The Poetry of a Translation

The Light of Memory
by Marcello Fabbri
translated by Jeanne Bonaca '66
OlivePress, 1995


When she met the distinguished Florentine poet Marcello Fabbri eight years ago, Jeanne Bonaca, an English professor at Hartford College for Women, had never attempted serious translation. Yet her first work of translation, The Light of Memory, renderings of Mr. Fabbri's poetry, would be voted best poetry book in Italy's Il Premio Casalguidi competition.

Ms. Bonaca sees the chain of events beginning at Vassar, where her dormitory's house fellow, an English professor, first sparked her interest in Italy. He helped her apply to spend a semester in Florence. There she fell in love with Italy and, during a later stay, met her husband.

Through her husband's family, Ms. Bonaca met Mr. Fabbri. At the core of his poetry is his struggle with a sudden, unexpected loss: at age 47, he was in an auto accident that left him blind. Only three years later did he emerge from despair by composing poetry for the first time in his life.

The notion of losing everything and having to start all over drew Ms. Bonaca to Mr. Fabbri. She compares him to Tolkien's Bilbo, who must leave the life he knows and embark on an uncertain journey. "You have to go on this quest . . . until you're stripped of everything and make your way back up again . . . You never look for this. If it happens to you, you either make it or you don't."

Ms. Bonaca felt an immediate urge to put Mr. Fabbri's work into English. "The differences between this man and me were so great," she says, "but the story moved me profoundly." Every few months for the next seven years, she "got this feeling" that would cause her to sit down and attempt to translate the poems. In 1993 she was granted a sabbatical to work on the project full time.

Ms. Bonaca says she wanted her versions of Mr. Fabbri's poems "to sound absolutely natural and good in English." Because English is a relatively imprecise language, we rely on the order of words to give them context and refine their meaning. Ms. Bonaca was faced with how flexible Romance languages are in comparison. In Italian it is not always necessary to use pronouns or to name the subjects of sentences or phrases. Such information is indicated by the gender or conjugation of individual words, making sentence structure less rigid. The challenge was to alter the structure of Mr. Fabbri's poetry without losing the nuances.

Though he does not speak English, Mr. Fabbri aided Ms. Bonaca in her most difficult literary decisions. Communicating by audio tape, the two discussed the challenges of particular poems, such as word choice, meaning, and sound.

The collaboration has produced various honors, including a grant that enabled them to give a series of readings together in the United States. And last March came a ceremonial presentation of The Light of Memory to the city of Florence. Says Ms. Bonaca, "People respond when they feel that you really care about something."


Daphne Kalotay '92
Vassar Quarterly - Summer 1996 Edition

Ms. Kalotay has an M.A. in creative writing from Boston University and teaches writing at Portland Community College in Oregon.

© olivepress 1998