The interpretation of a literary text always follows a method reflecting the
cultural background against which the interpretation of the text occurs.
Accordingly, Dante's "selva oscura" is interpreted in the twentieth century of
Freud as a metaphor for nervous depression: themal du siècle. The historicist
school in vogue during the 1950s, on the other hand, saw the selva oscura as
a symbol of the political controversies to which Dante was exposed in his
youth. This second interpretation is a symbol, as it can be appreciated only
with knowledge of the conventions of the age and the relative dictates
affording the basis for such a reading. The symbol is the product of historicist
self-identification; the metaphor, on the other hand, is the sap that oozes from
the trunk of the Classics.
Connotation is the aura of a text. The position it occupies in the culture of
which it is the expression, the progeny of texts spawned by it, the fuzzy and
arguable clues of interpretation with which it tests its readers: all this produces
a host of "added values", outside of the text, constituting its "archaeological"
element¾and the literary translator who fails to master this aspect will be, as
far as the classics are concerned, up a gum tree.
One of the most significant scenes in theOdyssey is that in which Ulysses,
tracing the events portrayed on his shield, illustrates the fall of Troy to the
court of the Phaeacians. In this scene, Ulysses translates for himself the
events of which he personally had been protagonist, realizing how at the
moment when experience becomes language, all becomes recollection, and
therefore "translation" of an experience. Every work of literature is a
hermeneutic to be shared with the translator.
In the century just ended, the classics all dealt with the theme of reminiscence.
Joyce'sUlysses is an archaeological work parexcellence. The episode in the
library, with its journey through the English language from Chaucer to the
modern writers, is a trip in the collective memory that the translator must have
the courage to introject as a challenge, but to avoid resolving in methodology.
From the Sicilian poets to theLaborynthus penned by Sanguineti, the Italian
language too has made its synchronical journey. In France, the road runs from
Le Jeu de Robin et Marion to Jarry, with his Pataphysique. In Germany, from
the Minnesänger to the Alfred Döblin of Berlin Alexanderplatz. Connotation is
substantially a story of ideas expressed through style.
Every perception has its perspective. What is important is that metaphor
should not be reduced to symbol. Anyone attempting the hard task of
translating that chapter of Wolfram von Eschenbach'sParsifalin which the
young protagonist, witnessing the ceremony of the unveiling of the Holy Grail,
listens to Amfortas reviewing the names of the precious stones brought by the
handmaids, must be fully aware of the fact that in the Middle Ages of the Holy
Roman Empire these would represent corresponding virtues of the human
intellect. Topaz is the intuitive discernment of the divine, emerald is the heart
of faith, ruby the prescience of the initiate... There is another list of precious
stones in thePortrait of Dorian Grayby Oscar Wilde; albeit in this instance the
connotation is certainly not metaphysical. The mediaeval stones are ideas
made luminescence, whereas Wilde's jewels are superb visual red herrings.
The philosophy of the German Middle Ages is one of appearance, whereas the
aesthetics in Decadentism are those of semblance. There are dramatic
opposites of connotation in the two languages.
Similarly, when Dante in theConviviodefines inspiration as "Amor che nella
mente mi ragiona"(Love that within my mind discourses with me), to identify this
"reasoning" as "logos" would be a great abuse. It corresponds rather to
"perception" in English, to "vision" in French, to "Einfühlung" in German:
something one can almost reach out and touch. The Middle Ages were
connoted by visual codes. Cycles of frescoes on the walls of churches
afforded a textbook from which the meaning of the Holy Scriptures could be
comprehended. The representation of reality, in mediaeval times, was the
supreme metaphysical exercise. We are a considerably long way here from
that "free indirect discourse" on which the literature of the twentieth century is
based. Mediaeval literature ignores perspective; that is to say it ignores
consciousness. The literature of the twentieth century has to do with little else
The way leading from revealed to imagined truth is mapped by paths that find
their synthesis in one of the most solidly avant-garde works ever conceived:
Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne. In the catalogue of mishaps that result in
the protagonist of this 'autobiographical' novel actually being born only when
the story is almost at an end, a significant part is played by the figure of the
doctor who delivers Mrs Shandy of the child. The tardiness with which this
'man-midwife' performs his duty has a decisive effect on subsequent events. In
the third volume, the doctor, astride his modest pony, arrives at the Shandy
home to attend the expectant mother, only to collide in the yard outside with a
coach horse, ridden by the servant who has just been despatched in haste to
fetch him. Slapstick comedy, and with the mother already going into labour
upstairs, while in the parlour below, the uncle of the unborn Tristram holds
forth on his favourite topic of military fortifications. Riding his hobby-horse.
Indeed the hobby-horse is a theme recurring throughout the book, employed
by Sterne no doubt to deride the infantilism displayed by individuals in seeking
out metaphysical connotations for their whims and fancies."De gustibus non
est disputandum", declares the narrator, "there is no disputing against Hobby-
Horses". Indeed the hobby-horse is the wooden horse of the merry-go-round,
that "caval de bois" to which Verlaine dedicates one of his most sinister
poems, making the roundabout a symbol of the obsessiveness with which men
nail themselves to the cross of their own destinies. And in the broom-handle
variant, it is the conveyance of witches flying to their sabbaths... At all events,
horses real and metaphorical play an important part in Sterne's novel, and the
connotative entertainment must not be lost in translation.
Another example of tricky connotation: John Keats, in Hyperion, seeks to
present a modern equivalent of Ovid'sMetamorphosis. At the beginning of the
poem, the Titan Saturn sits on the ground, having been defeated by Jupiter.
"Deep in the shady sadness of a vale", says Keats. "Deep" signifies
"remoteness" as well as "depth", both in the direct sense and in its figurative
metaphysical connotation. "Sadness" is the English rendering of that
"Melancholy" seen by Ovid as reflecting the essential character of Saturn. It
happens also that the Saxon word "saldness" indicates the condition of an
individual belonging to the "Aldi", of noble birth. In Keats, therefore, the notion
of Melancholy - the Latin connotation for the darkest of the four humours -
has been replaced by a predetermined genetic characteristic: "saldness".
Sadness in Saxon culture is a distinguishing mark of noble-mindedness, and it
could hardly be otherwise for a people who in maintaining their independence
from the Roman Empire had paid the price of total cultural isolation. So, to
translate "sadness" as "made noble by melancholy" would not amount to an
abuse, in connotative terms. And there is still that "shady". Strictly speaking
this comes from "shade" in the sense of "shadow", but a shadow can also be a
reflection, as of a face in the mirror, or an image, as of the memory the dead
leave behind them in the minds of the living. To render "shady" as "like the
image of the dead" would certainly be an overinterpretation, but it does untie
an inextricable knot of connotations. Have we now gained a sufficiently clear
picture? The second line speaks of a "healthy breath of morn", where "healthy"
is "health-giving", and "breath of morn" the early morning air. The passage
derives a dismal connotation from the idea that Keats could be prophesying
his own consumption, of which the spasms would intensify as the day wore on.
If so, then "shady" is the shadow of Keats in death that induces Keats the
author to keep breathing the "breath of health", in order to erform the
obligations imposed by his own Shade.
In effect, the inner life encompasses the most occult level of connotation in a
classic. Often, the stylistic device through which the unconscious expresses
itself is a rhythmical figure. Telling the tale ofThe Raven, Edgar Allan Poe
delineates a methodology of inspiration that is wholly paradoxical, combining
the utmost fascination with the most inflexible, almost 'mechanical' rigour. And
yet, the translator who does not render the obsessive ring of that"nevermore"
enunciated by the bird of ill omen come by stealth into the neoclassical
chamber where a noble spirit laments a prematurely departed lover, against
the connotative backdrop of Calvinist hymnody with its regularly recurring
compound adverbs, indicating the irrevocability of fate, will fail to capture the
tolling of a bell implicit in the solemn call. Neither will there be any perception
of that sense of unnaturalness, of deviation from the cosmic order, created by
the fact of selecting the mindless mimicry of Corvus Corax as the mouthpiece
for this sacred voice. To translate"nevermore"as being "never more" or "never
again" (mai piùin Italian) would mean splitting the adverb and changing a
single multi-syllabic utterance into a resounding and assertive peroration. An
archaic form of never (giammaiin Italian) would be insincere. The only solution
is to widen the scope by imitating a connotatively analogous model. In A
Zacinto, Foscolo's initial "né più mai" (roughly, "nor ever again") epitomizes a
long interior monologue of which the connotation is redundancy; but whereas
Poe's method is to raise the intensity gradually, by accumulation, Foscolo
begins his poem at a point where brooding over pain has already dissolved in
the immanence of contemplation. Rendering "nevermore" as "né più mai"
means a loss of effect dramaturgically, although an additional élan is derived
from the urgency of the connotation.
Thus, the art of connotation operates within two parameters: historical memory
and consistency with the interior dramaturgy of the author. These move in two
opposite directions, never coinciding. The one is synchronic, the other
diachronic. One places phenomena in the evolution of language and culture,
the other isolates their unique significance. In selecting which parameter to
favour, for an effective translation, one must not neglect the need - in the
case of a poetical text - for "vertical reading". Assonances, rhymes, internal
references represent the most important connotative element in a text. The
inscription that Dante reads on the Gate of Hell,
Per me si va tra nella città dolente
Per me si va nell'eterno dolore
Per me si va tra la perduta gente
creates a vertical and increasingly powerful association between "dolente",
"gente" and "dolore" which, through redundancy, encapsulates the substance
of the entire cantica. The translator in this instance must do everything to find
a vertically assonant succession of words capable of producing the same
effect in the target language. Similarly, in Hyperion, Keats creates a vertical
association in lines three and four between "eve's one star" and "quiet as a
stone", suggesting a paradoxical connotation: the assonance between star
and stone, whereby the idea of the star being dead - notwithstanding its light
still reaches the Earth - is planted in the reader's consciousness. It is in this
symbology that the aura of the entire poem is shrouded. To fail to render it
would mean shifting the connotative axis completely.
The problem of connotation therefore has to do with the mental space that a
text ultimately occupies in the consciousness of the reader. A translator who
alters its topography will have committed the worst abuse possible. After all,
when Gertrude Stein says "a rose is a rose is a rose", she is seeking simply to
express this obviousness of meaning that springs from a correct connotative
strategy, which says that the respect paid to a text is the awareness of the
spaces in which its drama is played out. The last words spoken by Hamlet,
"the rest is silence", open a window on that same cosmic time whose
immensity the Prince had pondered in his famous soliloquy. An Italian
translator back in the 1960s rendered "that is the question" as "tutto qui?" This
is what happens when we come up short on the subject of connotation...