An Interview with George Hochfield, co-translator of Songbook, The Selected Poems of Umberto Saba (Yale)

Q:
You mention in your introduction that the work of translating Saba's poems began in 1996. Where did the impulse to do this work come from? What drew you to Saba in the first place?

George Hochfield:
saba8.jpgThere was no large motive guiding our choice of Saba. Mostly at my suggestion, we decided to do something together. I was still excited by my discovery of a second vocation after retiring, translating from the Italian -- and was finishing my first book of translation, The Officers Camp by Giampiero Carocci. I thought it would be interesting and enjoyable to work on a poet with Leonard -- I would never have tried to do it alone. He’d already had much experience as a poet-collaborator, having worked with Milosz on two Polish poets, and with other friends on Cees Noteboom (Dutch), Gunnar Ekelöf (Swedish), and Kalidasa (Sanskrit). So his attitude to such an undertaking was rather breezy. He was intrigued and left the choice of a poet entirely to me. There was an old intimacy between us that made it easy to contemplate a working relationship so casually. We became friends in 1946 as undergraduates on the GI Bill at UCLA. Later we roomed together in Berkeley as graduate students.

I searched the anthologies of twentieth-century Italian poetry and asked people in the Berkeley Italian department for advice. I was looking for someone who was important enough to be publishable, who had not been overworked by other translators, and who was accessible. This last was important. My Italian was not up to the intricacies of high modernism. I could read Saba and get his drift, and though complications inevitably turned up later, I never found myself absolutely mystified before a Saba poem. And there had been no serious attempt to translate him into English. Everything we came to know about Saba was the result of translating him.

Q:
What did you find initially in Saba's poetry that suggested you'd enjoy translating him for almost a decade?

GH:
saba2.jpgAt the start we knew very little about Saba. It was for us primarily an experiment in collaborative translation, not an act of literary devotion. But as we got the hang of it, began to feel that we could recognize Saba’s voice and were approaching a suitable English voice for him, we grew more attentive to what the voice was saying. Its distinctive motif was something that Saba himself was groping toward in his early work and soon became his conscious style. He was blending two elements in an original way -- it took a while for his originality to be recognized --namely, his personal experience, the realism of ordinary life, and the traditional forms of Italian poetry. What emerged gradually, then, was a narrative of a twentieth-century life that Saba developed in the stages of his Songbook. And the narrative was embedded in carefully elaborated verse. Saba went so far at one point as to write a condensed or summary Autobiography in fifteen sonnets. It was this uniquely poeticized story of a life that drew us on. By the way, for part of that decade we set Saba aside for lack of publication prospects. We did other things for a few years, and then returned to work on the translation between 2003-2007.

Q:
You mention “complications that inevitably came up.” What kinds of issues did you run into?

GH:
I meant only that even a poet as apparently accessible as Saba could occasionally make difficulties for the translator. For instance, if you look at the last two lines in the first poem of the “New Poems to Lina,” you’ll find that they don’t make sense. The note on these lines admits that they don’t and offers a speculation about a possible meaning. No one I consulted, better Italianists than I, could make sense of them either.

Q:
In general how should we think about Saba? Is he a modernist at all? Is he an innovator? Does his formalist urge separate him from contemporaries like Pavese and Montale?

GH:
saba6.jpgThis was a vexed question for a long time. Saba considered himself a modernist -- though not a “high” one, if that meant abandonment of rational coherence and formal structure -- in the sense that he was combining a new content with traditional forms. Italian criticism, somewhat overwhelmed by the newness being promoted by the likes of Pound and Eliot, didn’t respond very appreciatively to Saba’s work. He complained of this bitterly for many years. Nevertheless, he wasn’t completely ignored. He gained some critical support in the twenties, most especially from Giacomo Debenedetti, a very prominent critic, and slowly acquired an audience. After World War II, his position as a Jew who’d been more or less in hiding during the years of German occupation gained him sympathetic attention. His work was republished. The University of Rome granted him an honorary degree -- he wasn’t a university graduate, by the way. Since then his reputation has grown. He now ranks as one of the major figures of the first half of the twentieth century along with Montale and Ungaretti. Last year there was a two-day conference in Italy devoted entirely to his work.

Q:
What or who were Saba’s influences? Did he correspond with or otherwise have friendships with his contemporaries?

GH:
He professed his devotion to Leopardi, and even wrote a story in which Leopardi visited him for lunch. You might say that Leopardi swept the skies clean of an imminent God and affirmed an indifferent nature. Thus the metaphysical questions that might have troubled a Saba were disposed of. What was left was domestic life. Also Leopardi had a very bad case of the Romantic agonies. Everything, every hope, every aspiration, every desire, was doomed to futility or failure. Life was a succession of disappointments. Art was only a palliative. Suffering was, therefore, the inevitable fate of mankind, and Saba vibrated to that string.

Pascoli was also important, though Saba resisted the association strenuously. No poetry could be more unlike Saba’s, and no person more unlike him than Pascoli. But Pascoli’s influence was everywhere. He made his country childhood a subject for poetry, and this paved the way for Saba’s realism.

Saba read his contemporaries very seriously and was in touch with many of them. Poetry was his education. He wasn’t a university man -- a rare condition among Italian poets. Montale was a friend who said that during the war years when the Sabas were hiding out in Florence, he tried to visit them every day. He referred to Saba as “the great poet of Trieste.”

Q:
Leonard Nathan’s personal reactions to Saba’s work -- was there an affinity between him and Saba?.

GH:
It may seem strange, but this is a matter about which I can say very little. We met every week and sometimes more often to exchange drafts and talk about various aspects of the work, but I can’t say I remember Leonard expressing any special sense of affinity with Saba or his poetry. The shadow of Alzheimer’s was already encroaching on Leonard. He seemed to regard himself as a craftsman, perhaps a surgeon, performing delicate operations on poems that presented him with peculiar poetic problems. And in this role he was quite splendid. He would rework a line, change a word, shift things around, sometimes go so far as to rewrite a stanza or an entire poem, always making use of the original drafts I had given him. If I protested that he had wandered too far from the original meanings, he allowed me to revise his revisions. But most of the time his eye was unerring.

Q:
Regarding your decision to dispense with Saba's end-rhymes and metric line -- though you do generally retain the latter – without Saba’s more formal attributes, how close do you think you’ve come to capturing Saba's sound?

GH:
We never considered rhyme – it’s generally catastrophic to translation. As for metrical quality, English is accented, Italian counts syllables. So reproducing the formal attributes of the original isn’t possible. What we tried to do, when it was feasible, was imitate line length and, roughly, syllable count. This could give the sense of some tension between expression and control. The result, of course, isn’t Saba's sound and voice – it’s a sound and voice that we thought are like his, that give a similar effect. His voice isn’t often lighthearted or breezy. It’s melancholy, subdued, self-absorbed. Vocabulary is important in conveying these tones, also.

Q:
Which poems represent the essential Saba?

GH:
The two most famous in Italy and which are in all the anthologies are “The Goat” and “To My Wife.” But let me mention a few that I admire especially and that aren’t among his most famous. I admire the “Military Verses” generally. Saba said he found his voice among his soldiers, and I believe this is true. “Three Streets” is one of his best known poems. “The Youth” is virtually perfect. The little poem “The Station” sums up everything we know about the First World War. “Caffè Tergeste,” “The Cobbler,” and “De Profundis” in the group “Serene Despair,” “By the Sea” in “The Loving Thorn” section, and the last of the “Autobiography” poems are among my favorites. I find Saba has got under my skin, after all.

[George Hochfield is professor of English, emeritus, State University of New York at Buffalo. I conducted this interview with him via email, December 2008. -- RS]