Learning Languages through Poetry: Giuseppe Ungaretti

So here we are again with another exploration of translation. This time I’ll be working with two languages, Italian and French.

I first heard of Giuseppe Ungaretti in Strasbourg, France. I took a class in modernist poetry and studied him along with Charles Baudelaire and Paul Eluard. I say I studied him, but I never actually had much contact with the material at that time. In fact, I didn’t even get Baudelaire’s book until I got back from France. Most of the classes I took were about literature, but I never made much progress in any of the books I got. Only now am I taking the time to work through them. My recent experience with Dante had me interested in Italian. I already had the French version of Ungaretti’s works, so I got my hands on the original Italian and started to work on two languages in tandem.

I’m especially drawn to poetry as a means for language learning. Studying English in school, we’re trained to read closely, be it prose, drama or verse. Each of these forms requires some amount of textual analysis but novels and plays tend to involve more general discussion of themes and characters, bolstered by quotations. In school, we tend to look at medium-length poems written in the last five hundred years, meaning we draw on a lower quantity of text than in a novel or play. We can spend more time with fewer words and so we develop our ability to focus on words more closely than we can in a novel. When poems are as short as many of Ungaretti’s, studying them is a form of close textual analysis of one or two sentences, which is especially manageable to new students of a language.

There are published English translations of these poems, but since I’m only using the French and Italian versions, there’s more distance between Ungaretti’s words and my understanding of them. Granted, my French is good enough that I can read the translation without great difficulty, but I still think there’s another level of understanding through which his words must pass. In both languages, the publication I’m using is Ungaretti’s complete works, published as Vita d’un uomo or Life of a Man in 1969 (the year before his death). Most of the poems were translated into French by French poet Jean Lescure in 1954, while Swiss poet Philippe Jaccottet and others translated the poems Ungaretti wrote between then and 1973, when the French translation was published (Vie d’un homme 6).

Ungaretti was born in Alexandria, Egypt in 1888 (Vie d’un homme 7). In his preface to the French edition, Swiss poet Pierre Jaccottet describes the vastness and emptiness of the desert, establishing the influence of that landscape on Ungaretti’s work (Vie d’un homme 7-8). Certainly, given the brevity of Ungaretti’s poems, when each one is centred on its own page, the concept of emptiness does come to mind. The title of his first poem is Toujours (Always) in French and Eterno in Italian. I will reproduce this poem in French and Italian below, and then offer my own translation.


D’une fleur cueillie à l’autre offerte

l’inexprimable rien

(Vie d’un homme 19)



Tra un fiore colto e l’altro donato

l’inesprimibile nulla

(Vita d’un uomo 45)



From a flower gathered to the other offered

the inexpressible nothingness

(my translation of the above)

Admittedly, this is a pretty crowded desert, but I think you see the point. Imagine each version of the poem on its own page, surrounded by white, and you can effectively visualise how it represents an oasis in a desert. Longer poems reduce this effect, but the distinctiveness of these shorter ones lends them a visual as well as textual weight. Most of Ungaretti’s early poems are quite short. The lines themselves often have no more than three or four words. This makes the poems easier to handle and I suspect it’s why the man’s entire life’s work can be contained within a three to four hundred page book.

From 1914 to 1919, Ungaretti wrote the poems that would become his first collection, L’Allegria (Vita d’un uomo, 39). The title means L’allégresse in French and The Joy in English. Despite that, Ungaretti wrote these poems while at war. Like Owen, Sassoon and other great poets of the period, he wrote many of these poems in the trenches. He served in “the Carso, in Northern Italy, scene of some of the war’s bloodiest battles” (Frisardi 77). In Ungaretti’s own words: “I had to speak quickly because time was limited… I had to express in a few words… an extraordinary intensity of meaning” (Frisardi 78).

L’allegria includes the poem Allegria di naufragi. Once again, I’ll reproduce it, this time with Italian first , French second and English third:

Allegria di naufragi

E subito riprende

il viaggo


dopo il naufragio

un superstite

lupo di mare

(Vita d’un uomo 99)


Allêgresse des naufrages

Et tout de suite il reprend

le voyage


après le naufrage

un loup de mer


(Vie d’un homme 75)


The Joy of Shipwrecks

And right away he resumes

the journey


after the shipwreck

a surviving

sea dog

(my translation of the above)

The steady, almost mathematical way in which this poem is laid out makes translation easier because we can focus on each line, allowing for more precise translation between versions. Look closely and you’ll see that, in French, we must change the order of the lines. That’s because in French, most adjectives come after the noun. You may also notice that, at least in English, the sentence is a bit awkward when written out as an actual sentence. I think that, in all three languages, the poem seems like a fragment. It starts with a conjunction and there seems to be something missing from its ending, like a verb. He uses a pronoun but from this poem, and the ones before and after it, there is no sign as to who that person is. Ungaretti compiled these collections out of order. Allegria di naufragi, dated February 1917, is preceded and followed by poems each dated in 1916.

This poem, then, is like ocean driftwood, a fragment of a greater story floating past. It’s almost a small-scale reflection of Shelley’s Ozymandias. Unlike that poem, and much like the Great War itself, there’s no hint of glory, past or present. What can “he” do but continue il viaggio? Ozymandias, of course, was the Greek name for an Egyptian pharaoh, which nicely matches Ungaretti’s country of birth and the image of the desert Jaccottet emphasises in his preface. He may have written the poem in northern Italy, but that environment was no less ruinous than the most inhospitable desert.

Andrew Frisardi, in his essay Giuseppe Ungaretti and the Image of Desolation, writes about how Ungaretti’s second collection “was a return to the temporal dimension after the split-second flashes of the war poems” (Frisardi 80). From what I have seen of the poems in that collection, he doesn’t do quite away with the brevity of the Allegria poems, but there are certainly quite a few more long poems, and I even saw a few with numbered verses. He writes that Ungaretti

“said that his early war poems were an attempt to close the gap between language and that which one would like to say… A literary label for this aesthetic is, of course, Hermeticism… a poetry that sought, not to describe or represent, but to evoke.” (Frisardi 79)

Not only is this clearly the underpinnings of the poems in Allegria but to me, it’s also an essential part of translation. I’ve written before about how a translation is the confluence of the translator and the original writer. Well, here, there’s the added layer I mentioned earlier. Ungaretti strives in the Allegria poems to evoke, as purely as possible, what he “would like to say”. Lescure, Jaccottet et al evoke, as closely as possible, their taken meaning. I, in my translation of their translations, do the same. Each translation is the crossing of a gap. French and Italian arose from local dialects of Latin, The language I use is Sandinavian and Germanic in origin, filtered through medieval French and delivered to me as a legacy of my country’s conquest by native English speakers. In Arabic, Russian, Chinese, or any language independent of English, the gap is wider still.

I found an article about Ingeborg Bachmann, an Austrian poet who translated Ungaretti’s work. The article was written in Italian by Enza Dammiano, a specialist in translation and comparative literature at the University of Naples. I read it in French, as translated by Martin Rueff. Near the end, Dammiano compares Ungaretti’s Italian original with Bachmann’s translation, side by side with Jaccottet and Lescure’s French translations (presumably added by Rueff). In his note after his translation of the essay, Rueff compares Ungaretti’s work besides Bachmann’s translation, Lescure’s and another poet, Hilde Domin, who also translated some of Ungaretti’s works. All this filtered, as ever, through my considerable but incomplete French comprehension and my minimal knowledge of French and German. So that’s Ungaretti and five translators, four of whom are also poets themselves (Bachmann, Ingeborg, Lescure and even Rueff)! It also means that every time I quote her, it’s me translating Rueff’s translation of Dammiano.

Fittingly, one of the concepts Dammiano considers is the idea of the poet as translator, or “poétesse-traductrice”, as Rueff translates it.

“Unceasing search for the perfect word, continued and often desperate effort for the truth at the limits of the inexpressible: such are the essential features of a creative process in continual evolution, wherein translation takes on its own hermeneutical role. It’s that the translation corresponds precisely to that moment of passage, of mediation between poetic and prose form, that obsessed Ingeborg Bachmann in her last years of production.” (Dammiano; my trans.; 29)

This rendering shows how closely translation and hermeneutic poetry are connected; as Frisardi and I describe above, the poet tries to bridge the gap between thought and its imperfect manifestation. The translator, in turn, crosses the gap between the original writer’s manifestation and its inexact representation in the translator’s target language.

I think the conclusion is that no perfect one-to-one translation exists, either in poetry or in languages. We must find consolation in that imperfection, and our attempts at perfectibility, however futile they may be, must be rewards in themselves.

Works quoted:

Ungaretti, Giuseppe. Vita d’un uomo: Tutte le poesie. Mondadori S.p.A., 2016, Milan.

Ungaretti, Giuseppe. Vie d’un homme: Poésie 1914-1970. Translated by Jean Lescure et al, Éditions Gallimard, 1973.

Frisardi, Andrew. “Giuseppe Ungaretti and the Image of Desolation.” The Hudson Review, vol. 55, no. 1, Spring 2002, pp. 75-89.

Dammiano, Enza. “Deux langues pour une seule voix: Ingeborg Bachmann traductrice de Giuseppe Ungaretti.” Translated by Martin Rueff, Cairn revue de poésie, no. 131-132, 2010, pp. 29-36.

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