Ron Slate has a thorough and thoughtful review here of the recently released Songbook: Selected Poems of Umberto Saba, from Yale University Press. If my pockets weren’t empty of everything but balls of lint I’d snap up a copy, but this publication—as sometimes happens with translations—presents a dilemma: I already have a copy of Songbook: Selected Poems from the Canzoniere of Umberto Saba, published in 1998 by The Sheep Meadow Press.
Most of us have been in this position at one time or another—wondering: Does the new selection expand on what’s available in the old selection? Is there significant overlap between the new selection and the old selection of poems? Is there some other compelling aspect of the new collection (a more detailed introduction? more extensive notes to the poems? etc.) that make it a candidate for superseding the old collection? Are the new translations (by George Hochfield and Leonard Nathan) better—as poems in English, I mean—than the old translations (by Stephen Sartarelli)? Both provide the Italian originals en face, so losing the comfort of an original across the book’s gutter is not an issue.
There’s no reason why any reviewer should have to compare the volumes, of course. I’m speaking strictly as a recession-bound reader who happens to own the Satarelli versions. So consider this post an addendum to Ron Slate’s fine review. One caveat: I’m working off the Table of Contents and Excerpts posted on the Yale University Press Web site, along with poems quoted by Ron in his review. All of which is pretty much the kind of information any of us might rely on to make a buying decision.
Now, the Hochfield/Nathan selection comprises about 200 poems, almost double the number in the Sartarelli selection, so it’s no surprise that the new selection contains versions of almost every poem in the old selection. But quantity is not enough. How about the translation itself? I have only one to work with—one, I mean, which is quoted in Ron’s review and also appears in a version by Sarterelli. Here are both versions:
I am a good friend. I’m easily
taken by the hand, and I do what
others ask of me, well and cheerfully.
But my secret soul that does not lie
to itself murmurs its own words.
And sometimes a god calls me and wants
me to listen to him. With the thoughts
that are born in me then, with my heart
beating inside, with the intensity of my pain,
I reject all likeness with other men.
I have this privilege. And I will keep it.
(tr. George Hochfield and Leonard Nathan)
I am a good companion. One easily
takes me by the hand, and I do well
and gladly what others ask of me.
But the hidden soul, which does not lie
to itself, whispers when it speaks.
At times, in fact, a god calls out to me
and bids me listen. And by the thoughts
that fill me then, by the heart that beats
in me, by the sharpness of the pain I feel,
I suspend all equality among men.
That is my privilege. And I intend to keep it.
(tr. Stephen Sartarelli)
Both translations have some felicities, but to my ear at least Sartarelli’s sounds better: compare “sometimes a god calls me and wants / me to listen to him” with “At times, in fact, a god calls out to me / and bids me listen.” The Hochman/Nathan version is musically flatfooted by comparison. But Sartarelli’s version of the penultimate line—”I suspend all equality among men”—makes no sense at all, while “I reject all likeness with other men” makes sense, but maybe the wrong sense. Here are the key lines in Italian:
che mi nascono allora, al cuor che batte
dentro, all’intensità del mio dolore,
ogni uguaglianza fra gli uomini spengo.
Now, I don’t know Italian, so I have to muddle through with my half-assed Spanish, and my perhaps misguided audacity, and the crutch of Babelfish and other miserably inadequate tools. They all suggest one thing: Saba seems to mean that when the god speaks to him, the equality he otherwise feels with other men is extinguished. But it’s not a passive thing: Saba writes spengo, whose several shades of meaning include “I extinguish”, or “I snuff out”, or “I stifle”; that is, he extinguishes that equality by responding to the god with thoughts, with the passionate beating of his heart, and with the intensity of his pain.
Okay. Now I get why Saba has attracted multiple translators and multiple publishers! And I think a committed reader can only respond in one way. I’ll have to save up and buy the Hochman/Nathan translations—not to replace Sarterelli’s Saba, but to sit in dialog with it on my bookshelf.
And this is how we create, over many years, a library that breaks our backs whenever we have to move….