Compass Rose

214 pages,
ISBN: 8880631799

Post Your Opinion
This Heavy Craft
by Robin Healey

Rosa dei venti/Compass Rose is a generous selection of the poems of P.K. Page, with parallel Italian translations by Francesca Valente. Published in Italy, it is, presumably, intended to introduce Italian readers to the work of a distinguished, durable, visionary Canadian poet. To this end, it includes an introductory essay by the editor, Branko Gorjup, and brief appreciations by a group of Italian and Canadian scholars and poets, in both English and Italian. There are, in addition, reproductions (in halftone, unfortunately, except for the piece chosen as the cover illustration) of three mixed media works responding to the poems by the Italian trans-avant-garde artist, Mimmo Paladino, and of the brief score for a setting of Page's "A Children's Hymn" (not included among the fifty poems in the collection) by Harry Somers. So far so good. But why, one might ask, is this book being reviewed here? Canadian readers not familiar with Page's poems can pick up The Glass Air: Poems Selected and New (Oxford University Press, 1991) or The Hidden Room: Collected Poems (Porcupine's Quill, 1997), and they would not likely find this Italian edition in bookstores across Canada should they be more than mildly interested in seeing the Italian versions. What else is going on here?

The "what else" is, of course, the accelerating pace of cultural exchanges-musical, literary, artistic-between Canada and Italy, with sponsorship by the governments of both countries through their various arts councils and cultural institutes. While several hundred literary works by Canadians have been translated and published in Italy in the second half of this century, they have mostly been works by the international big names-Margaret Atwood, Robertson Davies, Brian Moore, Michael Ondaatje, and the like-or by writers of popular, detective or science fiction-for example, Arthur Hailey, Ross Macdonald, and A.E. Van Vogt. While our poets have not been neglected, they present a lower profile, are published chiefly in subsidised editions by smaller presses, and visit Italy, if at all, with financial help from government agencies. What really drives these literary exchanges are the efforts of enthusiastic and energetic cultural entrepreneurs like Greg Gatenby or Barry Callaghan and, on the Italian side, Dr. Francesca Valente, until December 1998 Director of the Instituto Italiano di Cultura in Toronto and Vancouver.

Valente has been a force-or rather, "a force of nature", as Umberto Eco commented during his Toronto visit last October -on the Canadian cultural scene since her first term as Director in the late 1980s. Her boundless energy and determination, and her many contacts, have made possible a long series of successful exhibitions, concerts, conferences, performances, and lectures that have been attended by many Torontonians.

A recent exhibition at the Institute's gallery brought together P.K. Page's poems (many in manuscript calligraphic versions by the poet herself) and the fifty drawings and paintings Paladino created in response to Valente's translations, with the installation designed by architect Bruce Kuwabara. Rosa dei venti/Compass Rose was published in conjunction with the exhibition. It is something of a family affair because editor Gorjup, himself a scholar and translator, is Valente's husband. Together they have now edited and translated three volumes by Canadian poets for Longo in Ravenna: Irving Layton's Il cacciatore sconcertato/The Baffled Hunter (1993), Gwendolyn MacEwen's Il geroglifico finale/The last hieroglyph (1997), and the new Page volume.

The Longo series of Canadian poets in translation, supported by the Canada Council, is an excellent initiative, but I, at least, found this volume a little disappointing for a variety of reasons. Over the past five years, I have seen more than two hundred volumes of poetry in translation, the majority being collections by modern and contemporary Italian poets translated into English, and the remainder Canadian poetry in English translated into Italian. Critics in both countries agree that the original poems and the translations should be presented in parallel, so that they can be read together and compared, even by readers whose skill in their non-native language is small. The Longo series, of course, follows this practice.

At this point, however, critics and scholars begin to disagree. One school of thought maintains that it is not possible to create a poem in translation which is the equal of the original. The translator should, therefore, provide an accurate prose translation to assist the reader to understand the meanings, the music, and the effect of the original. Another school believes that effective versions in the new language can only be created by poets of the same stature as the original poet. The result can be wonderful, exciting poems, which sometimes bear little relation to the originals. One thinks of Ezra Pound's translations from many languages, few of which he knew, or of Robert Lowell's Imitations (1961), which includes versions of Italian poems by Umberto Saba, Giuseppe Ungaretti, and Nobel laureate Eugenio Montale. And as I write, the 1995 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Seamus Heaney, who has already published translations of several cantos from Dante's Commedia (in Dante's Inferno, 1993), is at work on a modern English poetic version of Beowulf, the greatest surviving Old English poem. Many other scholars and translators follow a middle road, where it is seen as vital that the translator be completely at home and fluent in the original language, and be a poet of some skill. Contemporary examples for English and Italian would be William Arrowsmith's, Jonathan Galassi's or Dana Gioia's translations from Montale (each book greeted with mixed reviews), or Alfredo Rizzardi's translations of poems by Margaret Atwood, Poesie (1986).

On this scale, Francesca Valente falls closer to the prosaic limit. Though known in Italy for her translations of works by Northrop Frye and Marshall McLuhan, she has published, with help from collaborators like Layton and Barry Callaghan, English translations of poems by Pier Paolo Pasolini and Giorgio Bassani, and, most recently, Patrizia Cavalli's My Poems Will Not Change the World (Exile Editions, 139 pages, $19.95 paper). Her translations of poetry into Italian are generally literal, line-for-line, and accurate. The problem is that her technique cannot create Italian poems with the strength of the originals.

It has often been said of such endeavours that the poetry is what is lost in translation: the emotional experience, the resonances born from the interplay of words and sounds, the connotations, the poet's individual diction. These do not survive the passage. In the last short poem in Rosa dei venti/Compass Rose, "This Heavy Craft", for instance, the lines "Io, Icaro, sebbene ancorato/alla mia carne" do not render fully "I, Icarus, though grounded/in my flesh"; "parte luminosa" is weaker than "bright section", and "non cessando mai di provare" bears little relation to Page's laconic "and practises".

Some translators gloss or annotate in an attempt to bring out meanings not expressed in the translation, but it would take paragraphs to explain to the Italian reader the allusions and possibilities embedded in the phrase "never nether land" (from "Stories of Snow"), translated by Valente as "paesi bassi mai esistiti". Valente provides no notes nor does she finish those other aids that readers find useful: the translator's account of her approach to the poetry, her techniques, her compromises, her feelings for the poet (Valente has said that she found translating Page's poems difficult); a brief bibliography of the poet's works, with approximate dates of the composition of the poems selected, and a note of the collections in which they appeared-information the Italian reader would appreciate, but would be hard pressed to find easily.

The accompanying material, too, is weaker than that provided in the MacEwen volume, with its strong statements by Atwood, Callaghan, and Rosemary Sullivan, and its more generous selection of colour illustrations by Sandor Chia. I sense that the pressure of budget constraints and also, probably, of time constraints, have made it difficult to provide the improving touches to poems and presentation that would have made a better book. But reviewers do have a tendency to criticize a book for what it is not, rather than for what it is. It would have been useful to have a translator's note, a bibliography, and notes on the poems themselves. It would have been better to have had each of the poems accompanied by its matching Mimmo Paladino drawing. It would, perhaps, have been even better had the acclaimed artist, P.K. Irwin, provided the visual accompaniment to P.K. Page's poems. Nevertheless, Valente, Gorjup, and Longo have done well.

Page, who has received many honours in her long career as writer and artist, has been an Officer of the Order of Canada since 1977. In January, she was named a Companion. In the opinion of her Canadian peers, she is an outstanding contemporary poet. She deserves to be celebrated in Italy, too, and with this volume, she may well be. 

Robin Healey is a librarian at the University of Toronto. In the past ten years, he has created three exhibitions with the help of the Italian Cultural Institute. His recent book is Twentieth-Century Italian Literature in English Translation: An Annotated Bibliography, 1929-1997 (University of Toronto Press).


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