GIUSEPPE GIOACHINO BELLI
by Peter Dale
Giuseppe Gioachino Belliís importance as an innovator of genius in the history of Western literature is widely appreciated by Italian critics. Stifled by what he felt to be the etiolated airs of an exhausted and exhaustively recycled literary Italian, whose atmosphere of refined conceit and tireless allusiveness had turned the vigorous workmanly brawn of the trecentoís rime into a cadaveric danse macabre of effete gamesmanship, Belli(1791-1863) threw himself into the slangy underworld of Roman street-talk, and devised a system of orthography to capture its rambunctious palaver, while rehearsing its idiom, untarnished by literary conventions, with unerring punctiliousness. The artificial discourse which had otherwise allowed men of taste and learning across the manifold of distinct provinces to maintain a common identity, a lingua franca among literati otherwise caught up in the rich weft of local dialects, was in crisis. The heritage forged by Danteís magnificent amalgam of early vernaculars had lost contact with the fructifying ground of daily experience, and Belli, in contradistinction to Leopardi and Manzoni who both strove to Ďpurify the language of the tribe(s)í towards an idiom acceptable to the emerging world of a national society, plunged his creative roots down into the landscape of the most backward province of all, into the gutters of the Papal city of Rome. Here he found another Inferno, devoid of all prospects of purgative redemption and paradisal recompense, the punishing mundane world of poverty, marginal life, trickster knacks and ruses for surviving on the smell of an oil-rag in a vast ramshackle society of religious hypocrisy and theo-bureaucratic unctuousness.
The language itself was Ďdiabolicí in its genius for baroque distortions and surreal meditations, an anti-language that voiced everything which literature hitherto had censored as beneath the dignity of letters, yet with this redeeming feature: it caught, and through it Belli captured, in anticipation of modernists like Joyce, the fretful effluvia of everyday consciousness. His exacting sonnetry is quixotic in the way its flawless rhythm rides with effortless panache on the hacks and jades of the banal, the trivia of ephemeral chat, but it is for all that a chattering culture that resonates with two thousand years of experience attuned to the duress of authorityís peremptory (il-)logic. In adopting this strategy he was aware that his genius would dedicate 20 years of toil to erecting a monument (the echo is Horatian) to the people of Rome who were all but silenced by its official history, a monument which, however, would risk being timeís carrion, for it was written in a sumptuously profligate lexicon knowledge of which was fast falling into desuetude, and, these days, if not illegible to Romans themselves, then certainly demanding a slow parsing.
Yet it has, at least within Italian culture, worn well, in part because standard Italian writing comfortably exploits the many varieties of regional inflection: tolerance for patois survives because so many Italians speak dialect in their homes, and great writers like Eugenio Montale, Carlo Emilio Gadda and Pier Paolo Pasolini have accommodated their native idiom to the Italian they write, or have written directly in pure dialect. The amount of scholarly attention of the first water dedicated to editing Belliís massive oeuvre, generation after generation, ranks with what we expect of editions of classical texts from antiquity. Many of his poems reside in popular memory intact verbatim, or survive as proverbial tags culled from many memorable lines, for their pungent relevance to the chronic corruptions of an aged country. His creative distinctiveness is acknowledged abroad, by critics like Harold Bloom, even if often at a second-hand acquaintance with unreliable and rather dull versions. But the work, despite its pivotal originality, is barely known to the wider critical world. After a century of desultory skirmishes, English versions of just over two hundred pieces exist.
A fine opportunity to set a technical example for others was lost when one of his earliest translators, Albert Zacher, abandoned his intuition that the only workable versions must be those which recast Belliís Romanesco into a comparable dialect. The Cologne dialect had seemed adequate, but Zacher feared for its readability in the broader German world, and hence resigned himself to literary German in translating 242 sonnets (roughly 11%) for his book Narrenspiegel der Ewigen Stadt (1906). True, Robert Garioch managed 120, in Scots, and William Neill has done 17 in the same idiom. Their works are difficult to obtain, and few read Scots with ease. Most translators opt for a flat paraphrase in a standardized tongue, with an occasional vernacular gesture. Anthony Burgess is an exception. His linguistic brio and formal craftsmanship give you an idea of Belliís wit. A trace of Lancashire idiom informs his versions, but they are, essentially, free rewritings in Burgessís mode, unshackled of strong lien and purchase on the originals which inspired them. In part, this was consequential on his decision to employ the abba abba rhyme-scheme for Belliís Petrarchan architecture. The parsimony of rhyme-words in English obliges the faithful to transgress, paying lip-service to the metaphoric play and word-sense of the seminal text in order to concentrate on preserving its music.
In translating the 2279 sonnets of the Bellian corpus, I have employed an Australian idiom, the dialect I heard spoken by three generations of neighbours, friends and family as a child and boy raised on the outskirts of Melbourne, within a stoneís throw of the rowdy ambience of the family hotel. I stress the Ďheardí. Analysing, in retrospect, my own natural reproduction of it, my scruples can detect at times, or suspect, a middle-class assimilation here and there of aspects of its syntax and pronunciation to the corrective norms of standard English. One can pick out something of this slight, ostensibly falsifying note by comparing these renditions with the inimitable precision of authentic street cant in that great epic of Australian verse, C.J.Dennisí The Sentimental Bloke. But it is also true that the dialect had many levels, of class, region and gender, and each underwent historical change over the three or four decades which separate Dennisís Ginger Micks, Doreens and Digger Smiths from the people I listened to, who had grown up under the normative influences of national radio, the Ďtalkiesí, and later, television.
Belliís patois, itself a dying language idiomatically superannuated by the time he wrote it down in his maturity (hence his many glosses), is that of an illiterate lumpenproletariat of scroungers, bumpkins, bots, whores, slatterns, crims, greasers, mugs, whingers, galahs, louts, lairs, larrikens, wowsers, shysters, shills, toffs, dags, gossips, neíer-do-wellís and down-and-outs, a babbling Bakhtinian carnival of marginal types hacking out a life of sorts in the cramped slums of pre-Risorgimento Rome, under that Khomeiniesque ante litteram theocratic state which the Roman papacy had sought to shore up against the Reformation and, later, both the Enlightenment and the French Revolutionís rippling historical currents. Handling this level of discourse in the rough cut and thrust of lower class repartee typical of the old Australian underclass presents relatively few problems. Difficulties ensue when one is forced to deal with the transposition of a dialect instinct with the agricultural, historical and ecclesiastical jargon of an ancient Mediterranean culture into the pastoral, mainly urban vocabulary of a young society, pagan in outlook and shorn of cultural depth and strong historical memory.
The advantage of this choice of idiom overall is that 90% of the translated text is relatively accessible, with a minor effort at familiarisation, to English speakers. Many tensions remain unresolved, and the solutions I have adopted smack of the provisory on occasion. The rhythm of speech, for example, is that of a balladic vernacular which may jar on ears trained to the music of the traditional English sonnet. Aiming at a close, yet minimally rhymed parsing as an aid for those perplexed by Belliís dialect, I have been forced to fetter the spontaneous anarchy of my dialect to the terse semantic exigencies of the original. Yet the point of the exercise is not the hybristic one of trying to imitate or recreate Belliís genius (impossible), but simply to provide a rough map through the bristling terrain of his oeuvre. The intention has been to wedge a jemmy into that closed linguistic universe, and prise out, by crib after crib of linguistic leverage, the gist and flow of his Pandoraís box of Ďdiabolicalí discourse. I have striven, particularly, to open it up to that rare band of foreign poets and students whose curiosity about Belliís astonishing opera is all too often defeated by the eyestrain of reading off his teasingly familiar, yet disconcertingly estranged, vernacular.
This dialect of my childhood may possibly, in its own fossilized form, and in the system of transcription I have used, deflect interest. In following Belliís principles I have had to compromise in one significant direction. Unlike Italian and its dialects, English and its vernaculars prove ambiguous and often unintelligible in strict phonetic transcription. I have therefore found myself constrained to compromise with regard to orthography, in order to secure a minimal level of comprehension at sight. I have, for example, retained initial Ďhí, though it is often ignored. Spelling has not been regularized, in order to heighten recognisability. A little familiarity with this somewhat makeshift system should enable eventual readers, via notes supplied to the originals and their Australian versions, to exploit the crib to parse the Roman text, which I have edited and transcribed in my full edition. Like Wittgensteinís ladder, my versions can be cast aside as soon as their job, that of allowing the adventurer to scale the verbal stepping-stones of the original, and work independently with it, has been done.
(Reproduced with minor changes from Peter Dale, ĎSix Sonnets: Giuseppe Gioachino Bellií, in Ciaran Carson (ed.) The Yellow Nib, Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry , Blackstaff Press, Belfast 2006 pp.86-92)