THE TRANSLATOR’S (INTER)VIEW. CAROLINE MALDONADO ON ISABELLA (SMOKESTACK BOOKS)
Radical poetry publisher Smokestack Books is now publishing Isabella, the first complete UK edition of poems by Isabella Morra, a powerful voice in sixteenth-century Italian literature. Isabella lived her life in strict isolation in the family castle of Valsinni. At twenty-six, Isabella was murdered by her brothers in an honour killing. Her forgotten poems are now re-discovered. The book also includes poems by the translator Caroline Maldonado in the attempt to ‘find’ the lost Isabella and to explore her life and her fate and the relevance of her story in our times.
Caroline Maldonado answers our questions about the book and her experience of translating a sixteenth-century text. How was the poetry of this young poet discovered? What type of research lies behind the translator’s work? Caroline tells us more about Isabella’s journey.
In your foreword, you recount how you first discovered the work of this young Renaissance poet. How did that happen? And what struck you about this poet when you first read her verses?
I came across the poems and life of Isabella Morra when I was working on poems by Rocco Scotellaro, which I co-translated with Allen Prowle (Your Call Keeps Us Awake, Smokestack Books 2013). Both poets were born in Basilicata in Southern Italy and wrote powerfully about the impoverished land although they were separated by four hundred years. I first read her poems there and was struck by their emotional power and by the frustration expressed, which I felt is shared with young women in many parts of the world today: that of being an educated woman, aware of developments far from her home that she wished to participate in, yet imprisoned by her own circumstances. I also discovered that she was killed by her brothers in an honour killing when she was only 26, which made the poems even more poignant for me.
In your foreword, you introduce the life of Isabella Morra as well as the socio-political situation of her time. How important are Isabella’s personal story and the historical and social context to understand her poetry?
Of course you can enjoy the poems by themselves and have a direct emotional response to them, but for a contemporary reader I think it helps to know the context they were born out of, particularly when the poems refer to it.
How much research lies behind a translation and how important is it for your writing?
I’d approach every project differently but in this case I read as many studies as I could get hold of, very much helped by friends in Italy, including in the tourist office in Valsinni, the village where Isabella lived, although information about her is limited. I chose to write an extensive introduction to this English version about her life and death as it offers an additional dimension to the understanding of her poems.
You also mention visiting the places where Isabella lived. How did this experience influence your writing?
For me those visits were crucial. They helped me to see Isabella and the features she refers to in her poems: the wild forests, hills overlooking the sea, the river where she wept ‘streams’. I was also particularly lucky to have been shown around the medieval castle where she lived by the present owner. Landscape also inspires my own poems and fed into the second half of the book.
Did Isabella’s 1500s language and style create any particular difficulties? How have you tackled them in the translation?
Isabella’s poems were written according to the convention of the times. The originals are ten Petrarchan sonnets with tight rhymes and three canzoni, long poems with a complex syllabic and rhyming structure. The main challenge is always to find the balance between preserving fidelity to the original form and register and accessibility for the contemporary reader and to some extent this is subjective. My aim was to write as close to the original form as possible without losing the emotional expressiveness and the musicality which the Italian language brings with it. From my first clumsy attempts to the present it involved much re-writing over a period of years, reading aloud to hear how each poem sounds and receiving feedback from other poets.
You have also co-translated the work of Rocco Scotellaro for Smokestack Books. As a translator, did you approach a man’s and now a woman’s voice differently? If so, how?
I don’t approach them differently but I respond to each of them with my own sensibility as a woman poet myself and this may inform the translation – it isn’t a technical matter.
How do your own poems in the book intermingle with and complete Isabella’s story?
My poems start with my attempt to find Isabella, my travels down to Tricarico in Basilicata where Scotellaro lived. He died in the middle of the twentieth century and is very much alive in the memory of Tricarico’s present inhabitants. Isabella was buried in an unmarked grave and we don’t even know what she looked like. My poems are mainly in the second half of the book. They aren’t narrative in the sense of telling the story of her life but are more an imaginative attempt to get close to her using a variety of voices, including my own, hers and her mother’s. I don’t attempt to describe her death directly, for example, but instead imagine her brothers killing a young boar.
How does Isabella’s poetry fit within that of her period and Italian literature in general?
The history of poetry has been written from a man’s perspective until relatively recently and many fine women poets remain to be discovered and translated. In Italy during the Renaissance there were several great women poets. One of the best known was Vittoria Colonna, who exchanged sonnets with Michelangelo, but there were many others who now hold their rightful places in the history of Italian literature But whereas they were all engaged with the vital cultural centres in towns and courts, Isabella lived in the poor southern countryside, an area riven with plague, wars and brigands, and although aware of literary developments was unable to participate in the cultural life of the country or achieve the fame she sought in her lifetime. It has taken a while for her name to become known, even in her own country. In the nineteenth century, the great Italian poet, Leopardi, is said to have been influenced by her poems in the way he wrote about his own landscape around Recanati and in the early twentieth century, she was ‘rediscovered’ by the philosopher and intellectual, Benedetto Croce. She now holds her place in the canon of Italian poetry and has even had a women’s film festival set up in her name!
How is Isabella’s work relevant to us today?
Her subjects are universal: love, loss and spiritual longing.
Do you have any favourite verses from the book?
It’s hard to choose but I love this sonnet although the language isn’t typical of the others. Written in a rhetorical style as much influenced by Dante as Petrarch, it expresses her desperation and even appears to presage her own fate:Here once again, O hell-like wasted valley,
Are there other poetry books in translation from Italian that you’d like to recommend? Are there any books not yet translated into English that you hope will become available soon to English-speaking readers?
I would like to see many more collections of poems by Italian women translated into English. I have been commissioned by Smokestack Books to translate poems by Laura Fusco – entirely different from Isabella - a poet writing about contemporary issues, the plight of migrants on the move, in a free incantatory style. Worth looking out for following its publication in March next year!
We kindly thank poet and translator Caroline Maldonado
The translator Caroline Maldonado will be reading from Isabella’s poems and her own written in response to the young woman’s life and tragic fate Saturday 1st June at the Poetry Café in London.
More about the translator:
Caroline Maldonado is a poet and translator, living in the UK and Italy. Her work has appeared in many poetry journals and in anthologies, most recently Poems for Grenfell Tower (Onslaught Press 2018). Her poetry publications include Your call keeps us awake, co-translations with Allen Prowle of poems by the Italian poet, Rocco Scotellaro (Smokestack Books 2013), What they say in Avenale (Indigo Dreams Publishing 2014), Isabella (Smokestack Books 2019) which includes translations of poems by Renaissance poet, Isabella Morra, and Maldonado’s own poems and forthcoming Liminal, poems by Laura Fusco translated from Italian (Smokestack Books 2020).