[This essay was first written in 1990, just after I finished working on Gambara's Stanze and while I was engaged in translating Vittoria Colonna's Rime. It was and still consists mainly of a description of my perspective on the art of translation, and a history of how and why I came to translate Veronica Gambara's ottava rima poem. I have, however, revised it to include a third part in which I explain my methodology for all Colonna and Gambara's poems, the texts I used, and the reasons for my arrangements of the translated poetry (a first line index is provided so the reader can follow along with any edition and any previous arrangement). For a recent updated bibliography of translation studies, see Anne Finch as a Translator: Select Bibliography]
I have ever been dependent on books. They are my companions, my solace, my life. For translation, my "miglior fabbro" is an essay, "The Added Artificer" by Renato Poggioli where Poggioli suggests the writer of orginating texts looks into the lakes of nature while the translator looks into the pools of art. I also repeatedly reread the essays collected by Reuben Brower in his On Translation (Oxford 1966), as well as a number of essays on translation written in the later 17th century on the creative as well as empathetic nature of translation. So I chose for my epigraph John Denham's lines which preface Richard Fanshawe's translation of Guarini's Il Pastor Fido.
That servile path thou nobly dost decline
Of tracing word for word, and line by line.
Those are the labour'd births of slavish brains,
Nor the effects of Poetry, but pains.
Cheap vulgar arts, whose narrownesse affords
No flight for thoughts, but poorly sticks at words.
A new and nobler way thou dost pursue
To make Translations and Translators too.
They but preserve the Ashes, Thou the Flame,
True to his sense, but truer to his fame.
Like original poets, translators have had their periods of glory, periods in which a large group of translators and adaptors or imitators, seemingly all at once, produced works which have become classics in their own right. In the wake of such periods come the theorists with a barrage of ideas about what a translation is, how it is done, and why someone does it. While I was translating Veronica Gambara's Stanze, I was also working on an essay on the English eighteenth-century poet Anne Finch's translations from the French and read many translation theorists in the seventeenth-century including John Dryden, whose division of the types of translation into metaphrase, paraphrase, and imitation was recently used by George Steiner in his After Babel. It was in the Earl of Roscommon's "An Essay on Translated Verse" (an essay which influenced Finch) that I found articulated what led to my choice of Gambara and the mood which sustained me as I carried her long and sometimes difficult poem to its conclusion:
The first great work (a Task perform'd by few)
Is that your self may to your self be True:
No Masque, no Tricks, no Favour, no Reserve;
Dissect your Mind, examine ev'ry Nerve . . .
Then seek a Poet who your way does bend,
And chuse an Author as you chuse a Friend:
United by this Sympathetick Bond,
You grow Familiar, Intimate, and Fond.
Your thoughts, your Words, your Stiles, your Souls agree,
No longer his Interpreter, but He.
I felt the truth of what Gambara wrote in my bones; I wanted to re-enact what she wrote in good natural modern English.
As I think all serious translators do, before sitting down to translate Gambara's Stanze, I had studied and been moved by previous translations of the poem into my home language. The first person to translate Gambara's Stanze into English was Maria Roscoe, a mid-19th century writer who wrote a biography and translated many of the poems of Gambara's contemporary and semi-rival, Vittoria Colonna. Like other editors and readers before her, Roscoe made the mistake of attributing the poem to Colonna -- and thus perpetuated the misattribution into the 20th century. Her translation is a prose rendition of the first five, the fourteenth through seventeenth, and the twentieth stanzas of the original poem. When read aloud, this prose piece breaks into iambic pentameter lines; it relies on a romantic lexical range, occasionally archaic words and inversions, and suspended sentence structure to convey Gambarals slow and grave movement and to distance the poem from everyday life. Roscoe places the reader in a golden world permeated by sadness over the ephemeral nature of all experience and nostalgia for a pastoral Arcadia which is familiar to anyone who has seen reproductions of Nicolas Poussin's Et in Arcadia Ego. I went about to find the original poem which I knew could not be by Vittoria Colonna. When I discovered the poem was by Veronica Gambara and in the original Italian, I discovered Roscoe had betrayed her author: the omitted stanzas are sardonic and political. Roscoe had gutted the poem of its original source in the poet's apprehension of a corrupt and violent world. The original poem's harsh realism, sarcasm, and anger, which Roscoe obscures or omits justifies, balances, and explains her withdrawal into an ancient idyllic dream world.
The second person to translate Gambara's Stanze was Brenda Webster. Her rendition, rightly attributed to Gambara, appeared in the 1979 Penguin Book of Women Poets. Webster's verse translation is a close and accurate rendition of the first five of Gambarals 27 stanzas whose only ornament is an occasionally artificial construction or word or phrase. Webster's is a pleasing performance, but it is too austere, too chaste, too controlled and distanced. The text was also misrepresented because so much had been cut and there was no indication in the book that this had been done. A reader who knew nothing of Gambara would naturally assume these five stanzas were the whole of Gambara's poem. I wanted those who might be sustained by such poetry to know otherwise.
So I studied Gambara's text against both previous translations in the context of my books on translation. Roscoe's was an antique; although earlier 20th century translators like Eza Pound had turned to old-fashioned diction to convey an earlier world, I felt Gambara meant to talk about the present, about her day -- and was relevant to ours. The free prose rendition also lost the sense of ritual and stylization essential to Gambara's desire to make something that felt eternal and permanent, something to hold to against the demands of the world and the fleetingness of time. Webster was responding to a recent preference for seeming naturalness and spontaneity; her use of free verse, varying and unmeasured line lengths, and unnumbered verse paragraphs in place of separated stanzas gives the reader the impression that the poem which has been translated is a pictorial poem, one which celebrates the seasons and the natural landscape, while projecting a casual and perhaps wholly private and fleeting moment of emotional melancholy. But even the first five stanzas of Gambara's poem in the original read have a rhythm and stylized images which make them stately: they are the prelude to a long series of studied weighty reflections. Thoughout all 27 stanzas of the poem, Gambara's rhythms both linger and are emphatic. Despite a continual use of double parallels and antitheses, Gambara also works to create a deliberative steady forward beat. Gambara's language continually presses towards generalization. She does not mean the reader to respond to her details simply for themselves.
My studies for my Colonna work and in the Renaissance enabled me to see that the poem also contains several extended interwoven allusions to visions of a mythic age of peace which may be found in Virgil's Fourth Eclogue and Fourth Georgic, to the earthly paradise in Dante's Purgatorio, and Jacopo Sannazaro's Arcadia poetry (in Latin). Gambara meant us to align her poem with another long, philosophical poem, also in ottava rima, and also called Stanze. These previous Stanze were written in 1475 by the humanist-poet Angelo Poliziano to Lorenzo de' Medici to celebrate a Florentine tournament won the younger brother of Lorenzo d' Medici, Giuliano. The female reader who is familiar with the poetry of these male Italian poets and intrigued by the strange sadness of the negative pictures and gnomic statements of Webster's quiet sylvan landscape, and who goes to find Gambara's text is in for a gratifying surprize. A woman has matched their learning and vied with them successfully.
To my readings of Virgil, Dante, Sannazaro and Poliziano in the original Italian and Latin and in various modern English and French translations, I added more study of Philip Sidney's Arcadian poetry, especially his haunting lament in the verse of double sestina from his Arcadia, "Yee Gote-heard Gods, that love the grassie mountains". Since I read William Empson's meditation on this obsessive hallucinatory poem, it has meant more to me than just about any Renaissance poem in English. Some of the lines in it come into my translation of Gambara's Stanze.
I then decided to translate the whole of Gambara's poem, from hendecasyllabic line to line as closely as clear English allows -- that is I began with Dryden's method of metaphrase. I kept the stanzaic patterns of eight, the antitheses and parallels and held to a decasyllabic line. I counted the syllables -- all the verses I have written are in syllabic verse. Except when an inversion jammed, obscured the meaning, or when it gave a stilted or falsely archaicfeel to a line or lines, I also followed Gambara's suspended, intricately-woven sentences in which the meaning is drawn out from stanza to stanza. I didn't rhyme because I prefer to stay within a narrow circle of exact connotation rather than to achieve similar sounds in English. Although I am a lover of eighteenth-century rhymed poetry, I admit that to my ear the resort to rhyme in modern translations leaves the reader with a frivolous effect. Wherever possible, I preserved Gambara's interlaced effects in some way, and I used words of ritual and allegory and assonance and repetition where I thought it appropriate (as in Stanzas 18-21).
For further ornament and and since referencing is at the heart of Gambara's endeavor -- hers is the dream of the overly civilized -- when I would reach an allusive section of the poem, I would read the passages alluded to in their original language and try to carry into my own words something of the primary work's alluring ether, which I believe Gambara wanted her words to carry.
The hardest task for me was to find modern English equivalents for the grave pace, intensely-thinking burdened presence and sheer beauty of this poem. After much thought I decided to translate 13:8 literally: it is a deliberately euphemistic metaphor for sex, and as such I left it untouched. I changed opening bridging phrases, and I expressed many of Gambara's ideas in modern natural, moral, psychological, and non-teleological words. I wanted to make this woman's poem live again in the pulses of a reader's brain and to surge through her (or his) spirit. I could only do this by making each word live in and through me, so while I occasionally chose latinate rather than more homely words to convey the austerity, dignity, and impersonality of Gambarals tone, the words were always words which came naturally to me, words out of my own idiolect.
The process described here is the one I followed in my translations of Vittoria Colonna's poems too. For each and every one I found all previous translations into English and French, partial or whole. For each and every one I studied all poems which I thought lodged in her memory and were emotionally, intellectually and aesthetically important to her. For her I studied many sonnet sequences by men whom she knew and whom she wrote to and who wrote to her (Bembo, Michelangelo, Sannazaro, Giovanni Guidiccioni, Girolamo Britonio, Bernardo Tasso, Berardino Rota, Ludovico Martelli, Enea Irpino) and I studied contemporary women's poetry. She may not have read, but she spoke for some of the same reasons and in something of the same voice as Mary, Lady Wroth; Louise Labé; Gaspara Stampa; Veronica Gambara. Her friendship with Marguerite de Navarre is well known; Marguerite de Navarre is one of a very few people to whom Colonna sent a manuscript of her poems. Another was Bembo, another Michelangelo. For her I also studied religious tracts, the Spanish sources of her religious thought (Juan de Valdés), her many evangelical and political friends (e.g., Reginald Pole and Gian Matteo Giberti ), her many letters, her life history and the internecine politics of her family's engagement across history. Vittoria Colonna is a central figure for the Renaissance and a great poet. It is astonishing that the complete cycle of poems have never been translated into English and no attempt at a genuinely illuminating arrangement has ever been made.
Where my procedure differs is in editions. In Gambara's case, there is but one traditional text for the Stanze. Variants between Ruscelli (1553), Rizzardi (1759) and Chiapetti (1879) are not significant. The history of the variants is now found in Bullock's 1996 edition.
For Vittoria Colonna there are over 50 different manuscripts which contain sizable numbers of poems; there are considerable variants between individual texts and orderings. Unlike Alan Bullock who has taken what A. E. Housman calls an uncritical stance by choosing one copy text and mostly sticking to it -- I have studied all the texts available to me, including the many studies and analsyses of Colonna's poetry that have been published since 1538 and Ruscelli's important first commentaries. I can here only refer the interested reader to the recent work of Tobia R. Toscana (Sonetti : in morte di Francesco Ferrante d'Avalos marchese di Pescara: edizione del ms. XIII.G.43 della Biblioteca nazionale di Napoli / Vittoria Colonna [1492-1547] (Milano: G. Mondadori, 1998) who has herself returned to the manuscripts, carefully examined Bullock's tables and arguments together with new evidence and studies by Carlo Dionosotti and Danilo Romei (whose work on Colonna I have not been able to see); she concludes that Bullock's edition is flawed by his decision to follow a single manuscript for the opening phase of Colonna's poetry and is not substantiated by Tordi's studies (as Bullock had simply assumed). I studied all the documents Tordi and Reumont had unearthed; referred myself to their texts for Vittoria's life. I also used the newer studies (e.g., Carlo Ossola, Mila Mazzetti, Paolo Simoncelli, Massimo Firpo) placing Vittoria's poetry in the context of evangelism and politics of her period and the poetry of her friends. In many cases I have followed Visconti: his texts are frequently exactly those of Bullock with different punctuation or grammar. In those cases where they are not, they are sometimes superior. When Bullock's are more precise, more polished, I chose Bullock's as my main copy text, but always kept Visconti in front of me. When Visconti has a "bad" text that clearly contain mistakes, I follow Bullock. Uniformly the first Italian line quoted at the top of my pages and in my index is from Bullock's edition: this is for the convenience of the reader who may own Bullock's 1982 edition.
I also arranged them for the first time. I divided the poems into those in which Vittoria is communing with herself; and those where she addresses herself to imagined others. For the first part, I followed a slow trajectory of emotion which can be discerned in the sequence from erotic enthrallment to disillusion, to a turning to God and after many struggles with despair, a conversion experience and some tranquillity and health. For the second I followed the discernable story of Vittoria's life within her family, in public, and as a writer. I made it much easier for readers to find those poems which are directed to her friends and written in response to other poems by putting them in groups in accordance with their interlocutors. Her devotional meditative sequences are similarly arranged. Finally, Vittoria made several starts as a poet: all those poems which justify her sequence, which apologize for it, and are intended as prologue are placed first; those poems which show the early planning of the sequence, and are close literary imitations are placed just after her husband's death. While my arrangment is subjective, the result of long reading and translating these poems and documents on Colonna's life, I think it is makes sense of the relationships among the poems and between the poems and Vittoria Colonna's life for the first time. I am convinced that the present disarrangement, the result of happenstance and mistake, is one of the reasons Colonna's poetry is not more frequently read and not thought well of. At last a reader will be able to find a poem by knowing something about its provenance, who is its interlocutor, or its nature. I call my work Amaro Lagrimar.
A translation must be an interpretation. It cannot escape this. My reading of Gambara's poem comes out especially strongly towards the end of the poem and in the stanza on sleep. Gambara's poem is very old, but her disdain, yearnings, and concluding resolution remind me of what I have why I too turn to my books when I finish my daily stint -- in the public marketplaces of this world. As for my translations of Colonna I have simply given them everything that is in me.
Addendum Written in the spring of 2004
Since putting onto the Web my translation of all the poetry of Vittoria Colonna, I have been moved to put my translations of all Veronica Gambara's known poems here too. This work is called Secret Sacred Woods.
Originally I did not not do the work on Gambara's poetry that I did for Colonna's. My work on Gambara was a bye-blow of my work on Colonna -- although what stirred me first and foremost was "Quando miro" and on that I worked very hard. While my translation of Colonna's poetry went through five different revisions -- that is, I revised the whole typescript five times -- and each separate poem many many smaller rewritings, my translation of Gambara's poetry originally went through but two, and there are some political poems where I have been content to leave the text at the equivalent tame paraphrase one finds in most anthologies. For the melancholy, landscape and erotic poems I have gone at individual poems and relived them with all the power of my spirit over and over again (e.g., "Or passata č la speranza", some of the landscape and some of the erotic poetry), but I did not pour myself into the poetry as a single body of work in the continual manner I did Colonna.
More recently though Italica Press has expressed interest in publishing my translations; thus I have been working as hard on the Gambara poems as I first did on the Colonna. I have fewer texts to go on, and it seems clear to me that Gambara did not produce her body of work out of a singular spiritual and emotional complex of emotion, but wrote occasionally as well as opportunistically. Her corpus is disparate even if she too is impelled to write of her experience of love as pain. For Gambara, I do have the benefit of all the new scholarship on Gambara herself plus feminist studies of women's poetry in the Renaissance.
As with Colonna, I have arranged Gambara's poetry thematically and atobiographically, and am convinced that such an arrangment is preferable to simply printing them in the disarray, selective small ordering which may be found in a particular manuscripts, or suppositions about the chronological order in which they were written (see Bullock's 1996 edition of the Rime). One of the reasons I originally had difficulty obtaining the texts of all of Gŕmbara's poems is that her deeply erotic and pessimistic poems from early in her life before she married Giberto, and then again much later after his death, had gone unnoticed in public and mostly unprinted. The reason is not far to seek: the image of Gambara that was wanted was of a chaste loving wife, someone with an ultimately optimistic outlook, whose primary goals in life were civic and maternal. Her love poems show this is a partial portrait. I have rearranged the poetry so as to make clear the divisions of the poetry and where the emphasis lies. For both Colonna and Gambara, I have also provided a complete index which is keyed to Bullock's editions, and the standard older ones for both poets. Thus any reader who wants to ignore my ordering can do so easily.
My early work on Gambara was done before Alan Bullock published his edition of Gambara's Rime. While Bullock's edition will obviously transform studies of Gambara by making available so much information and just about all the poems in a single book, since Bullock didn't include the poems by Gambara which he attributes to Colonna and one another, in my view his edition may not be complete. There is also no single recent edition of her poetry accompanied with translations. So I hope that my arrangement will enable those who come to my site to gain a full picture of Gambara, her corpus and enough information to follow up on further scholarship about her poetry and letters. I am now preparing a typescript for publication.