REVIEW by Diarmuid Johnson


Poets from Sardinia

by Michele Pinna (ed)

Minorities not Minority: A Window on Italian Cultures Volume 1, Poets from Sardinia
Diarmuid Johnson

Poets from Sardinia is a selection of poems by ten Sardinian authors born between 1908 and 1960. The volume, published by Cinnamon, contains twenty-eight poems in total. It is presented as the first in a series dedicated to writing from the Italian regions. Andrea Bianchi and Silvana Siviero introduce themselves as series editors, and are credited as co-translators of the work along with Giuseppe Serpillo and Robert Minhinnick, while Michele Pinna is editor of this, the series’ first flower.

In the editor’s Foreword we learn that the poetry in the book ‘is attracted to the gravitational force of Romanticism, Symbolism, to the best twentieth century poetry, introducing also stylistic and thematic innovations.’ We also read for example that ‘in the past few years Sardinia has seen the emerging of gender poetry in the Sardinian language, a new phenomenon, as poetry writing up to the seventies had been also exclusively reserved to men.’

In a very brief Introduction, the series editors compare English today with Latin in former times, preferring here the term ‘globalized’ to the traditional concept of ‘lingua franca’. Perhaps with a particular readership in mind they tell us that ‘in France there is also Breton, Provençal etc, in Italy Sardinian, Friulian etc, in Spain Catalan, Basque etc, in the United Kingdom Welsh and Scottish etc, and more.’

They then describe the method adopted during the translation process. Initially, the Sardinian texts were translated into Italian. These Italian versions were apparently translated by the series editor into ‘initial’ English and these in turn by Robert Minhinnick into ‘final’ English. They say: ‘the free circulation of thoughts and ideas cannot but [en]rich the poems in this sort of interplay.’ This is stated as a premise.

The apparatus in the volume is modest. There is for example no word of introduction to bring the reader a little closer to the Sardinian language. Is it related to Toscan as is Corsican, or to Sicilian on a sister island further south? We read several times, in the biographical notes, that there are ‘varieties’ of Sardinian, and that movement has been afoot to standardize the language. The trained eye may spot two words for ‘swallows’, ‘orenestes’, and ‘arrùndili’. The Latin sonant ‘v’ seems to have become plosive ‘b’ in initial position (‘bia’ ‘living’), devoicing of historical ‘b’ seems to occur medially (‘happo’ from ‘habeo’). One is eager to know whether ‘Sunt umbras a t’intrula?’ is a periphrastic construction (cf Welsh ‘ydy’r cysgodion yn eich poeni?’), rendered as ‘Are shadows upsetting you?’

A perusal of the original texts quickly brings the question of rhyme and metre into focus. Perhaps the oral or semi-oral nature of the tradition, doubtless the conjugations of the language, possibly the authors’ own preferences have given us a collection in which the Sardinian language sings on the page. The challenges of translating rhyming verse into free verse are not discussed in the book, and while the subject is a difficult one, some comment may have helped do the original work further justice. Relevant examples here include ‘No’ mi cramedas poeta’ (Don’t call me a Poet) where the rhyming scheme is –o, -u, -u, et, et, -o (verse 1); -u, -o, -o, -a, -a, -u (verse 2) and so on. The apparent naivety of the title is offset in the original by the formality of the vowel patterns. The text in English does gloss the meaning of the Sardinian words, but neither seeks nor hopes to recreate the humour and pace of the original.

We refer more specifically now to, for example, the opening poem in the volume, by Paola Alcioni (1955) an ambitious and effervescent text that expounds a poetic vision of the world. ‘When the vast sky with its scarce shadow caskets detains the dawn, smoke-black spiders free themselves from my hand, waiting to embroider cobwebs of words.’ Antoni Canu (1929) captures contemporary moments on history’s palm in a lyric both economic and evocative: ‘to die in Spring on the mournful bank of the Miljacka, which flows to the sea.’ A sense of Sardinia, and of Sardinian culture, is conveyed succinctly by Ignazio Deloggu (1928) in ‘Sa terra mia’ (‘My Land’): ‘My land is a rock of thirst and grief… a river of hate and feuds… a moon of grass for the shepherd.’

There is beauty too in the poems of Antonio Mura Ena. In ‘Aite bella gai’ (‘Why So Beautiful’), when asked whether she was born ‘out of heavenly love’, Callina Loi replies in the negative, but that her ‘grandmother ‘sewed all my clothes with linen bought in the land of Goreia.’ And in ‘Silence Was Born Here’ (the page numbering is slightly inaccurate here), Anna Cristina Serra finds a telling image: horses wearily pulling silence with a rope.

It seems impossible to conclude without stating, hand on heart, that the English language in Poets from Sardinia is stridently Mediterranean, and without reiterating a simple principle: translation of poetry is best done directly from the original language to the target language by a bilingual translator. Compromise however is a lesser sin than imperialism.

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previous review: The Fluorescent Jacket
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