Living Between Two Languages

by Marina Camboni


1. Awakenings

Reading Jamaica Kinkaid’s Lucy some time ago, I had a shock of recognition. In a highly anti-climatic scene, Mariah, the woman whose children Lucy takes care of, having driven her to a Boston park, blindfolds her to enhance the surprise she anticipates the girl will experience in seeing a green stretch of lawn strewn with daffodils. But Lucy’s reaction surprises her. Like a bull in front of a red cloth, at the sight of the daffodils, Lucy has a fit of rage: “‘Mariah, do you realize that at ten years of age I had to learn a poem about some flowers I would not see in real life until I was nineteen?’” (29- 30). Daffodils  are for her not beautiful yellow flowers, but  a word and the title of a poem by Wordsworth she had to learn in school. Synonymous with British colonialism, the word evokes memories of forced acculturation into a tradition and a mental reality that elided her own experience, her own land, her own self; into values she was taught to consider superior. The flowers disappear as concrete reality and, one with the word, trigger “a scene of conquered and conquests; a scene  of brutes masquerading as angels and angels portrayed as brutes.” (30).

My first translations date back to the early seventies, when I felt myself colonised by a patriarchal culture and a man-made language. This awareness, however, would only have initiated political or critical action had I not been fascinated with words, as Jamaica Kinkaid’s Lucy is. At the time I was under the powerful influence of Virginia Woolf, Adrienne Rich, H. D. and Toni Maraini, whose novel, Anno 1424, has recently been published by City Lights under the title Sealed in Stone.

From the beginning translating has been for me a way of acquiring more powerful sensing tools, of finding new ways “to say it,” as in the title of Marie Cardinal’s influential book. The poet I translate is, as Virgil for Dante, a guide, a person who shows me the way into new words and new worlds, but whom I must leave to move on. There is a precise moment when translating came to be a necessity, the path I had to follow to, at least vicariously, explore the possibilities of my own language and culture. A long time has passed, but whenever I remember it — even now — I feel the same emotion. I think of it as of one of my ‘moments of being’.

It was a very hot September, and I was doing research at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., reading on the eighteenth and nineteenth century debates about the “American” language. Sitting at my desk in the stacks, immersed in a dimly lit and dusty atmosphere, I was behaving as a serious researcher, trying to get the most out of the hours spent  within that sacred hall of learning. That day, however, on the way to the library, I had stopped at a bookstore and bought Adrienne Rich’s A Dream of a Common Language, which had just appeared. Bored with what I was reading, I took Rich’s book out of its bag, with its pages smelling of fresh print and new words. I read  all the poems, from beginning to end, and then started over again. For the first time I did not  feel one of many anonymous readers. Those poems spoke directly to me. After a whole life spent in school, as a learner and as a teacher, it was also the first time I deeply realized that a poem is not an object to be reverently contemplated, or the starting point for critical and theoretical acrobatics. Rich’s poems had life energy, an energy that they passed on to me and became mine through the simple act of reading, of letting it run through my body and my mind. It was there and then that I decided to translate A Dream, together with other poems by Adrienne Rich. It was also through those poems that I became interested in H. D., whose Trilogy I translated a few years later.

2. A particular language and poetic language

What does a reader look for in a book, Virginia Woolf asks, immediately answering that it is certainly not pages full of sensible and honest words, but love “Meaning by that, where is the sound of the sea and the red of the rose; where is music, imagery, and a voice speaking from the heart?” That is exactly what a reader wants to find also in the translated text. For this to happen the translator must immerse herself in the language of the original poem, in the world of the poet, and come out, like Alice in Wonderland, in the world of her native language, culture and literature and use words and sentences that make the senses, the intellect, the imagination of the reader come alive.  In a poem all the levels of language play a part, every silence contributes to the overall sense. A sense that is neither the sum nor the multiplication of its words’ semantic meanings, nor only the sense the author meant to convey. Life, built in the words by generations of users, still hides behind and beyond the will of the author, large and independent: it makes space for the translator and for the reader. As in the original poem sounds and words can point towards an emotion, an image, a concept, an event that gathers and condenses textual discourse, similarly in a translated text that convergence must be recovered. I can offer as an example an instance taken from my translation of H. D.’s Trilogy. In section 25 of The Walls Do Not Fall, the first book of Trilogy, emotion and desire concentrate in a few words:

Take me home
where canals

between iris-banks:

. . .
where the grasshopper says
Amen, Amen, Amen.

My translation reads:

Portami a casa
dove canali

tra rive di iris

. . .
dove la cavalletta dice
Amen, Amen, Amen.

In H. D.’s text home takes on a complex of senses that go beyond the literal, metaphorical and symbolic meanings usually associated with the word. Home, in the poem, and within the context of Trilogy, is more than “house” or “motherland” as normally interpreted. Word and rhythmic stress falling on it, emphasize the silence that follows, at the end of the line. A silence that prolongs with an echo the [m] sound — but the letter m, associated with mother, is also very important in H. D.’s kabbalistic language — following the aspiration (the spirit) of the [h] sound and the mourning of  the o [ou] sound. Graphic lay-out, sound pattern and line division combine to create an imaginary condition in which aspiration and desire, loss and suffering meet, converging on the word home, that gathers the speaker’s desire for a precise destination. It has not been difficult to translate the poem, for the language is very simple but I had to face a major problem: I could not convey into the Italian word casa all the charged senses present in the original home. I decided then to focus on the vocative verb portami, as well as on movement rather than on destination, associate the verb with the scorrere (flow) of water, and emphasize the connotative effect of  the rolling sound [r], that I iterate in the words tra, rive, and iris. H. D.’s lines were written in 1941, in a London besieged by the fire of German bombs. In the poem the American poet’s yearning for her homeland as a place of hope and salvation fuses with the woman’s and artist’s wish to re-appropriate her own birth, her own mother-muse, and the origins of female spirituality. Her poetry wants to recover the healing power necessary to regenerate a culture beset by recurring wars, by death and destruction. And, though the poem itself is an invocation to the god Amen-Christus, home also alludes to the Nile swamps, the reign of Isis, and to a feminine integrity and divinity that, according to Bachofen, characterized human spirituality before a male-inflected divinity took over. If the word home gathers the symbolic and narrative meanings of the text, the verb flow, isolated as it is in a single line, with the fluidity of its sounds, silence preceding and following it, invites the reader to perceive the scene, to imagine canals that run between banks of irises, appealing not to emotion but to vision.

“She was self-effacing in her attack on those Greek words, she was flamboyantly ambitious,” H. D.writes of Julia, the protagonist of Bid Me To Live (A Madrigal), who is translating a Greek text (162). For Julia “ words themselves held inner words” and if one looked at them carefully enough, or long enough, one would discover a “peculiar twist,” a “magic angle” leading to “that Phoenician track, told by old traders” (162). “Anyone can translate the meaning of the word,” Julia thinks, but she wants “the shape, the feel of it, the character of it, as if it had been freshly minted” (163). As Marina Cvetaeva wrote in a letter to Rilke (255), to write poetry is already to translate from the mother language into another language, a universal language, that crosses boundaries and cultures, a language that surfaces when words lose their exclusive connection with a particular language and attain a new life. It is this language that it is necessary to save in a translation. The translator who is not a poet must learn from poets and from all those who shape language, how to look for a word that exactly fits the experience in life, in dreams, in visions she wants to convey. A translator needs to unlearn her automatic use of language, her unquestioning habits as much as she needs to learn how to choose, or create, words and sounds, how to combine them. She needs to have the greatest command of her own maternal language in order to be able to go beyond it towards Cvetaeva’s  poetic language, or, with H. D., uncover the word within the word.

3. Living between languages

“I translate his books and live between his language and mine,” writes the female protagonist in one of  the stories in Susan Sontag’s I, Etcetera (105). Sontag reminds us that in order to translate, besides passion and vision, one must also have competence. A translator must be able to move between two languages and two cultures that may be close or far apart, or both, close and very much different. For, if it is true that poetry communicates in a universal language, it is also true that it is written in a particular language which has its own rules and its literary and cultural traditions. In Sontag’s story the protagonist, a professional translator, reflecting on the English language and its lack of masculine and feminine gender endings, concludes:

As a translator, I’m aware that this may be the only language in the world that allows me to leave the matter open. (Except for having to steer away from a telltale “his” or “her,” it shouldn’t be hard.) All other languages I know are saturated with gender. A little triumph. I have the pleasure of writing, myself, something that can’t be translated. (126)

A translator can annihilate herself, or hide her presence, just like Julia in Bid Me To Live (A Madrigal) and the narrator in Sontag’s story, who can hide her sexual identity by avoiding the use of gender pronouns. On the contrary, by using gender marks, she can manifest her presence. If the translator is a mediator, certainly her mediation is not neuter. For someone like me, who translates from English into Italian, a major problem is exactly one of rendering a language without grammatical gender into one governed by grammatical gender. Every solution one finds to this problem implies a choice, not only of word, but of world values. Again my best examples come from my translation of H. D.’s Trilogy. In section 40 of “The Walls Do Not Fall” we read: “recover the secret of Isis, / which is: there was One // in the beginning, Creator, / Fosterer, Begetter, the Same-forever // in the papyrus-swamp / in the Judean meadow.” H. D. avoids attributing a precise gender to her divinity, and characterizes it as both creative and pro-creative. In my translation the name of the goddess Isis and her female identity forces me to use feminine gender endings. Here is my Italian translation: “C’era Una / all’inizio, Creatrice // Nutrice, Sempiterna, Generatrice.” I had to simplify and substitute a female goddess to the male god of patriarchal tradition. In this way, however, I lost H. D.’s construction of a divine that comes before, and after, gender polarization and male cultural domination, which is also her contribution to the transformation of Western culture. In another instance, the poetic subject in the text maintains: “we do not forget/ Love, the Creator, // her chariot and white doves” [ section 34]. Her refers to the Love goddess Venus but in Italian the masculine word amore and the feminine Venere are difficult to combine in a sentence. In order to solve the problem I had to delete the masculine article that would go before Amore and give the noun a feminine sense. This is the result: “senza scordare / Amore, la creatrice, // col carro e le bianche colombe.”  In this instance I recovered some of the textual complexity and somehow made up for the loss in the previous example.

            Still different is the case in which a translator has to deal with cultural and symbolic gender, also inscribed in language. A clear instance are the two poems in “The Walls Do Not Fall” H. D. devoted to the sea-shell [4] and to the worm [6]. When referring to the sea-shell and its substitutes, H. D. always uses it, while I had to alternate the feminine of conchiglia to the masculine of artigiano (craftsman) and muratore (master-mason). But further on in the text, when the poetic subject reveals her female identity, I can attribute to the speaking I a feminine gender ending (closed in, complete, immortal / chiusa dentro, piena, immortale), thus making explicit the cultural feminine symbolism of the shell.

In “Power and Danger: Works of a Common Woman” Adrienne Rich writes: “Poetry is above all a concentration of the power of language, which is the power of our ultimate relationship to everything in the universe.” But, she also reminds us, “poetry is, among other things, a criticism of language” (248).

A translator cannot choose the content, but she can choose the language of her translated text and thus recover both the power of poetry and the criticism of language.


Works Cited

Marina Cvetaeva. Il poeta e il tempo. Serena Vitale, ed. Milano: Adelphi, 1986.

Marina Camboni. Come la tela del ragno. Poesie e saggi di Adrienne Rich. Roma: la goliardica,


H. D. Bid Me to Live (A Madrigal). New York: The Dial Press, 1983.

_____. Trilogy: The Walls Do Not Fall, Tribute to the Angels, The Flowering of the Rod.

Foreword by Norman Holmes Pearson. New York: New Directions, 1973.

_____. Trilogia. Edited and translated by Marina Camboni. Caltanissetta-Roma: Sciascia editore,


Adrienne Rich. On Lies, Secrets, and Silence. New York: Norton, 1979.

Susan Sontag. I, Etcetera. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1988.

Virginia Woolf. “All about books.” Collected Essays. Vol. 2, London: Chatto & Windus, 1967.

Bio: Marina Camboni is professor of Anglo-American Literature and Language and chair of the Department of Modern languages, University of Macerata. She has translated and edited a selection of Adrienne Rich’s poetry an prose (1985), of Anne Sexton’s poems (1990) as well as H.D.’s Trilogy (1993). She edited the volumes Utopia in the Present Tense: Walt Whitman and the Language of the New World (1994) and H. D. e il suo mondo (1995). The volume H. D.’s Poetry: “the meaning that words hide,” published by AMS Press, is forthcoming (December 2002). She has extensively written on Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, Allen Ginsberg and Walt Whitman, and on American English; her fields of research are literary semiotics, Anglo-American modernism, poetry and feminist theory and criticism. She is the editor of the series “Esperidi” of Anglo-American poetry for the Publisher Salvatore Sciascia. She directs the national research project: “Networking Women: Subjects, Places, Links Europe-America 1890-1939” with its own website and database:

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