18 May 2009


Once I wrote two lines of what would have been an awesome sonnet.

Shall I compare you to my friend Matt Jones?
You are more lovely and not half so drunk.

In San Francisco, while everyone else was napping, I managed to sneak out to City Lights Books. There I stumbled on Sonnets by Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli, translated by Mike Stocks. Translated. Imagine translating sonnets. I opened it up and read one, and it was pretty good, so I bought the book.

I emerged unconvinced that translating sonnets is possible or sane. I don't know what I expected. The translations are real sonnets that rhyme and scan, an amazing technical achievement already, and they have a nice spontaneous feel. Not everything works. Many lines, inevitably, are awkward. The English slang Stocks uses is so different from what I grew up with as to sound inauthentic (a real shame).

Oh but what a pleasure to be introduced to Belli. He wrote these sonnets in Rome in the 1830s. If half of them are as true to life as they feel, it was a city alive with outrageous characters, illicit sex, and poor anger management. The best ones are little candid character sketches, slightly or heavily satirical, of harried mothers, old men, annoyed girlfriends, corrupt priests, and so on. There's one from a furious stutterer. Reading them is like eating cupcakes while falling in love.

I'll post one of the translations that I like, with the warning that this one is atypically clean.

A Very Roman Pastime
The treat that us lot liked the most when small,
the biggest thrill, the real McCoy, the biz,
was finding new-built homes and palaces
and using lumps of coal to trash the walls.
So here we'd doodle numbers, little sums,
and Gordon knots and those of Sollymom,
and there some Lotto stuff; and then move on
to filthy words and pricks and twats and bums.
Or else we'd take a stone or nail or stick
to gouge the plaster out, and draw a pic
so deep we'd hit the bricks and stuff below.
Those were the days all right, my God. Although,
that said, I like to dabble still, it's true...
and when I see a nice white wall, I do.

At the moment, a few more translations are posted on the book's web site.

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