Quinn Gruber on translating Margherita Guidacci

Quinn Gruber

on translating Margherita Guidacci

This series of six short poems from Margherita Guidacci’s first book of poetry, La sabbia e l’angelo (The Sand and the Angel, 1946) reckons with the relationship between humans and nature, as well as the broader cycle of life and death.

The last image in the poem of death as a celeste catena straniera, a “strange celestial chain,” particularly captivated me and guided my translation. I translated straniero as “strange” rather than the usual “foreign” because the Angel, a sort of overseer of the life/death balance, is a continuous presence in human life. I wanted “strange” to capture our inability to reconcile our knowledge of death with our own desire to live; we know death intimately, but are unable to fully comprehend what it entails.

As I translated the poem, I was surprised to find that Guidacci’s voice, both direct and clear, cosmic and spiritual, had an almost Romantic lilt in English that comes across in phrases such as o uomo (“O man,” which I translated simply as “person”) and Dominatore ed Amato (“Ruler and Lover”). It’s crucial to note that Guidacci was not invested in the closed style of her contemporaries, the Hermetic poets; she instead used a more “ordinary” language to form the complex meanings and sounds of her works. Keeping this in mind, I tried to adhere as closely as I could to the flexible sentence order common to Italian while still maintaining sense in English, to convey that sense of familiarity and strangeness that coexists in the work.

What struck me most deeply about the poem is how Guidacci recognizes the brevity of human life without assuming that our lives do not matter because of it. Rather, our absence serves as a permanent reminder of our existence: “Perché tu stesso sei sabbia, sei la morte che dopo te rimane.” “Because you yourself are sand, you are the death that remains after you.”

about the author

Margherita Guidacci (1921–1992, Florence) was an Italian poet and translator. Without companions her own age, Guidacci’s childhood was marked by solitude and a series of losses — most notably, the death of her father — that led her to poetry and literature. Guidacci graduated in 1943 from the Università di Firenze with a degree in Italian literature; only three years later, La sabbia e l’angelo marked the beginning of her prolific literary career, over the course of which she received many prestigious awards, such as the Biela Poesia Prize and the Premio Caserta. Her poetry fused the domestic and the universal, resounding with deep emotion, yet stunningly clear. Alongside her many books of poetry, Guidacci published translations of the works of Emily Dickinson, Ernest Hemingway, H.D., T.S. Eliot, John Donne, and many others. Her teaching career was just as prolific: she taught Latin, Greek, and English at a precollege level and later became a professor of Anglophone literature.

about the translator

Quinn Gruber is a junior at the University of Pennsylvania studying English and Italian literature. They love writing, editing, and having far too many hobbies.