The status of literary translation has evolved considerably during the past twenty years. Once upon a time, it was possible to pick up an American mystery novel, say, in France, read it, and find no mention of the translator. Not too long ago, a 1998 Einaudi edition of poetry by E. E. Cummings in Italian and English mentioned translator Mary de Rachewiltz only in the last paragraph on the back of the book. Today, however, the practice of literary translation is generally more respected; its constraints and exigencies are better understood. One has but to study the translations of Dante, still appearing, to realize how a dynamic literary translation is and how much more the translator is respected. I’m thinking of a Joan Acocella piece in The New Yorker, “What the Hell: Dante in Translation and in Dan Brown’s New Novel” (May 27, 2013). The article considers new translations of The Divine Comedy published within the last year by American poet Mary Jo Bang and Australian essayist and poet Clive James and goes on to observe how the work figures in Dan Brown’s newest thriller, Inferno. The fact that these three new works all “translate” Dante’s masterpiece in some way is yet another confirmation of the current demand for literary translation. Many great and critical works would simply not be read if they were not translated.

The vast, vibrant field of contemporary Italian poetry offers endless challenges to a would-be translator—first because of the abundance of poetry in the twentieth century yet to be translated and the sheer volume of poetry being written in the twenty-first century. It is not rare for significant poetic works to fall out of print or become almost impossible to find. This was the case with Alfonso Gatto ten years ago. It is true for many important poets, such as Vittorio Bodini, Anna Borra, Bruno Cera, Luisa Giaconi, Ain Zara Magno, Libero De Libero, and others. For most of these poets, even in Italy, there is only one or no current editions of their work. Therefore, the act of translation becomes even more vital: selecting a worthy poet, preventing his or her work from being entirely forgotten, and encouraging new editions in Italy.

The criterion for winning any translation award is clearly outstanding practice, but judges often consider which authors’ works have or have not appeared in English. There are hardly any English versions of the intense Hermetic poetry of Lorenzo Calogero (1910–1961). Even in Italy, Calogero’s poetry is difficult to find; currently, only two editions are in print. Obviously, this alone is not sufficient ground for meriting an award. John Taylor’s work itself offers us all the necessary reasons. Taylor is a seasoned translator from the French and the Italian and has published numerous critical and creative volumes. He brings the necessary experience to the art of translation. His distinct skill in re-creating an analogous form mirroring the original and his respect for line breaks, alliteration, assonance, rhyme, syntax, and meaning enable him to successfully transpose Italian into English. His in-depth knowledge of both languages supplies him with the crucial balance needed for mastering the transaction between form and content. The translator must be humble but inventive, bold yet respectful, consistent but still willing to take risks from time to time. Taylor’s translations reveal all these qualities and more. Yet in order to make clear why all of the above is impressive, we need to remember what all too frequently occurs in actual practice.

Too often, translators have a tendency to “rationalize” or clarify the work they are translating. While translators must necessarily interpret the author’s intent, this often tips over into explaining the work in question, thereby expanding the new version in the target language. This leads to heavily altered syntax and, in the case of poetry, a disruption of original line breaks. The translation becomes not only longer than the original but also wordier—the evocative range of the original is lost, and the spatial arrangement is upset.

While translating, particularly from Italian to English, one of the most pressing challenges involves rendering a highly flexible Italian syntax into the more rigid English structures. Ideally the flexibility of Italian should upset the English rigor, create new associations. But this is always a risk. Usually the richness and complexity of the Italian end up being simplified and reduced. Taylor’s rendering is ingenious in that it mirrors the Italian syntax, one that is not easy to follow upon a first reading. We may observe all of this in his translation of the tricky and demanding text by Calogero titled “D’ali nuvola, capricciosa volta” (“Winged Cloud, Whimsical Turning”).

D’ali nuvola, capricciosa volta
d’anni lunga, lugubre, leggera;
ed era un bene. Passò
dal fiore d’ombra
il lume pallido
sul volo di una mosca.
Winged cloud, whimsical turning
of light long lugubrious years;
and this was something good. The pale
lamplight passed
from the shadowy flower
onto the flying fly.

In these lines, the subject is fleeting, like the image in the poem. The cloud is an emblem of time, light, nature. Literally, the Italian reads “Cloud of wings, capricious vault or turning.” Syntactically, it reads “Of wings cloud, capricious vault.” Volta is another complex word, which has a range of possible meanings: “turn,” “time,” “turned,” and “vault,” as in architecture, are the main ones. The translator must choose which meaning will work musically and poetically. Which rendering will maintain the evocative range of the original? Turning is an excellent choice since it echoes the original alliteration in v (volta/nuvola): “Winged Cloud, Whimsical Turning.” Winged and whimsical contain alliteration and assonance, while the line is framed by the “ing” internal rhyme at beginning and end. The choice of turning reinforces the alliteration and assonance of lunga, lugubre (un from Italian is transferred into English as urn). The alliteration in l—lunga, lugubre, leggera—is entirely maintained in English: of light, long, lugubrious years. The Italian syntax of the second line has been rearranged in English without lengthening. The musical feeling is re-created. The verb tenses are also completely accurate. The Italian has two past tenses, an imperfect and a past absolute. Both are maintained in English. Thus the idea of the original, the tortuous, twisted turns of time passing, of past and present beings, is rendered. The original is a whimsical, temporal evocation of lost innocence, lost love as reflected in the sky, and the trees at dusk. It does not restrict the range of possible meanings, while at the same time it is not vague.

Certainly, Taylor’s prowess in maintaining the original syntax is one of the defining characteristics of his praiseworthy talent. As we have noted, another such characteristic is not only his adeptness in re-creating musical patterns but also his consistency in keeping up these ideal traits. In “I realize which one was the Lifeline,” a poem about the lifeline of a hand, we remark internal rhyme (ita, vole) and rhythmic alliteration in i in the Italian. I’ve added the bold to highlight this point.

Comprendo qual era la linea della vita
così lieta e fievole, così semplice
e non finita. Ell’era una traccia
mutevole, un punto fermo, un esemplare
dove dentro il cavo della mano, sulla palma,
sullo svolgersi delle lunghe dita
si volge chi non ha più vita. [...]

Taylor’s version succeeds in re-creating a similar musical pattern. In his translation, we remark the assonance and alliteration in i (realize/lifeline, etc.) as well as near rhymes (weak/incomplete, long/palm) and so forth: I realize which one was the lifeline so cheerful and weak, so simple and incomplete. It was a changeable trail, a firm dot, a specimen where inside the hollow of the hand, on the palm, on the long fingers as they unfold, turns someone who’s no longer alive. [...] Once more, we can appreciate how Taylor’s syntactical arrangement ingeniously mirrors the Italian. He is able to achieve all these qualities while maintaining a natural flow in English. This is no small feat. We may enjoy another such example in a poem, typical of Calogero, about lost childhood, “Un amore” (“A Love”). The elegant, skillful correspondence is evident.

Lucciole bionde per le siepi d’estate,
com’è splendido il vostro raggio
che per le tenebra appare! Voi mi ricordate
qualcosa che non si annulla
della mia fanciullezza: infinita
speranza pei prati. [...]

Blond fireflies amid the summer hedges,
how splendid your sunray
darting through the darkness! You’ve
reminded me
of something that has never vanished
from my childhood: infinite
hope through the fields. [...]

The Italian evokes the light (lucciole=fireflies) of childhood and the sensation of endless hope against the present darkness. Taylor renders these qualities and even adds a new musical dimension: “how splendid your sunray / darting through the darkness!” The English becomes another poem, an analogous reflection of the original. These commendable translations preserve the essential qualities of the Italian—musical, sensory, nostalgic, imaginative. They do this and more, bringing into English the dream dimension of the original, re-creating the distinct voice of Lorenzo Calogero in a new language. We can say that these pieces are typical of John Taylor’s artful work. They also give us a feel for Calogero’s main themes and prove that in the best circumstances, there is much to be gained, not wasted, in translation.