Tag Archives: Translation

Hearing voices

It’s been a ridiculously long time since my last post, with no excuses.

I just had a conversation with a friend about language use and it made me think about how people use language in such particular ways that even if you don’t think of someone as having a strange or specific way of speaking, you can often hear their voice in what they write.

Which in turn made me think about a poem that I’ve recently rediscovered, where admittedly the voice is not necessarily so much personal as cultural and regional. Actually, it’s two poems: Sonnet 300 by Francesco Petrarca and a translation by the Irish writer J.M. Synge.

Petrarca is best known now for his sonnet sequence that is in retrospect referred to as the Canzoniere but which he called the Rerum Vulgarium Fragmenta (literally: Fragments of Vernacular Things). There’s some interesting evidence about how Petrarca conceived of his work, and the trouble that he went to in order to construct it in particular ways, including both rewriting the poems and reordering them (see for example Wayne Storey’s chapter on erasures in one particular manuscript of the text, included in the volume Petrarch and the Textual Origins of Interpretation, edited by Storey and Teodolinda Barolini). At a textual level, the narrative of Petrarca’s Canzoniere focuses on Petrarca’s love for Laura, with poems written both before and after her death (there are many sources that discuss who Laura actually might have been, or whether she was instead a symbol of something else, fame for instance). At the risk of being reductive as well as of providing unnecessary information, I’ll also mention that one of the literary tropes associated with Petrarca is the use of contrasting physical or emotional concepts when discussing love (fire and ice, pleasure and pain).

Sonnet 300 is one of those that speaks of his love after her death, addressing the earth, Heaven, the souls of the dead with whom her soul now lives, and Death. The poet laments his loss, describing his love converted into envy of the ways in which those four entities or groups are able to be close to the woman he loved, while he is not.

J.M. Synge (1871-1909) was one of the writers of the Irish Literary Revival. I actually can’t remember how I came across this particular translation of his; my studies in Irish literature focus on the Middle Ages and I have only a passing familiarity with more modern Irish literature. This poem struck me, though. I imagine I can hear Synge speaking, although I don’t know what he would have sounded like, and I’d guess that this is relatively standard Hiberno-English, and not particularly idiosyncratic.

Here are the two poems: Petrarca’s Italian (with my own rough translation) and Synge’s English.


Sonnet 300

Quanta invidia io ti porto, avara terra,
ch’abbracci quella cui veder m’è tolto
et mi contendi l’aria del bel volto
dove pace trovai d’ogni mia guerra!
Quanta ne porto al ciel, che chiude et serra
et sí cupidamente à in sé raccolto
lo spirto da le belle membra sciolto,
et per altrui sí rado si diserra!
Quanta invidia a quell’anime che ‘n sorte
ànno or sua santa et dolce compagnia
la qual io cercai sempre con tal brama!
Quant’a la dispietata et dura Morte,
ch’avendo spento in lei la vita mia
stassi ne’ suoi begli occhi, et me non chiama!

[How much envy I bear you, greedy earth,
who embrace her whose sight has been taken from me
and who refuse me the look of that lovely face
where I found peace from every struggle of mine!
How much I bear Heaven, which closes and shuts
and so covetously has gathered to itself
the spirit separated from those beautiful limbs,
and who opens so rarely to others!
How much envy of those souls who by fortune
have now her saintly and sweet company,
which I always sought with such desire!
How much of pitiless and harsh Death,
which having extinguished in her my own life
stays in her beautiful eyes and does not call me!]


J.M. Synge
He is jealous of the heavens and the earth

What a grudge I am bearing the earth that has its arms about her, and is holding that face away from me, where I was finding peace from great sadness.
What a grudge I am bearing the Heavens that are after taking her, and shutting her in with greediness, the Heavens that do push their bolt against so many.
What a grudge I am bearing the blessed saints that have got her sweet company, that I am always seeking; and what a grudge I am bearing against Death, that is standing in her two eyes, and will not call me with a word.

(source: J.M. Synge. Poems and Translations. Dublin: Maunsel & Company, 1911, page 34)