vita d’un uomo – Saggi e interventi, expresses it admirably, highlighting ‘tutto questo cosciente e segreto tenere in mano i fili del discorso’ [Ungaretti (1974: XVIII)]; and this is also brilliantly synthesized by Puccini:

Tutto, tutto per la traduzione. Tutto, tutto per la creazione e la poesia [Puccini (1981: 523)].

Everything, everything for the sake of translation. Everything, everything for the sake of creativity and poetry [my translation].

Therefore, an important step in Ungaretti’s personal development is the moment when he decides to group all his texts in a single great work, ultimately meant to coincide with his own life. The very title chosen states that: Vita d’un uomo. The life-long work was inaugurated in 1942 with a new edition of L’Allegria, but since 1946, with the publication of 40 sonetti di Shakespeare, this open work has included all his major volumes of translation, and has been continued even after the poet’s death in 1970, with the volume Vita d’un uomo – Saggi e interventi (1974) and Vita d’un uomo – Viaggi e lezioni (2000), to be apparently concluded by the forwarding volume Vita d’un uomo – Tutte le traduzioni.

The relevance of Ungaretti’s position can be further appreciated if contrasted to that of Montale. When the huge variety of Eugenio Montale’s writings between 1920-1979 (articles for newspapers, essays, interviews, etc.) were posthumously grouped and published to complete his opera omnia, the title chosen by the editor, Giorgio Zampa, was Il secondo mestiere. It is a meaningful title which rightly voices the poet’s well-known view on the unhappy necessity for the ‘uomo di penna’ (the writer) to practice a second job in order to secure a living. Creative poetry is the noble profession for him: the others (including translation itself: see Talbot 1995: 16) are just jobs, practiced out of necessity.

The Uniqueness of the Work Art

As Mario Picchi points out at the opening of his long 1956 article on current translation theory and practice in Italy, the principle of the impossibility of translation was very deeply rooted in the Italian literary panorama. Well before Croce, it had been stated even by Dante in the Convivio [Picchi (1956: 5)]. Thus, it is not a surprise that there are passages by Ungaretti where he appears to be in line with the prevailing canon, especially as regards the key issue of the uniqueness of the work of art, with the consequent corollary of the belief of the impossibility of translation. This would confirm André Lefevere’s observation of how educational institutions tend to leave a rather conservative imprint on the imagination of the individual authors: ‘once a poetics is codified, it exerts a tremendous system-conforming influence on the further development of a literary system’ [Lefevere (1992: 26)]. In a letter to Giuseppe De Robertis, dated 8 September 1942, Ungaretti speaks of the almost religious value of a work of art, both in poetry and painting, since it can never be repeated nor rifatta (produced again), an idea which he finds closely connected to the concept of the absolute autonomy of any human person (De Robertis 1984: 35). A few years later, these views are fully developed in the often quoted lesson on Leopardi’s ‘Alla Primavera’, where he states that since poetry is ‘affermazione dell’autonomia della persona umana’ (an assertion of the autonomy of the human person), it is also ‘inimitabile’ and therefore ‘intraducibile’ [Ungaretti (2000: 910-11)].

Ungaretti’s words could not be more explicit. However, if these statements are deeply contextualized within the complex web of his critical reflection, then his adherence to the dominant poetics certainly becomes more blurred and problematic. To start with, in another letter to Giuseppe De Robertis, only a week later [De Robertis (1984: 37)], he repeats the same concept of the impossibility of translating poetry, but this time he uses a quantity qualifier, ‘quasi intraducibile’, almost impossible, not totally impossible, a phrase which he will use again even when interviewed by Mario Picchi [Picchi (1956: 6)]. Moreover, he often expresses genuine enthusiasm for examples of good translations, to the point of using the adjective ‘stupenda’ for the Italian translation of Valery’s Eupalinos ou l’Architecte [Ungaretti (1974: 116)], and even ‘perfetta’, perfect, for a French translation from his La Terra Promessa [De Robertis (1984: 139)], or of saying that a text in translation (his translation) can excel the quality of the translated text (Racine’s Fedra).

Anche la FEDRA è in corso di stampa. Vedrai che meraviglia. Quasi l’originale, e, ogni tanto, meglio dell’originale: più ingenua, più umana [De Robertis (1984:132)].

FEDRA is forwarding, too. You’ll see: it is great!. Almost the original, and, every now and then, even better than the original: more ingenuous, more sympathetic [my translation].

Ungaretti’s position is interestingly complex also in terms of the antonymic pair bella infedele/brutta fedele. In his reply to Camillo Pellizzi’s review of his translation of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, ‘Della metrica e del tradurre’, Ungaretti shows that, like Pellizzi, he does not contemplate only two choices for the translator, because for him there is a third way where the translator aims to create proper poetry, but striving to keep ‘il rispetto, alla lettera, parola per parola, del significato originale’ [Ungaretti (1974: 570)]. However, unlike Pellizzi (but also unlike another reviewer quoted in the ‘Nota’, Napoleone Orsini), this ‘respect to the letter, to the word’ is not to be understood as either lexical adherence or a belief in prescriptive and a-prioristic norms for translation. His innovative rejection of normative and rigid approaches can be observed, for example, in his strenuous, stubborn defence of his personal approach to the vexed issue of metrical translation [Fochi (2010)]. As Ungaretti explained to Mario Picchi [Picchi (1956: 6)], his is attention to the ‘tone’ of the text, that is to say, to what, a few decades later, Henry Meschonnic would identify as ‘the rhythm’ of a text [see Mattioli (2002: 15-19)]. Consequently, in the translating process, Ungaretti gives a primary role to close reading, as well as to contextualization and critical interpretation of the foreign text, as amply shown by all his writings on translation (in particular, see his collection of letters to young Parronchi, 1992). This fully explains Antoine Berman’s mention of his name in the list of XX century good translators [Violante Picon (1998: 25)].  

All this might clarify why his translations have often met with very mixed reactions from contemporary reviewers and even from more recent critics[2]. Only seldom have the originality and propositional value of Ungaretti’s efforts been fully understood. It is to Salvatore Rosati’s credit, therefore, that he identified it and, above all, that he implicitly pointed out that even in translation criticism a-prioristic approaches are not the way to be followed. It is an opinion which in 1945, when his review of the translation of Shakespeare’s Sonnets was written, was undoubtedly a remarkable statement, considering the contemporary debate on translation.

[…] Del resto la traduzione di Giuseppe Ungaretti chiede di essere valutata con altre unità di misura, che consentano un pieno apprezzamento anche di quella metrica cui egli ha dedicato – e non può meravigliare chi consideri la sua opera poetica – le cure più attente ed esperte [emphasis added] [Rosati (1945: 2)].

After all, Giuseppe Ungaretti’s translation asks to be judged by other units of measurement. They should not do preclude a full appreciation of his metrical choices, to which he has devoted his most alert and experienced attentions – not surprisingly, if his poetic works are considered [my translation].

Author vs. Translator

In particular, the translator’s ‘Nota’ to 40 sonetti di Shakespeare is an interesting example of how the conforming power of a dominant poetics can be unsettled and finally overcome ‘on the field’. If, as we have seen, there are passages from his lessons and letters where Ungaretti seems to adhere almost completely to a shared belief in an individualistic notion of authorship, the ‘’ outlines a much less unified subjectivity for both poles: Author and Translator.

It is true that Ungaretti speaks of the need to preserve a ‘diretto, segreto contatto con l’autore’, a direct, intimate contact with the author [Ungaretti (1967: 20)], but who is the author for him? A few pages earlier (18) he uses the meaningful phrase: ‘lo Shakespeare lirico’ (the lyrical Shakespeare), and the use of the definite article shows that for him there is not just one William Shakespeare, but different Shakespeares, inscribed in each studied text, or genre of texts. After all, a denial of the unified identity of the Author appears to be implicit in all forms of rewritings, from critical reading and interpretation to translation; a notion which helps to highlight the value of this statement from Parronchi: ‘Io le domandavo nella mia scorsa se avesse visto il Mallarmé di Bo’ [in my previous letter I asked you if you had seen Bo’s Mallarmé - Parronchi (1992: 38)].

Similarly, the Italian scholar Gianfranco Contini makes an interesting comment in a letter addressed to Ungaretti and later quoted by Ungaretti himself.

Quello che Goethe, mi pare, diceva di Shakespeare: ‘Shakespeare e nessun altro’, ora bisognerà applicarlo alla tua traduzione, ‘lo Shakespeare di Ungaretti, e nessun altro’ [De Robertis (1984: 89)].

What, if I remember well, Goethe used to say about Shakespeare: ‘Shakespeare and nobody else’, will have to be applied to your translation, ‘Ungaretti’s Shakespeare, and nobody else’ [my translation].

We should remember that Ungaretti never reads the author and the text in isolation, but always tries to locate them within their foreign national context first, and then also within other European Western literatures and artistic traditions, without borders of space and time. This means that the ‘Author’ is not an immediately and clearly identifiable subjectivity for Ungaretti, but rather the result of sustained reading and research. In other words, not just Shakespeare, but a Shakespeare who inscribes and ‘sums up’ all the other poets and artists, past and present, that directly or ideally he, the translator and reader, finds related to him. After all, Shakespeare, but also Góngora, ‘came to him’ (it does not matter if rightly or wrongly), along the ideal lyrical line which moves from Petrarch to Mallarmé [Puccini (1981: 514)]. The result is a very interesting, but certainly also personal, reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, which amply justifies Contini’s phrase: ‘lo Shakespeare di Ungaretti, e nessun altro’, Ungaretti’s Shakespeare’s and nobody else.

Moreover, the understanding and interpretation of the ‘lyrical Shakespeare’ for Ungaretti never occurs through a thoroughly direct contact with the foreign text, and consequently neither with the ‘Author’. Although translating from several languages, as Violante Picon shows, Ungaretti was perfectly fluent only in French. His knowledge of all the other languages from which he translated was very limited, including English (Violante Picon 1998: 67-69)[3]. Therefore, also his reading and ‘dialogue’ with Shakespeare was necessarily filtered through commentaries and previous translations in French and in Italian; in other words, through other ‘Shakespeares’.

As the ‘Nota’ reveals, the supposed direct dialogue with the ‘Author’ tends to become less and less linear, and more animated by the presence of multiple voices and even multiple languages: other authors and artists, and other readers/interpreters. In the case of other authors, these voices may vary, from ample and direct quotations to brief, but still to the point, references. To focus only on  the main ones: from nine lines from Petrarch’s Trionfi [Ungaretti (1967: 21)], and two lines from Dante’s sonnet ‘Io sono stato con amore insieme’ [Ungaretti (1967: 21)], to a witty sentence in English by Edgar Allan Poe [(Ungaretti (1967: 28)], or to Flaubert, with his idea of contrasting Shakespeare to Hugo [Ungaretti (1967: 39)], or even, across semiotic borders, to painters, like Rembrandt and Goya [Ungaretti 1967: 23)].

Finally, the reading of the text can be determined also by the images and manipulations of the lyrical Shakespeare developed by different ages according to the poetics and ideology of their times. Ungaretti shows that he is  aware that these other ‘Shakespeares’ can still influence the contact with the ‘Author’, having settled, like layers of ‘interpretants’[4], to the bottom of the reader’s collective memory. Therefore, Ungaretti directly evokes them, because, by denial, they can help him identify his own way to the ‘Author’.

Mi importava di dare, soprattutto a me stesso, un’interpretazione dello Shakespeare che non m’ingannasse; e da evitare erano molte sorta d’abbagli: di parole; o di tutto un indirizzo. Quello enfatico dei Romantici, quello pettegolo dei Novecentisti, quello imbacuccato di tanti altri [Ungaretti (1967: 20)].

What really mattered to me was an interpretation of Shakespeare which would not be misleading. Many types of blunders were to be avoided, from single words to literary trends: the emphatic reading of the Romantics, the  stifled approach of many others.

Not surprisingly, the other pole of the antithesis, that of the translator, shows an even less unified subjectivity. As the ‘Nota’ and all his other writings abundantly show, for Ungaretti translation is a really cooperative work. His cahier du bord is always crowded: first of all, the other translators, in Italy and abroad, alive or dead, who provide him with positive or negative models, together with those experts who these translators have analyzed, thus stimulating the debate. But also those who, having critically reviewed his previous partial translation of the Sonnets, prompt him to reflect further on both single problematic parts of the text and translation methodology at large. All these presences are vitally important, because they always foster greater awareness, and in some cases they also openly contribute to modifying, integrating and improving his translation.

One quick example to clarify the point: In the ‘Nota’ Ungaretti quotes at length from both Napoleone Orsini’s and Salvatore Rosati’s reviews to his first more limited edition of the Sonnets (Ungaretti 1967: 44-49 and 50-52). But, if Rosati’s suggestions are mostly accepted, with Napoleone Orsini it is another case, since the critic bases his review on a very different view of translation from his own. Orsini basically shares the common dualistic approach to the translation process. On the one hand, he criticizes Ungaretti’s translation for not following the canon of fluent lyrical poetry, thus sinning for lack of metrical harmony and for hermetism in his effort to adhere to Shakespeare’s Baroque love of conceptual language. On the other hand, Orsini praises a previous Italian translation in prose by Lucifero Darchini (1909), which, although with very few artistic ambitions, is defined ‘la traduzione più utile di quelle esistenti’: in other words, a perfect example of brutta fedele. Fairly enough, Ungaretti welcomes even Orsini’s harsh judgments, which he amply quotes in the ‘Nota’, insofar as they contribute to opening up the debate on translation and allow him to clarify and stubbornly ratify his certainly more innovative positions.

However, the clearest proof of Ungaretti’s collaborative approach can be found in the development of his translations from Mallarmé.  The French poet, together with Petrarch and Leopardi, had long been ‘una stella fissa’ (a permanent star) for Ungaretti, but he decided to translate him only in 1946 (De Nardis 1981: 461, and Violante Picon 1998: 315). A decisive factor for him was certainly his direct involvement in the translating work of his young disciple Alessandro Parronchi, who had been long striving with the interpretation and translation of Mallarmé’s Aprés-midi d’un Faune. This is made evident by the exchange of letters between them, since these letters, from the first to the last, witness a continuous dialogue about translation and the need for both critical interpretation and rigorous hermeneutics. It is mostly out of this stimulating ‘working-with’ that Ungaretti produced his translation of Aprés-midi d’un Faune in 1946, followed by Monologue d’un Faune in 1947, later re-proposed together in Vita d’un uomo: da Góngora e da Mallarmé,1948 (see also Violante Picon 1998: 197-99).

‘Original’ Text  vs. Translated Text

The notion of ’original text’ implies a monolithic view of the work of art, an absolute entity, defined and fixed once and for all: ‘un monumento immobile nel tempo, marmoreo, inossidabile’ [a marble monument, forever unchangeable and stainless - Buffoni (2005: 10)].This is not Ungaretti’s view, since he is perfectly aware of the relevance of textual criticism, and in particular he has experienced the difficulty of establishing the most reliable text for classics. This is the case, for example, with Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Although Ungaretti does not make any direct reference to that, he concludes his long ‘Nota’ dutifully specifying which edition he has chosen for his translation, thus implicitly acknowledging the possibility of making another choice and therefore also identifying a different ‘original’ text, as shown by the 1999 Einaudi three-hand edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, where the two translations presented are based on different editions of the Sonnets[5].

The problem is even more crucial with the translation of Góngora, and Ungaretti’s note to Vita d’un uomo: da Góngora e da Mallarmé (1948), is almost completely devoted to that. In a previous letter to Parronchi, dated 20 October 1946, he already mentions his decision to work on a XVII century edition of Góngora’s works, trying to choose the more reliable one, because he does not trust any of the more recent critical editions [Parronchi(1992: 58)]. Then, in the introductory note to the 1948 volume, he explains the problem he has encountered because he could not find the edition he had been working on when he had started translating Góngora in the 1930s. He tells of his strenuous, but unsuccessful efforts to get access to two important editions in the National Library of Rome. He also explains that for this reason he decided to use another XVII century edition, only because that was the only one in the possession of the Vatican Library, with the consequence of having to partially rewrite his previous translations so that they conformed to the new text used. But then he also mentions a very good recent edition printed in Buenos Aires, which, unfortunately, he could not use since it reached him when he was already correcting the proofs. Finally, in a certainly unorthodox way, he concludes the introductory note with a direct request of help to the readers:

Vorrei infine chiedere se possa trovarsi presso qualcuno o qualche biblioteca in Italia, la celebrata edizione di Dámaso Alonso. È vero che non mi fu possibile averla dalla Spagna dove più volte fu richiesta per me [Ungaretti (1948: 14)].

Finally, I would like to ask if it is possible to find the treasured edition by Dámaso Alonso. It is true that I was not able to get it from Spain notwithstanding my repeated requests [my translation].

However, the problem is not limited to the ‘classics’. The exchange of letters between Ungaretti and Parronchi shows how, even for a more recent text like Mallarmé’s Aprés-midi d’un Faune, a new version can unexpectedly be discovered. This can unsettle (as Parronchi anxiously observes), but also enrich (as instead Ungaretti comments) the long process of interpretation and translation [Parronchi (1992: 96-98)], and certainly establishes strong doubts regarding the notion of the sacred immobility of the literary text.

When, in 1932, Ungaretti published seven sonnets by Góngora in L’Italiano, for the last sonnet he decided to put another translation besides his own, that by his friend, the poet Ardengo Soffici [Violante Picon (1998: 90)]. Thirty years later, a 1967 new edition of Saint-John Perse’s Anabase similarly presents both his and T.S. Eliot’s translations. These are important clues, since they confirm an open approach to translation. Certainly, for Ungaretti, each translation is a text in its own, with all the dignity of a text, but it is also part of a more vital process: the very fact that a translated text can acquire new depth and meaning through the interaction with another similar experience, through its ‘being-with’, all this is possible only if a translation is not seen as a piece of close and isolated expression. For this reason, I think that, if he had been alive, Ungaretti would have certainly rejoiced of the recent ‘three-hand’ Einaudi edition of 40 Sonetti di Shakespeare (1999), where together with Shakespeare and Ungaretti, there is also the French poet Yves Bonnefoy.

Finally, we should remember that, if Ungaretti has often been labeled as ‘il poeta della variante per la variante’, because of his tendency to never put an end to his working on a text [Parronchi (1992: 6)], this is  evidence of continuous artistic research, which clearly involves his whole artistic life, and therefore also his translations. For example, critics tend to refer to his experience with Blake, Góngora and Mallarmé as proper cases of work in progress [Violante Picon (1998: 12)]; Puccini 1981: 516), but also with his Shakespeare’s Sonnets we can speak of a fascinating textual process that ‘winds up’ from XXII sonetti di Shakespeare scelti e tradotti da Giuseppe Ungaretti in 1944, to the latest edition in 1967 (see Carlo Ossola in Shakespeare 1999: XVI). The translated text, therefore, far from being conceived as a closed and fixed ‘product’, is a text which, in its own individuality[6], draws life, and is defined by its ‘being-with’ (the foreign text, other translations, past and present, other languages), and, in the case of the poet-translator, it enters a never-ending process of artistic self-examination and research.


Ungaretti’s varied writings on translation have helped to focus on the dominant poetics of translation in Italy in the first half of the twentieth century. In particular, Ungaretti’s case is interesting insofar as it shows the tension between the inevitable influence of prevailing aesthetics and literary ideology, and the needs and aspirations of a more innovative artistic personality. This goes some way to explaining the not always linear development of his poetics of translation, and the difficulties the translations met in being understood by parts of the literary ‘establishment’. In spite of some neo-idealistic statements about the uniqueness of the work of art and the unified subjectivity of the poet, Ungaretti’s complex web of writings reveal a more problematic and richer approach to translation, where rigid and antithetic positions practically become meaningless. As exemplified by the peculiar nature of these very writings on translation, all dualisms are overcome in a translational process which is continuous and where foreign text and translated text, as well as author and translator are inscribed. This way, the text in translation lives on the multiple relations and encounters which, after all, constitute its quintessential essence. Ungaretti’s writings become a confirming example of Hayes’s view of the crucial role played by translation in overcoming an individualistic notion of subjectivity, and in raising awareness of ‘with-ness’: working on languages, ‘beings are ‘exposed’ to one another in their most fundamental relationship, and meaning circulates in a ‘dialogue or polylogue’ between past and present’ [Candler Hayes (2009: 21)].

To conclude, Ungaretti’s authorship as a translator will not be defined through the opposite poles of appropriation and self-annihilation, not even as an intermediary or hybrid position of compromise, since the two attitudes are fundamentally outside his translation poetics. This way, it is even possible for his authorship-in-translation to incarnate the oximorical quality of remaining ‘very humble’ and ‘very proud’ at the same time [Puccini (1981: 523)]. For this reason, as Rosati had rightly observed, Ungaretti’s translation experience needs to be read by a different form of translation criticism, which in its own turn is not rigid or prescriptive and is open to overcome long established notions and parameters in the study of the complex issue of the Poet-Translator.


Buffoni, Franco, ‘Traduttologia’, in Franco Buffoni (Ed.), Traduttologia. La teoria della traduzione letteraria,  vol. 1.Roma: Istit. Poligrafico e Zecca dello stato 2005, pp. 5-19.

Candler Hayes, Julie. Translation, Subjectivity, and Culture in France and England 1600-1800. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2009.

Caselli, Daniela and La Penna, Daniela (Eds.). Twentieth-Century Poetic Translation. London, New York: Continuum 2008.

Croce, Benedetto. Estetica come scienza dell’espressione e linguistica generale. Bari: Laterza 1902 - 6° ed: 1928.

De Nardis, Luigi. ‘Ungaretti traduttore di poeti francesi’, in Carlo Bo and Others (Eds.), Atti del Convegno Internazionale su Giuseppe Ungaretti – Urbino 3-6-ottobre 1979. Urbino: Edizioni 4venti 1981, pp.461-466.

De Robertis, Giuseppe (Ed.). Giuseppe Ungaretti – Domenico De Robertis. Carteggio1931-1962. Milano: Il Saggiatore 1984.

Dolfi, Anna (Ed.). Traduzione e poesia nell’Europa del Novecento. Roma: Bulzoni Editore 2004.

Fochi, Anna. ‘Rhythm, Metre, Rhyme? The Poetics of Translation in Ungaretti and Montale as Interpreters of Shakespeare’s Sonnets’. Paper at the 2nd Mosaici Conference, Poetry in conflict. St Andrews University, 15-17 March 2010. Submitted for publication.

Lefevere, André. Translation, Rewriting & the Manipulation of Literary Fame. London and New York: Routledge 1992.

Lombardo, Agostino. ‘Ungaretti e i sonetti di Shakespeare’, in Carlo Bo and Others (Eds.), Atti del Convegno Internazionale su Giuseppe Ungaretti – Urbino 3-6-ottobre 1979. Urbino: Edizioni 4venti 1981, pp. 482-496.

Luzi, Mario. La cordigliera delle Ande e altri versi tradotti. Torino: Einaudi 1983.

Mattioli, Emilio. ‘La poetica del ritmo di Henri Meschonnic ‘, in Franco Buffoni (Ed.), Ritmologia. Il ritmo del linguaggio. Poesia e traduzione. Milano: Marcos y Marcos 2002, pp. 15-23.

Meoli Toulmin, Rachel. ‘Shakespeare ed Eliot nelle versioni di Eugenio Montale’, Belfagor, 21 (4) 1971, pp.453-471.

Montale, Eugenio. Il secondo mestiere – Prose 1920-1979. Giorgio Zampa (Ed.). Vol. 1. Milano: Mondadori 1996.

Orsini, Napoleone. ‘Shakespeare tradotto da Ungaretti’, in Il Mondo, 16 giugno 1945: p. 7.

Parronchi, Alessandro (Ed.). Giuseppe Ungaretti – Alessandro Parronchi. Carteggio. Napoli: Edizioni Scientifiche Italiane 1992.

Pellizzi, Carlo. ‘Ungaretti traduttore. I sonetti di Shakespeare’, in La Fiera Letteraria, 1 (26), 3rd Oct. 1946, pp. 1-2.

Picchi, Mario. ‘Del tradurre’, in La Fiera Letteraria, 3 giugno 1956: p. 5.

Puccini, Dario. ‘Ungaretti traduttore di Góngora’, in Carlo Bo and Others (Eds.), Atti del Convegno Internazionale su Giuseppe Ungaretti – Urbino 3-6 Ottobre 1979. Urbino: Edizioni 4venti 1981, pp. 513-25.

Rosati, Salvatore. ‘ Ungaretti traduttore di Shakespeare’, in Le tre arti, 1 nov. 1945: p. 2.

Shakespeare, William, Quaranta sonetti, French transl. Yves Bonnefoy, Italian transl. Giuseppe Ungaretti. Carlo ossola (Ed.). Torino: Einaudi 1999.
-------------- I sonetti, transl. Lucifero Darchini. Milano: Biblioteca Universale Sonzogno 1909.
-------------- Complete Works. William  James Craig (Ed.). London: Oxford University Press 1991-1914 edit.
-------------- Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Stephen Booth (Ed.). New Haven and London: Yale University Press 1978 (2° edit.).
-------------- Sonetti. Lucifero Darchini (transl.); Gabriele Baldini (Ed.). Milano: Feltrinelli 1990.

Talbot, George. Montale’s Mestiere Vile – The Elective Translations from English of then1930s and 1940s. Dublin: Irish Academic Press 1995.

Ungaretti, Giuseppe, ‘L’Anabasi di Saint-John Perse’, in Fronte, I (2), 1931.
------------- Traduzioni. Roma: Edizioni di Novisima 1936.
------------- 22 sonetti di Shakespeare. Roma: Ed. Documento, dec. 1943 - sept.1944.
------------- Vita d’un uomo. 40 sonetti di Shakespeare. Milano: Mondadori 1946. 1st edn. ‘Gli Oscar’, Milano: Mondadori 1967.
------------- Vita d’un uomo. Da Góngora e da Mallarmé. Milano: Mondadori 1948.
------------- Vita d’un uomo. ‘Fedra’ di Jean Racine. Milano: Mondadori 1950.
------------- Vita d’un uomo. Visioni di William Blake. Milano: Mondadori 1965.
------------- Frammenti dall’Odissea di Omero, in ‘L’Approdo Letterario’, new series, 42, 1968.
------------- Cinque poesie di Vinicius de Morães. Roma: Grafica Romero 1969. V. Morães, Poesie e canzoni. Trad. G. Ungaretti. Firenze: Vallecchi 1981.
------------- Strenna per gli amici: Ezra Pound tradotto da G. Ungaretti. Milano: Scheiwiller Natale 1969- Capodanno 1970.
------------- ‘Della metrica e del tradurre’, in Vita d’un uomo. Saggi e interventi, ed. by Mario Diacono and Luciano Rebay (Milano: Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, 1974).
------------  Vita d’un uomo. Saggi e interventi. Luciano Rebay and Mario Diacono (eds.). Milano: Mondadori 1974
------------  Vita d’un uomo. Viaggi e Lezioni. Paola Montefoschi (ed.). Milano: Mondadori 2000.
------------  Vita d’un uomo. Traduzioni. Carlo Ossola (ed.). Milano: Mondadori forthcoming.

Venuti, Lawrence. ‘Translation, Interpretation, Canon Formation’, in Theorizing Translation and the Classic, ed. by Alexandra Lianeri and Vanda Zajko. New York: Oxford University Press USA, 2008a, pp. 27-51.
------------  The Translator’s Invisibility. 2° ed. London and New York: Routledge 2008b.
------------   ‘Translation, Intertextuality, Interpretation’, in Romance Studies, 27 (3), 2009, pp. 158-173.

Violante Picon, Isabel, Una œuvre originale de poésie – Giuseppe Ungaretti traducteur (Paris: Presses de l’Université de Paris-Sorbonne 1998.

Yao, Stephen G. Translation and the Language of Modernism. Gender, Politics, Language. Palgrave MacMillian:  New York 2002.


[1] See also Ungaretti’s translations of fragments from the Odyssey (1968), or from Ezra Pound (1969-70) and Vinicius de Morães (1969).

[2]Among more recent critical reactions,  see, for example, Talbot 1995: 78-83; Meoli-Toulmin 1971: 458; Baldini 1990: 180; and on the other side, the very favourable article by Lombardo 1981: 491-95, and Violante Picon 1998: pp. 136-42.

[3]In this regard, it is to be remembered that the assumption that full knowledge of the source language ceased to be considered a fundamental pre-requisite for good translation in the Modernist period (Yao 2002: 11)

[4]On ‘interpretant’ see Venuti 2009: 162.

[5]Ungaretti refers to W.J. Craig’s edition (Shakespeare 1911), instead, Bonnefoy chooses Stephen Booth’s edition (Shakespeare 1978).

[6]As Puccini informs, Ungaretti always dated his translated texts, even if fragments, thus showing that he regarded them as proper new texts (Puccini 1981: 523).

©inTRAlinea & Anna Fochi (2012).
"Deconstructing Authorship-in-Translation", inTRAlinea Vol. 14.
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Permanent URL:

Go to top of page