Date of Completion

January 1981


Literature, Comparative




The two complete translations of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, respectively done by Luigi Gamberale in 1887 and by Enzo Giachino in 1950, show an original poet undergoing two interpretive metamorphoses which are due not just to the cultural and linguistic differences between American English and fairly modern or contemporary Italian, but even more to the translators' personalities and backgrounds.^ Gamberale imports Whitman into an Italian literary scene perceptibly affected by the Scapigliatura movement which challenged the entrenched classicism of the time and therefore encouraged our enterprising litterateur to overcome the attendant academic impasse; an effort not to be underrated when we think that the official poet of that age, Giosue Carducci, was torn by the dilemma of classicist rhetoric versus freer and fresher form. Since Gamberale held Carducci in high esteem, it does not surprise us to find comparable discrepancies in his own attempt to endow Whitman with a creditable Italian voice. Gamberale certainly evinces sensitivity when making a "scapigliato" poet of Whitman in keeping with the more advanced taste of his time in Italy. This kind of work elicited favorable responses from the outstanding poets of the late nineteenth century there: Carducci, Giovanni Pascoli, Gabriele d'Annunzio, and also from the early twentieth-century iconoclast Giovanni Papini. In turn, their readiness to accept the American revolutionary poet (mainly though not exclusively through Gamberale) largely rested on the affinity of much of their work (at its unacademic best) to the structural novelty of Leaves of Grass.^ At Cesare Pavese's suggestion, Giachino gives his version of Whitman's book more than half a century later, with marked existentialist traits, and in so doing he stresses the ambiguity of Leaves of Grass's persona. Now the American poet no longer sounds so explicit as he did in Gamberale's version; he is more intimate and elusive. Of course, this new rendition had to supersede the old one, yet it does not dwarf Gamberale's honest effort, which had been unfairly neglected for so many years. In their justified praise of Giachino's up-to-date work, critics often failed to do justice to his predecessor, because they had judged the earlier Foglie d'erba from the vantage point of an intransigent modernist taste, without giving due consideration to the cultural situation with which Gamberale had to cope and which he contributed to modify.^ Giachino's rendition has profited by the whole development of Italian poetry since the early 1900's--from the experimental La Voce period on--hence his victory over his nineteenth-century forerunner is not only a matter of greater personal creativity. At that, neither translator is a poet in his own right, but the extent of their success in coming to terms with Whitman's innovative poetry has proved them both to be poetically gifted, and this is emphatically truer of Giachino. Translation can be a literary genre in itself; a translator of merit helps to reshape his national literature as much as any other artist. ^