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Translating the 'Zibaldone'

There is something about an anomaly that draws you in and makes you want to know more. Scientists revel in this feeling on a daily basis, as it can be the difference between discovery and defeat, between the mediocre and the miracle cure. But the rest of us are just as fascinated when we spot an incongruity, which is what makes the story of the University of Birmingham's Zibaldone Project so enthralling to the outsider.

Here we have a piece of literature in the Zibaldone di pensieri that is so widely known in Italy that pizzerias are named after it, yet in the English-speaking world it barely warrants a footnote. Its author, Giacomo Leopardi is one of the most celebrated poets in Italy, yet it has taken over 175 years since his death for his most important work to receive a full English translation.

Working in collaboration with Franco D'Intino, Michael Caesar has overseen the translation and editing of a critical edition of the Zibaldone for what will be seven years by the time the book is published next year. So why has it taken more than a century since it was first published for a translation to be considered and then completed?

“It is because it is so huge,” says Caesar of the hefty notebook, which comes in at around 4,500 manuscript pages, with all kinds of notations and added thoughts. “It is just so daunting, frankly. In addition to the challenges of Leopardi’s prose, which is of the highest quality throughout, we have had to be sensitive to the fact that this was a private notebook that Leopardi kept with him all his life, one that was not intended for publication in its present form, full of second thoughts and additions and deletions. Selected translations can only do partial justice to the impact of its sheer complexity and size (over a million words), and for that reason we felt very strongly that only a full translation, with a complete new commentary and notes, would be worth undertaking.”

Leopardi, who was born in 1798, began the work when he was an already prodigious 19-year-old, finishing the work when he was 34-years-old. However, the work was mostly composed in creative spikes in 1821 and 1823, with over 4,000 of the pages being written by 1824. Leopardi died in 1837 at the age of 39, but the text was not published in any form until 1898. So even the Italians had to wait over 60 years before they were able to enjoy it.

Caesar, who is Emeritus Professor of Italian Studies at the University of Birmingham, says that the name Zibaldone refers to something like a hotch-potch, as the book is a miscellany of musings and ideas. “If you give any of those names to it, diary or notebook, that in some way constrains it,” says Caesar.  “He almost used it as a dismissive phrase, like 'my book of bits and pieces', but it has become canonical in Italy. In fact, the work can also be read as a very early example of a non-linear text. Any single entry can be connected to one or more others: the book is a kind of net. Indexes are indispensable here, and Leopardi even made one of his own. The actual content of the diary, with its pitiless analyses of modernity, ranges from philosophical and moral questions, questions concerning man, nature and society, literary matters of course, the special status of poetry, through to scientific, political and linguistic issues – Leopardi was recognized in his own day as an outstanding philologist as well as poet.”

Caesar has been connected to the work of Leopardi since he began his academic career, falling in love with his poetry and then researching many other aspects of this gifted writer. He sees the translation as a once-in-a-lifetime project, which only an exceptional combination of resources, opportunity and expertise could bring about.

“The importance of the Zibladone is linked to the importance of Leopardi and he is one of the greatest Italian poets,” he says. “Some people would say second only to Dante. The most original and the most thought provoking of Italian poets, not only of the 19th century but of modern times as well. More importantly, perhaps, I think that there are a lot of things that we can ask of him. 'How do we reconcile the irresistible human desire for pleasure with the certainty of its disappointment?' Or, of human nature, in his own words: ‘if you are merely weak and worthless, dust and shadow, why aspire so high?’ If you can’t have that sort of dialogue going on with writers, what they are saying to you and what you can still ask of them, then they really are dead, as Gabriel Josipovici has said. There is a kind of interaction between Leopardi and his readers which is very powerful, which will be continued and enhanced by the availability of the Zibaldone in English.”

Ann Goldstein, a principal translator and editorial advisor for the project, was largely new to the Zibaldone, so she was able to see the effect of the work on new eyes. The language both challenged and thrilled her, as did the richness of the work.

“When I actually started working on it I was amazed,” she says. “First of all, there is such an astonishing range of references and interests, both scholarly and more general. And although the writing can be very dense and scholarly, even pedantic, I got a strong sense of Leopardi as a mind, of the process of his thinking as he works out ideas, or works through them. In a way translating (and editing) Leopardi can, sentence by sentence, seem like solving a puzzle, but at the end not only do you have a sentence, with subject and verb and all the clauses fitting together, but you also have a brilliant thought.”

Caesar's partner on the project, Franco D'Intino, agrees with the assertion that this translation will make huge advances when it comes to recognition of Leopardi's importance. D'Intino, who is Director of the Leopardi Centre at the University of Birmingham and one of the leading Leopardi scholars of modern times, strongly believes that the lack of an English edition has definitely held Leopardi's reputation back.

“All romantic and post-romantic poets – Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, Novalis, Poe, Baudelaire – established their reputation thanks also to their theoretical writings,” says D'Intino. “Leopardi has been neglected as a poet partly because he was not known as a philosopher and a thinker. The translation will appeal to a wide-ranging readership, interested in aesthetics, ethics, politics, science, anthropology, sociology, and in the intellectual history of the 19th century. People will find that Leopardi anticipated ideas and ways of thinking popularized by other authors decades later. His thoughts mean much more to us than they did to his contemporaries. This will bring, in my view, many readers to his poetry, and Leopardi to the canon of modernity.”

Zibaldone will be published in English in July 2013.

You can see more about the project on the University of Birmingham website (opens in a new window).

Feature article by Iain Aitch

Images - top image - p.4295 of the Zibaldone, on which Leopardi announces with a flourish that he has completed his own index to the notebook on 14 October 1827 in Florence. There are still 231 pages to go before he pens his last entry. The image is taken from a photographic reproduction of the manuscript in ten volumes published by the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, in an edition edited by Emilio Peruzzi and published between 1989 and 1994.

Bottom image - A photo of the research team taken in the library of the Palazzo Leopardi, where the poet studied and wrote for most of the first twenty-six years of his life. It was opened to the local public exactly 200 years ago, in 1812. The line-up comprises, l-r: Antonio Moresco (writer and journalist), Carmela Magri (keeper of the library), Richard Dixon (translator), Franco D'Intino (editor), Michael Caesar (editor), Ann Goldstein (translator), David Gibbons (translator), Pamela Williams (translator), and Martin Thom (translator and AHRC Fellow).

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