Carla Rossi on translating Giuseppe Ungaretti

Carla Rossi

on translating Giuseppe Ungaretti

As usually happens when translating poetry, the title is the first challenge presented to the translator, and “La morte meditata” is no exception. First of all, one wonders what “la morte meditata” actually means. I believe the meaning of the title is closely connected to the act of reflecting on something, to meditate on what on what all human beings have in common — mortality. At some point of their lives, all people question themselves about death. This why I decided to translate the title as “The Meditated Death.” It does not refer to death per se, but, more precisely, it refers to that meditated death that inevitably becomes part of people’s thoughts.

The poem is divided into six canti, which I decided to keep as “canto.” The most obvious and literal translation would be “song,” but I do not think it gives justice to Ungaretti’s word choice. Furthermore, the word “canto” echoes the one hundred cantos of Dante’s Divine Comedy — at least to the ears of an Italian speaker — and I think it is a fair tribute to the Italian literary tradition. One of the lines I liked the most is the fifth line of the second canto, where death is defined as muta parola — “mute word.” It is an exceptionally powerful and paradoxical image, full of tension: How can a word be mute? It can be so before it is spoken, when a word is still an idea, but it is nonetheless striking to the reader. Instead of opting for “mute,” the most straightforward equivalent, I preferred using “still.” It is such an interesting word in English, because it conveys both the meaning related to the sound, but also the idea of steadiness. And of course, nothing can be as steady and motionless as death.

about the author

Giuseppe Ungaretti was born on February 10, 1888, in Alexandria, Egypt, from an Italian family originating from Lucca (Tuscany). The multicultural and cosmopolitan city of Alexandria had a considerable influence both on his life and on his work. Ungaretti is mostly known in Italy as “Il poeta Ssldato,” that is, “the soldier poet.” In 1915, in fact, when Italy joined World War I, he decided to volunteer. World War I left a mark on his life. He got to know both the suffering of war, but also the true meaning of brotherhood.

Giuseppe Ungaretti is certainly one of the most appreciated Italian poets of the twentieth century. Students remember him for writing very short and incisive poems, but what makes him so great is his experience of war that gave a very introspective cut to his poetry.

about the translator

My name is Carla Rossi, I’m twenty-five, and I’m from Italy. Last year I spent the spring semester at Penn, and I fell in love with it. I’ve just graduated from the University of Bologna in conference interpreting, with a concentration in English and Spanish — so I mostly translate speeches from English and Spanish into Italian (but also the other way around). In my free time I like playing with words, talking to my friends, and planning my next travel.