Translation Trans-Laura Trans-laureate
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Alfred Fredericks, 1874
by Daniel Bosch
Ladies with an attitude
Fellows that were in the mood
Don’t just stand there, let’s get to it
Strike a pose, there’s nothing to it
On April 6, 1327, in Avignon, in the Kingdom of Arles (the seat of the Holy Father), an Italian scholar named Petrarch saw and fell for a young girl named Laura. She was already married. Petrarch would eventually meet and speak to his beloved, but their IRL interactions would neither consummate nor quell his obsession, and the three-hundred and sixty-six poems of Petrarch’s Canzoniere followed. These songs and sonnets dedicated to Laura are foundational texts for both Italian vernacular literature and for that strand of the European literary tradition that expresses unrequited, objectifying desire.
All my book learning is belated. By the time I learned anything about Petrarch (in college), I was already his half-assed acolyte, the serial fictionalizer and objectifier of each of the three women to whom I had said “I love you.” A slow learner, I had yet become adept at taking romanticizing narrative frames from books and movies and translating them into my Californian vernacular.
Nothing about my IRL interactions with a Suzy Fox or a Lucy Comfort or a Michele Song-of-the-Wolf could stop me from imagining that each one in turn was perfect for me. (The women may have been fictions, but these names are real.) I mean no criticism of these women to write that in “loving” Suzy or Lucy or Michele I was not having IRL experiences—I was all the time already translating them, and, like Bottom the weaver, being myself “translated.” The little canzonetta I sang, sometimes to them, but always to myself, told me how perfect I was because I could keep so much fire burning with so little fuel.
Are all “love” relationships founded on already-written tropes, already-performed performances? Petrarch’s Canzoniere comprises not a year of songs, but a year and a day, and for me that “extra” 24 hours of music implies an extension of that year into an eternity. Yet just as Petrarch fell into song on an extra special day, when I read John Millington Synge’s translations of the Canzoniere I feel that I, too, could trace my singing of objectifying songs to a particular moment in time, even if it is one I cannot quite locate.
On April 6, 1964, perhaps, or April 6, 1968, or April 6, 1975, or maybe November 20, 1977, on any one or on all of those days perhaps I heard an already-married woman speak in an Irish brogue and I fell for it—fell for her—fell for the sound of a part of myself translated. Saying Synge’s prose versions of these songs aloud, I recall how my mother, second-generation Irish, born in Pennsylvania in 1923, and christened Mary Clare, with not even a trace of Irish accent in her own speech, could “brogue” like it was 1990, or 1999. When she did, she loved best to tell little people (my brothers and sisters and myself) stories about the little people, or to translate her mother’s account of the terrors of trans-Atlantic crossing. When I read Synge’s Petrarch I am falling still.
Petrarch met Laura, fell, and became the laureate of love; it was my fate to be born to Mary Clare, mother and ventriloquist of her Irish ancestors, and so to be subject to the sound of Synge’s translations of a thirteenth century Italian into an early 20th century Irishman’s vernacular English.
I invite you to translate your own family romance as you read these fourteen translations aloud. Won’t you sing Synge, with me—and with Madonna?
Come On, Brogue!
“Laura in Death” by Petrarch: Translated from the Italian by John Millington Synge
Laura being Dead, Petrarch Finds Trouble in All the Things of the Earth
Life is flying from me, not stopping an hour, and Death is making great strides following my track. The days about me and the days passed over me, are bringing me desolation, and the days to come will be the same surely.
All things that I am bearing in mind, and all things I am dread of, are keeping me in troubles, in this way one time, in that way another time, so that if I wasn’t taking pity on my own self it’s long ago I’d have given up my life.
If my dark heart has any sweet thing it is turned away from me, and then farther off I see the great winds where I must be sailing. I see my good luck far away in the harbour, but my steersman is tired out, and the masts and the ropes on them are broken, and the beautiful lights where I would be always looking are quenched.
He Asks his Heart to Raise Itself Up to God
What is it you’re thinking, lonesome heart? For what is it you’re turning back ever and always to times that are gone away from you? For what is it you’re throwing sticks on the fire when it is your own self that is burning?
The little looks and sweet words you’ve taken one by one and written down among your songs, are gone up into the Heavens, and it’s late, you know well, to go seeking them on the face of the earth.
Let you not be giving new life every day to your own destruction, and following a fool’s thoughts for ever. Let you seek Heaven when there is nothing left pleasing on the earth, and it a poor thing if a great beauty, the like of her, would be destroying your peace and she living or dead.
He Wishes he might Die and Follow Laura
In the years of her age the most beautiful and the most flowery—the time Love has his mastery—Laura, who was my life, has gone away leaving the earth stripped and desolate. She has gone up into the Heavens, living and beautiful and naked, and from that place she is keeping her Lordship and her rein upon me, and I crying out: Ohone, when will I see that day breaking that will be my first day with herself in Paradise?
My thoughts are going after her, and it is that way my soul would follow her, lightly, and airily, and happily, and I would be rid of all my great troubles. But what is delaying me is the proper thing to lose me utterly, to make me a greater weight on my own self.
Oh, what a sweet death I might have died this day three years to-day!
Laura is Ever Present to him
If the birds are making lamentation, or the green banks are moved by a little wind of summer, or you can hear the waters making a stir by the shores that are green and flowery.
That’s where I do be stretched out thinking Heaven shows me though hidden in the earth of love, writing my songs, and itself that I set my eyes on, and hear the way that she feels my sighs and makes an answer to me.
“Alas,” I hear her say, “why are you using yourself up before the time is come, and pouring out a stream of tears so sad and doleful?
“You’d do right to be glad rather, for in dying I won days that have no ending, and when you saw me shutting up my eyes I was opening them on the light that is eternal.”
He Recalls his Visions of her
How many times, running away from all people and from myself if I was able, I go out to my little nook, with my two eyes crying tears on my breast and on the grass under me, and breaking the air with the great sighs I do be giving.
How many times, and I heavy with sorrow, I have stretched out in shady places and woods, seeking always in my thoughts for herself that death has taken from me, and calling out to her one time and again that she might come. Then in some form of a high goddess I see her rising up out of the clearest pool of the Sorga, my sweet river, and putting herself to sit upon the bank.
Or other days I have seen her on the fresh grass and she picking flowers like a living lady, yet showing me in her look she has a pity for myself.
He Ceases to Speak of her Graces and her Virtues which are No More
The eyes that I would be talking of so warmly, and the arms, and the hands, and the feet, and the face, that are after calling me away from myself and making me a lonesome man among all people.
The hair that was of shining gold, and brightness of the smile that was the like of an angel’s surely, and was making a paradise of the earth, are turned to a little dust that knows nothing at all.
And yet I myself am living; it is for this I am making a complaint, to be left without the light I had such a great love for, in good fortune and bad, and this will be the end of my songs of love, for the vein where I had cleverness is dried up, and everything I have is turned to complaint only.
He is Jealous of the Heavens and the Earth
What a grudge I am bearing the earth that has its arms about her, and is holding that face away from me, where I was finding peace from great sadness.
What a grudge I am bearing the Heavens that are after taking her, and shutting her in with greediness, the Heavens that do push their bolt against so many.
What a grudge I am bearing the blessed saints that have got her sweet company, that I am always seeking; and what a grudge I am bearing against Death, that is standing in her two eyes, and will not call me with a word.
The Fine Time of the Year Increases Petrarch’s Sorrow
The south wind is coming back, bringing the fine season, and the flowers, and the grass, her sweet family, along with her. The swallow and the nightingale are making a stir, and the spring is turning white and red in every place.
There is a cheerful look on the meadows, and peace in the sky, and the sun is well pleased, I’m thinking, looking downward, and the air and the waters and the earth herself are full of love, and every beast is turning back looking for its mate.
And what a coming to me is great sighing and trouble, which herself is drawing out of my deep heart, herself that has taken the key of it up to Heaven.
And it is this way I am, that the singing birds, and the flowers of the earth, and the sweet ladies, with the grace and comeliness, are the like of a desert to me, and wild beasts astray in it.
He Understands the Great Cruelty of Death
My flowery and green age was passing away, and I feeling a chill in the fires had been wasting my heart, for I was drawing near the hillside that is above the grave.
Then my sweet enemy was making a start, little by little, to give over her great wariness, the way she was wringing a sweet thing out of my sharp sorrow. The time was coming when Love and Decency can keep company, and lovers may sit together and say out all things are in their hearts. But Death had his grudge against me, and he got up in the way, like an armed robber, with a pike in his hand.
He Considers the Reasons for his Verses
If I had thought that the voice of my grief would have a value I would have made a greater number surely of my first sorrow and in a finer manner: but she who made me speak them out and who stood in the summit of my thoughts is dead at this time, and I am not able to make these rough verses sweet or clear.
And in surety those times all I was wishing was to ease my sad heart in any way I was able and not to gain an honour for myself, and it was weep I was seeking and not the honour men might win of it, and now it is the one pleasure I am seeking that she would call to me and I silent and tired out.
The Sight of Laura’s House Reminds him of the Great Happiness he has Lost
Is this the nest in which my Phoenix put on her feathers of gold and purple, my Phoenix that did hold me under her wing and she drawing out sweet words and sighs from me? Oh, root of my sweet misery, where is that beautiful face, where light would be shining out, the face that did keep my heart like a flame burning? She was without a match upon the earth, I hear them say, and now she is happy in the Heavens.
And she has left me after her dejected and lonesome, turning back all times to the place I do be making much of for her sake only, and I seeing the night on the little hills where she took her last flight up into the Heavens, and where one time her eyes would make sunshine and it night itself.
He Sends his Rhymes to the Tomb of Laura to Pray her to Call him to her
Let you go down, sorrowful rhymes, to the hard rock is covering my dear treasure, and then let you call out till herself that is in the heavens will make answer, though her dead body is lying in a shady place.
Let you say to her that it is tired out I am with being alive, with steering in bad seas, but I am going after her step by step, gathering up what she let fall behind her.
It is of her only I do be thinking, and she living and dead, and now I have made her with my songs so that the whole world may know her, and give her the love that is her due.
May it please her to be ready for my own passage that is getting near: may she be there to meet me, herself in the Heavens, that she may call me, and draw me after her.
Only he who Mourns her and Heaven that Possesses her Knew her While she Lived
Ah, Death, it is you that have left the world cold and shady, with no sun over it. It’s you have left Love without eyes or arms to him, you’ve left liveliness stripped, and beauty without a shape to her, and all courtesy in chains, and honesty thrown down into a hole. I am making lamentation alone, though it isn’t myself only has a cause to be crying out; since you, Death, have crushed the first seed of goodness in the whole world, and with it gone what place will we find a second?
The air and the earth and the seas would have a good right to be crying out—and they pitying the race of men that is left without herself, like a meadow without flowers, or a ring robbed of jewellery.
The world didn’t know her the time she was in it, but I myself knew her—and I left now to be weeping in this place; and the Heavens knew her, the Heavens that are giving an ear this day to my crying out.
Laura Waits for Him in Heaven
The first day she passed up and down through the Heavens, gentle and simple were left standing, and they in great wonder, saying one to the other:
“What new light is that? What new beauty at all? The like of herself hasn’t risen up these long years from the common world.”
And herself, well pleased with the Heavens, was going forward, matching herself with the most perfect that were before her, yet one time and another, waiting a little, and turning her head back to see if myself was coming after her. It’s for that I’m lifting up all my thoughts and will into the Heavens, because I do hear her praying that I should be making haste for ever.
All prose translations except “He Recalls his Visions of her” from The Complete Works of John M. Synge, New York, Random House, 1935
Synge’s version of “He Recalls his Visions of Her” I have taken from composer Gavin Bryars discussion of his musical settings of Synge at here.
For further reading in Synge (and Petrarch), please see:
Collected Works of J.M. Synge. General editor: Robin Skelton. Oxford University Press: London, 1962.
J.M. Synge: Translations. Edited from the original manuscripts by Robin Skelton. pp. vii. 24. Dolmen Press: Dublin, 1961.
Francesco Petrarca–Alcuni sonetti da “Laura in morte” con versioni inglesi da J. M. Synge.
- M. Synge–Some sonnets from “Laura in death”, after the Italian of Francesco Petrarch. (Edited, with an introduction, by Robin Skelton.) Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1971
The writings of J. M. Synge. London: Thames and Hudson, 1971.
Petrarch’s Canzoniere has been translated by Mark Musa, Indiana University Press, 1996.
A.S. Kline’s translation of the Canzoniere is available here.
Irish poet, playwright, travel writer, folklorist, and ethnographer John Millington Synge (1871-1909), one of the founders of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, is best known for “The Playboy of the Western World,” which outraged many audience members and induce riots at its first two performances in January 1907.
About the Author:
In 1998, Daniel Bosch was awarded the first Boston Review Poetry Prize for four poems riffing on films starring Tom Hanks. His work has been published in journals such as Poetry, Slate, The TLS, Agni, Berfrois, The New Republic, The Huffington Post, The Fortnightly Review, andThe Paris Review, and a collection of his poems, Crucible, was published by Other Press in 2002. His set of triolets called Octaves is downloadable for free at beardofbees.com. Daniel has taught writing at Boston University, Harvard University, Tufts University, Merrimack College, Walnut Hill School for the Arts and Emory University.