Ringing through the quiet chamber
Resounding all the way around
Was your perpetual song.
Then when intent at your womanly task
You sat – content enough
With those hazy thoughts of things to come.
It was that scented May, when you
Thus passed the day.
I at my trifling studies
At times left off my sweaty papers
Where the commencement of my first youth
And youthful brilliance of my better days I spent
On the balconies of my paternal home
Lending my ears to the sound of your voice
And to your swift-moving hand
Across the wearying threads.
I gazed at the sky serene
The golden byways, and the courtyard-gardens
And there the far-off sea and here the hills.
No mortal tongue could speak
The feelings in my breast.
What lovely dreams,
What hopes, what hearts O my Silvia.
How they appeared to us
This human life – and fate!
When I recall to myself how grand those hopes
A tenderness takes me
Bitter and disconsolate
And turns me to deplore my baneful fate.
O Nature, O nature,
Why do you not then give
That which you promised then? Why to such a degree
Do you beguile your children?
You, before the grass withered in winter
Were locked in the malady which assailed and overcame you,
You perished, O tender one, and never glimpsed
The very flower of your years.
Nor was your heart to soften
At the praise now of your raven hair
And of your glance, demure, enamoured,
Nor with your girlfriends on a festive day
Were you to speak of love.
It perished too with me,
My sweet hopes of younger years
And too, the Fates negated
My time of youth. Alas, how –
How have you passed away
Dear companion of my early days.
My tear-soaked hopes
Here in this world – and there
The joys of love, of work, and of events
About which we talked so much together?
Is such the destiny of us human beings?
For when the truth appeared
You, poor abject one, succumbed: and with the hand
Of frosty death, to a naked tomb
From afar pointed the way.
Translation Dia Tsung.
Sonavan le quiete
Stanze, e le vie dintorno,
Al tuo perpetuo canto,
Allor che all’opre femminili intenta
Sedevi, assai contenta
Di quel vago avvenir che in mente avevi.
Era il maggio odoroso: e tu solevi
Così menare il giorno.
Io, gli studi leggiadri
Talor lasciando e le sudate carte,
Ove il tempo mio primo
E di me si spendea la miglior parte,
D’ in su i veroni del paterno ostello
Porgea gli orecchi al suon della tua voce,
Ed alla man veloce
Che percorrea la faticosa tela.
Mirava il ciel sereno,
Le vie dorate e gli orti,
E quinci il mar da lungi, e quindi il monte.
Lingua mortal non dice
Quel ch’io sentiva in seno.
Che pensieri soavi,
Che speranze, che cori, o Silvia mia!
Quale allor ci apparia
La vita umana e il fato!
Quando sovviemmi di cotanta speme,
Un affetto mi preme
Acerbo e sconsolato,
E tornami a doler di mia sventura.
O natura, o natura,
Perché non rendi poi
Quel che prometti allor? perché di tanto
Inganni i figli tuoi?
Tu, pria che l’erbe inaridisse il verno,
Da chiuso morbo combattuta e vinta,
Perivi, o tenerella. E non vedevi
Il fior degli anni tuoi;
Non ti molceva il core
La dolce lode or delle negre chiome,
Or degli sguardi innamorati e schivi;
Né teco le compagne ai dì festivi
Anche peria fra poco
La speranze mia dolce: agli anni miei
Anche negaro i fati
La giovanezza. Ahi, come,
Come passata sei,
Cara compagna dell’età mia nova,
Mia lacrimata speme!
Questo è quel mondo? questi
I diletti, l’amor, l’opre, gli eventi,
Onde cotanto ragionammo insieme?
Questa la sorte dell’ umane genti?
All’apparir del vero
Tu, misera, cadesti; e con la mano
La fredda morte ed una tomba ignuda
Mostravi di lontano.
I have quailed mightily and hesitated long before daring to publish a post – let alone a translation – of this poem, which is probably the most famous of all Italian poems, Giacomo Leopardi’s “To Sylvia”. There is no translation in existence which can do it justice, nor will there ever be, and for that reason I had not even thought to attempt one of my own. But then I looked at the version done by John Heath Stubbs, by far the ablest translator of Leopardi’s work, (since he alone above all the better known and lauded contemporary translators of Leopardi, comes the closest in tone and sense and evocation to the thoughts and feelings the original evokes) and it occurred to me to have some different thoughts….
One of the greatest problems in translating Leopardi, is the choice one has to make, between creating something which is an English poem, or an Italian one. The temptation to make it ‘English’ is very great indeed, because the thoughts and sentiments lend themselves to such a rich expression, but Leopardi is not a rich or a lush writer. He is thrifty and abstemious, and any translator who respects and admires the original must needs exercise enormous restraint at every step, even at the expense of beauty, and this I have tried to do.
As I proceeded phrase by phrase and word by word, I began to wonder particularly about the cosmic images Leopardi could not have known about or imagined, but which I suspect would have afforded him the greatest pleasure to contemplate – the black holes in galactic centres, swirling the stars around the space beyond their event horizons. Black holes with their infinite mass and invulnerability to time, the eternal dark divinities which create immeasurable amounts of heat and light from the swirling dust and clouds of stars entrapped around them, and feed for eons on that which they excite – until they too fall into the endless quiescence which is the most potent simulacrum of living death the universe contains.
In a sense, I feel that Leopardi’s mind too was a kind of black hole, but one from which thoughts were emitted in a steady stream. His thoughts, poems, disputations, pedagogical work, translations and letters escaped the fearful gravity of his heavy heart, and found their expression in his writing.
For Leopardi truth is an apparition of death, but such an image need not daunt us, for the voracity of death, like the voracity of black holes, is at the heart of every conception of life, and of mortality – and the awareness of our mortality serves us as an aid to live with an awareness of the fleeting nature of time.
“there are two truths which most men will never believe: one, that they know nothing, and the other, that they are nothing. And there is a third which proceeds from the second—that there is nothing to hope for after death…. all the vain hopes with which men comfort children and themselves, all foolish consolations,”
“Works of genius, have this intrinsic quality, that even when they capture exactly the nothingness of things, or vividly reveal and make us feel life’s inevitable unhappiness, or express the most acute hopelessness…they are always a source of consolation and renewed enthusiasm.”
Leopardi – from his notebook of 3000 odd pages, Zibaldone.