The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Friday, June 29, 2007

The Puir Family [La famijja poverella]

Wheesht nou, my darling bairnies, bide ye quaet:
yir faither's comin suin, jist bide a wee.
Oh Virgin of the greitin, please help me,
Virgin of waymenting, ye that can dae't.

My hairts, I wuss that ye cuid ken hou great
my luve is! Dinna greet, or I sall dee.
He'll bring us something hame wi him, you'll see,
and we will get some breid, and ye will eat...

Whit's that ye're sayin, Joe? jist a wee while,
my son, ye dinnae like the dark ava.
Whit can I dae fir ye, if there's nae yle?
Puir Lalla, whit's the maitter? Oh ma bairn,
ye're cauld? But dinnae staund agin the waa:
come and I'll warm ye on yir mammy's airm.
Hesperus Press, who published the excellent Words Are Stones, have begun a new line, Oneworld Classics. As with their main imprint, I'm a little underwhelmed by some of their choices - do we need another edition of Wuthering Heights? - and I guess we'll be seeing more translations by J.G. Nichols, whose writing has left me cold, so far. These are minor cavils though, and blown away by the genuine delight of discovering Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli's sonnets, translated into energetic, earthy, vulgar English by Mike Stocks - and finding at the back, incredibly, twelve translations into Scots by none other than Edinburgh's own Robert Garioch.

Such a surprise. It brings it closer still, even as a non-Scots speaker. You're sitting there reading Stock's version, admiring, enjoying, sometimes charmed, sometimes disgusted - and then it's as if Belli has disappeared off the page, metamorphosed into an Edinburgh street person, and is standing right behind you, breathing down your neck.

...Belli was the great master of the [Roman] dialect and a scholarly recorder of the filth and blasphemy. [p. 242]

There were a lot of these sonnets - 2,279 - in three fat volumes, and I sometimes thought of dedicating my life to their translation. It would have been a useless venture, for who in the Anglophone world would care about an obscure dialect poet? There were some, not all Romans, who believed Belli to be the greatest poet of the nineteenth century, but his greatness rested on the use of a dialect difficult to translate. Robert Penn Warren, on one of his regular visits to Rome, gave it as his opinion that the nineteenth century greatness had to be shared between Belli and John Keats. [p. 327]
High praise indeed. From You've Had Your Time by Anthony Burgess.

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At 14 August 2007 at 21:44 , Anonymous Mike Stocks said...

Dear Silver Eel

Great to read that you enjoyed Belli / Garioch / me -- thanks for writing about the poems in your blog. The more people who can be alerted to Belli, the better -- he is a seriously under appreciated poet.

Best wishes, Mike


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