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This review is taken from PN Review 153, Volume 30 Number 1, September - October 2003.

UNGARETTI: MAN OF ANGUISH GIUSEPPE UNGARETTI, Selected Poems. Translated by Andrew Frisardi (Carcanet) £14.95

The task of a translator is a thankless one; the best that one can hope for is that the criticism will be counterbalanced by an equal measure of praise. Where poetry is concerned, such a balm is as rare as phoenix tears.

Much has been written on translating and the un-translatability of poetry: among the plethora of material, Gerald Hammond's essay 'English Translations of the Bible' (in The Literary Guide to the Bible, edited by R. Alter and F. Kermode, 1987) stands out as one of the best overviews of the translating process. The insights he offers in comparing modern English translations of the Bible with the Authorised (King James) Version are relevant to a broad-spectrum of literary texts in translation, be they in prose or verse, from ancient or modern languages - the key elements that need to be taken in consideration when translating are the same: for the purpose of this review I shall draw freely on Hammond's essay.

Frisardi's introduction to the Selected Poems demonstrates a skilful grasp of Ungaretti, albeit with evident awe at the undertaking of rendering into English a language that, as Papini wrote in 1917 (and Montale would paraphrase much later), 'wrings the neck of eloquence'. In execution, however, the translation of individual poems often smoothes out the oddness and ambiguity that is the hallmark of Ungaretti's poetry. The result, when compared with the original on the facing page, is that we do not have a translation of ...

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