Studying Italian at school in England, I never dared dream that I’d write poems that would be re-created in the language of Dante and Fiorucci, Italo Svevo and cappuccino – by the distinguished poet and professional translator Piero Toto. I speak to him here about the larger project of travelling curiously between cultures. We also explore how meaning and sensation can move from word to experience across the boundaries of geography.
Writers, clothes, food, Pompeii from my school textbooks, films with people riding fast through Roma on scooters – as a teenager during the late Seventies, for me Italy was the land of gritty glamour. Somewhere I longed to visit. A language I wanted to grow up into. I got my wish the summer I turned sixteen, when I spent two months in Florence. After running away from my family of origin, I funded my trip by working in London as a cashier in a supermarket by day, and then a nightclub-come-restaurant by night. By July, I could afford to travel to Firenze on a hot, jolting sleeper train, pleasurably full of rucksacks and backpackers.
Florence in the hot summer of 1980 was not today’s tourist Airbnb honeypot which I revisited in 2019 to take these photos. Aged just sixteen, I found a shadowy city where men wolf-whistled me me on dark streets, followed me on hot summer nights, propositioned me, invited me into their cars. But it was also the city of blazing, luminous sunshine, the city of train stations. I met a girl from Catania in Sicily, working as a secretary. She took me travelling on weekends. We came to share a room, drank our morning cappuccino standing up at the bar together. With her beside me, I was beginning to find myself in a body that had known sexual abuse in childhood, but was now coming to feminity, coming to maturity – as poems like ‘imprint of a young woman’, translated for Atelier by Piero Toto as ‘impronta di una giovane donna’, record. Because I grew up between French and English, and then added Italian into the mix, I understand something of the challenges of translation, which made more valuable the gift of being able to discuss them with Piero.
ah: Thank you so much for translating my poems from bird of winter, Piero. It was a huge honour to be translated so beautifully by another poet into his mother tongue. I feel I am meeting my work with new eyes, new senses. Can I begin our conversation by asking you to say a few words about Atelier, for readers who may not know its work? When did it begin? What’s its mission? Who are the team behind it?
PT: First of all, thank you for accepting my invitation to be published in Atelier. Like I said in our recent pre-translation chat over Zoom, I knew we had to do something together the moment I saw you perform at the Forward Prizes back in 2021. Luckily the opportunity to collaborate came with my involvement as translator for Atelier, one of Italy’s most prominent poetry magazines. It is produced by Giuliano Ladolfi Editore in two different formats, online and in print. It was founded back in 1996 to bring attention to the new generations of poets, but also to feature critical contributions on 20th century poets and poetry in translation. Throughout the years, Ladolfi Editore has also published monographs, conference proceedings and other publications dedicated to contemporary poetry, critical essays on poetry and new voices in the European poetry scene. The current Atelier team is made up of poets, critics and writers who all contribute pro bono to both the online version of the magazine and its print sister. I am part of the online editorial team.
ah: It sounds like a hugely important and necessary space of cultural transmission. I know you have been collaborating with Atelier to showcase contemporary English-language poetry in translation. You have translated Andrew McMillan, Peter Scalpello, Anthony Anaxagorou, André Naffis-Sahely and Golnoosh Nour so far, with more poets lined up for 2023. How did this come about and did you have any particular criteria for the poets you chose to translate? I noticed that a number of the poets you have chosen identify as queer poets, as I do myself.
PT: The main criterion I follow is to include poets that are little known or completely unknown to Italian-speaking audiences. The process for choosing them is very easy: does their poetry speak to me? Does their poetics or collection introduce something new for the Italian poetry scene (in terms of form, content, language, imagery, etc.)? UK and American poetry are very different from Italian poetry, which tends to be slightly more ‘lyrical’ compared to the more prosaic tendency of English language poetry (with exceptions of course). The other question I ask myself is: in my current position of privilege, can I use my voice to amplify (other) marginalised voices? Especially as a queer poet, I feel that it is my duty to make sure that I can support other queer poets’ work by offering them a platform – if I do not do it, who will?
In the early selection stages, a deciding factor behind the inclusion of a poet was whether or not I knew the poet personally, as this would speed things up: as a matter of fact the first two poets I published are poets I am close to and whose work I deeply admire. The later selections were based on whether the poets were known to Italian-speaking audiences or whether they had an upcoming collection. Apart from the poets’ own bios, I hardly introduce the poets or their work, so as not to influence our readers. When we decide to include a note or a short explanatory introduction (as I did for Peter Scalpello or with your own poems) it is because we feel that it is 100% integral to the poetry itself.
ah: I was very grateful that you should have translated my note about living beyond grooming and childhood sexual abuse with the poems from bird of winter. Bringing words to this space where there has historically been so much silence is integral to my creative project. You bring to your translations both your academic background as Senior Lecturer in Translation at London Metropolitan University, and your creative process as a poet who writes in both English and Italian. Could I ask you how you set about translating poetry, as opposed to other materials?
PT: I have been working as a translator for almost 20 years, dealing with a variety of materials, genres and clients. Compared to commercial translation, where most of the time it is the target audience’s needs that must be kept in mind when translating (depending of course on your clients’ instructions), with poetry I constantly try and remind myself of honouring the original poet’s voice, their lived experience, and this is probably more prominent in my case because I am a poet myself and I have been translated too, so I know first-hand how it feels to undergo the process of translation, and once again I felt that if I am in a position to be able to lend my services to introduce new voices on the current poetry scene, then I must do that. Other poetry translators will probably say differently, but for me this is my main mantra when translating. That is why I tend to approach contemporary, living poets with whom I can have a chat beforehand or whatever, feed off their energy and intuition, and then try and channel that in my translations. Basically, though, I just keep my fingers crossed and hope that everything goes well!! [joking of course]
ah: In my own case, I found that your translations brought out beautiful textures and subtleties that the English could not deliver in the same way, being a terser language. From ‘imprint of a young woman’ translating “the husk of your voice/ musked my being” to “il graffio della tua voce/ muschiava la mia essenza” laid the lingering sensuality of that encounter down onto the page through Italian’s long vowel sounds, and whispering, sibilant consonants. It was a true gift. Following on from this, what was your own route into translation, and how did you decide on this as part of your career path?
PT: I believe I can be described as a xenophile and a citizen of the world rather than belonging to a specific nationality, so my need to explore different cultures and different countries as well as being able to put my language skills to good use, to be of service, are at the core of everything I do. This has motivated most of my personal and professional choices.
ah: You are not alone in feeling that way, Piero. In an interview in the current issue of The Paris Review, , poet Rita Dove looks back on beginning to learn German as a teenager in Akron, and thinks of it relative to the process of coming to understand poetry. Dove was a Fullbright Scholar in Germany, and is a fluent German speaker, married for many years to German writer Fred Viehbahn. She speaks as someone used to moving between languages:
At that time I also started learning German – Akron had a sizeable German population, so our teacher was a native speaker. I realized that figuring out how to talk about poetry was, in some ways, similar to speaking in another language – with practice it was something I could master but, ultimately, true understanding of a poem happened on a level beyond words. It was untranslatable.
Would you care to comment on Dove’s insights, both as a poet, and as a translator?
PT: We often hear the traduttore traditore [translator traitor] expression in translation circles, meaning that there will always be a level of imprecision in our translations and ineffability in the original pieces of work which make the act of translation seemingly redundant. I would tend to agree with Dove: the superficial symbols (the language) that we use to write poetry can merely represent what has been revealed to us, what has emerged out of our experience of the world. It is in the interstices of those symbols that we need to seek meaning: it takes only one vibrational deflection from language to reveal its limits (its untranslatability) and at the same time its power beyond these limits. Meanwhile, though, we must make do with the instruments at our disposal (i.e., translation) to get by. Because, what is the option otherwise?
ah: I couldn’t agree more with you. I love your formulation of ‘vibrational deflection’, and the idea of meaning occurring at the ‘interstices of symbols’. Thank you for those Piero. As I mention in my preface to this interview, I learnt Italian for three years at school as a teenager, and lived alone for two months in Florence the summer I turned sixteen. Before that, I had grown up speaking French to my French grandmother from my earliest childhood. In both cases, I understood without consciously articulating it that I thought differently when I was expressing myself in a different language. In French you say J’ai peur, j’ai faim, literally translated as I have cold, I have hunger. It is if these sensations come bodily to inhabit you, rather than define you, as they do in English. Developing this idea, I loved the way the lines of my poems were transformed as well as translated in your transmission of them into Italian. I wondered if you might say something about how this came about?
PT: Firstly I think it is important to acknowledge some of the basic structural differences between languages, and in our particular case Italian and English, in terms of grammar, sentence structure, etc. Having said this, poetry is probably the one ‘language’ that allows us to deconstruct those very same differences and take some liberties in order to honour the poets’ voice. When translating extracts from bird of winter, I considered the ‘mood’ of the collection and the vivid imagery contained within it. For example, when translating the first verse of the poem elegy for an eight year old, where the English opens with the subject “she” followed by a verb in the present form + an adjective to describe how the protagonist is sitting, I turned that into a past participle [seduta dritta] instead to create a vivid snapshot of the little girl and to put even more distance between the reader and the initial scene, which for me sets the tone of the whole poem. In this way, the reader is slowly shown the image described in the opening verses, as if it were a slo-mo camera approaching the eight-year-old girl. It also introduces the repetitions of “d’s” and “t’s” to enhance the soundscape. Compensating with other rhetorical/stylistic devices for what is lost in translation is an essential part of poetry translation, or at least for my own practice. In this case, however, I do not see it as a loss.
ah: I read ‘elegia per una bambina di otto anni’ as both a miracle of subtle empathy, and a truly generous gift. In her recent memoir, Dandelions, writer and translator Thea Lenarduzzi reminds her readers of the weft of indigenous languages across Italy, from Sardinian and Neapolitan in the South, to Friulian in the North, that underlie and co-exist with ‘standard’ Italian. Do you feel that growing up in a country where the construct of language is in and of itself so diverse, and at times also so politically charged, helped shape your own relationship to communication as a space of nuance, opening and possibility, rather than fixed meaning? I know you co-edited Gender Approaches in the Translation Classroom: Training the Doers, which published in 2019 by Palgrave Macmillan.
PT: I guess you could say that. When growing up, especially in the heel of Italy – which is where I am from – you are exposed to dialects, which are languages in themselves, with their own grammar and lexis. They are imbued in the fabric of society and carry a lot of history within them: my own dialect comes from Latin but has strong French, Spanish, Greek and Arabic influences, for example. So code-switching (almost without realising) is a thing!
ah: And indeed genre switching. After so much generous support of the work of other poets, could we close with a few words on your own career as a poet writing in English and Italian. You published tempo 4/4 in 2021 with Transeuropa Edizioni, and have published many wonderful individual poems in Italian, German and English periodicals and magazines from La Repubblica to Queerlings and harana poetry. For readers who would like to read more, would you like to say something about the themes which your own work is drawn to explore, and where you see your career taking you next creatively?
PT: I recently completed my first poetry collection in English, which I hope will find a good home soon. I am attracted to the value and meaning of human relationships, of existence per se, and the way our experiences forge our vision of life. In particular, exploring sexual identity and incommunicability. Constantly shifting between languages, harmonies, sounds and meanings can be a rather messy business… as I said on another occasion, I navigate through multiple cultural and linguistic identities inhabiting the world on its margins. I am not sure where I will be creatively in the near future, given the many hats that I wear (as a bilingual poet, as a translation scholar, as a poetry translator…) but poetry-wise I intend to look at the overlaps between poetry and the visual arts, specifically poetry-music and its digital fruition. For those interested in my work, you can check out my linktree.
ah: Thank you again Piero. I will be first in the line to buy your collection. It can’t come too soon. And thank you also for your generosity in conversation and in translation.
If anyone would like to join me in an online, hands on workshop exploring bringing our bodies into creative practice, I will be facilitating one for Tsaa with Roma on 22 June at 14 00 BST. There are free places available for those facing financial hardship.
Chaired by Jennifer Lee Tsai, I will also be performing live and online with Padraig Regan to explore ‘Form as Radical Midwife: Queering the Page’ at the Ledbury Festival on Sunday 2 July, 14. 00 BST, 2023.
The link to Piero Toto’s translations of ‘black river’, ‘elegy for an eight year old’ and ‘imprint of a young woman’ for Atelier is here.