Coronavirus confinement arrived when I was in the middle of writing two articles, correcting the proofs of a book, organising a conference, planning three overseas trips, and booking train tickets to travel around the UK to give talks at different schools. All that went by the wayside. Like most people, I felt annoyed and impotent, which quickly transformed into fear and anxiety. These latter two feelings didn’t help with the sole task that I could do at home: using the books and materials I had salvaged from my office to continue with research.
In this winter of our discontent a friend, a translator and a poet, asked for my assistance with a project he was working on: a selection in Spanish of Pasolini’s poems on Rome. My contribution in this unequal partnership was my language skills (I won’t win any prizes as a translator and even less as a poet), and my Italian is not as great as I would like it to be – I’m not a native speaker, or even an Italianist. But there I was, spending my free time at weekends not going out but discussing the words and meanings of a language that is not my own.
A task that at first glance could seem as masochistic as following Pasolini’s free walks around Rome in times of lockdown (I love to wander by foot and I feared that the UK would replicate the more draconian rules on exercise taken by Italy or Spain) unexpectedly became the highlight of my week. Pasolini’s Rome is not the glamorous and ideal capital beloved of tourist postcards, but instead the Rome of the peripheries. As a testimone e patecipe (‘witness and participant’) the poet shows the reader the complex urban popular culture of the Roman lumpen proletariat: the world of the rissoso e umile (‘raucous and humble’) inhabitant of the borgate romane. This is the same world we can glimpse in some of his earlier (and best known) films, such as Mamma Roma or Accattone.
We started with the poem I just have quoted: Continuazione della serata a San Michele (‘The Evening Continues at San Michele’). Apart from the harsh and beautiful poetic insights into this Other Rome, translating Pasolini opened my eyes to something else. It had been a while, perhaps years, since I last had the time (and patience) to dedicate a full day to poetry by the only proper means of digestion: tasting every word and then discovering the place of every world in the final structure, before then locating the meaning of each and every world within the poetic edifice. Uncovering layers of beauty is as hard as it is rewarding. It is not how we tend to read in the twenty-first century. Perhaps that is why poetry is disappearing from even literature degrees. When I sat my first university exams, I felt held back by an inability to skim read and my tendency to digest everything as if I were preparing a poetic exegesis. Researchers are often rewarded more for writing and reading quickly. Perhaps the time is due for a correlative to a literary equivalent to the slow food movement, allowing us the time and space to just read slowly…
And then, the translation. Few things are as unproductive as translating poetry: you don’t get full credit for the result (you are not the author), only translation of theatre can be sometimes worse paid (if it is paid at all), and it takes a long time (much longer than prose). More than with any other Literature genre, if you don’t put in the groundwork, you will likely divert from the source text so much that the reader will be confused.
In Continuazione della serata a San Michele, there are balconies with girls watering something called testa d’aruta, I look in my online Italian-Spanish dictionary. Nothing. I look in my online monolingual Italian dictionary. Nothing. When all else fails, Saint Google to the rescue (or not). To my dismay, search results took me directly to the same verse of Pasolini’s poem, others to a poem by a late nineteenth century Neapolitan poet, Salvatore Di Giacomo, writing in the local dialect. Exactly the same image, a girl watering this damn testa d’aruta. I learn that aruta is a dialectal term for ruta (‘rue’), the quintessentially Mediterranean aromatic evergreen of yellow flowers. And testa is not the ‘head’ of the plant (that is what in standard Italian testa means), but the flowerpot. It is the antic meaning of the form testa, the Latin one: testa as ‘terracotta pots’. It has nothing to do with Pasolini’s poem, but I recall Monte Testaccio in Rome, that artificial mount (a roman spoil heap, in fact) composed of piles of fragments of testae, terracotta pots. I smile.
So a reference to Salvatore di Giacomo’s Neapolitan poem? I am excited, intellectually excited, but the context is strange (why in the middle of a poem on Rome?). I don’t want to run before I can walk, so I decide to share my discovery with native friends. I call a friend from Tuscany who dates a guy from a place near Neapolis, but the expression doesn’t ring a bell to them. I call someone else, who can’t help me either but promise to ask some elder members of her family (perhaps it is just a generational thing). Another friend from Sardinia who knows a native specialist in Roman dialect confirms it is not a form specific to that region. I call my mum in Argentina… just because…
By 9 pm I realise that I have spent almost 12 hours and enrolled a full army to attack just three words, not even half of a verse. I am quite sure it is a reference to Salvatore di Giacomo’s poem, or at least to that image of the girl watering a pot of rue, apparently common in Neapolitan lyric (in the meantime, I have found a popular song called A testa aruta, this one with many entries in Google). Some additional research reveals that Pasolini dedicated several works to dialectal poetry, had a particular interest in Neapolitan popular culture and was well familiarised with Di Giacomo poetry. I translate the three words and add a footnote… that my friend ends up wanting to delete… Still I am happy, like a child. The cat that got the cream.
This pace of life, this pace of work, it is a luxury, it is a pleasure long forgotten. It took me a pandemic and an incursion in a field that was not mine to remember that there are intellectual as well as physical orgasms. But perhaps a blog, a quintessentially twenty-first century mode of communication, is not the place to write about the pleasure of reading slowly… I would have done better to just shut up… and keep translating.
Dr María Bastianes, Marie Curie Research Fellow, University of Leeds
It’s also a pleasure to read your post!