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Patrick Williamson

Translator’s Note: Erri de Luca

These four poems are from the first sequence in Erri de Luca’s second book of poetry, Solo Andata, Righe che vanno troppo spesso a capo (One Way, Lines that break all too often), Feltrinelli, 2014 (2005). They relate the migrants’ experience once they have arrived in Italy. Neapolitan by birth, Erri de Luca is one of the most renowned writers in Italy today. He is also known for his opposition to the Lyon-Turin high speed train line and being sued for having called for its sabotage. In 2015 Erri de Luca was cleared of inciting criminal damage and he reacted to the verdict by declaring that “An injustice has been avoided.” Erri De Luca is self-taught in several languages including Ancient Hebrew, Swahili, Russian and Yiddish. He has translated books of the Old Testament from Old Hebrew and written commentaries on the Sacred Texts, as a “non-believer.” Having been affiliated to what was known as the revolutionary left in Italy in the 1970s, de Luca spent his life doing manual jobs. His first book was published in 1989, Non ora, non qui (Not now, not here), but he has been writing continuously since he was 20.

I first heard Erri de Luca present his work, with great humour and numerous Neapolitan anecdotes, during an interview at Più libri più liberi in Rome in December 2015. During this event he recited his laic prayer for migrants Mare nostro che non sei nei cieli (Our sea which art not in heaven) which I decided to translate there and then, as I was drawn by the compassion that he expresses. I subsequently chose to translate the Solo Andata (One Way) sequence, which is a lament for immigrants from Africa trying to make it across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy. Erri de Luca places himself very much in the shoes (or rather the “bare feet”) of those making this perilous journey. De Luca is convinced that a writer, as a public figure, has a duty to speak for those who cannot and to find words for the inarticulate. He speaks through the senses and from the underbelly of the human condition, aspiring to go to the very core of words, and to the entrails of social, political, and spiritual integrity.

The overarching structure consists of the stories as narrated by one or more persons, which we understand to be male—especially the main unnamed protagonist—, dovetailed with collective prayer chorus sections. De Luca’s work often uses polyphony or “many voices,” though in this case much of the poem concerns a collective “we” rather than individual characters. My translation aims to reflect both the dramatic traits of the poem, especially in the “action” sections—such as a fight over a rifle and subsequent killing—and De Luca’s typical rough language, which evokes excruciating glimpses of the journey, in which death, fear, patience, and hope blend and merge with the waters of the sea. He uses such language to reflect the human condition of the passage and their destiny, to capture those feelings for people who have no words for them. De Luca also uses words in Swahili (“mkubwa,” “anziano”; the latter being a pivotal character in the poem), a language spoken in particular in Tanzania where De Luca lived, and one that is not learned by any grammar. It is learned in bits, to communicate urgency and everyday life, and this is a good illustration of the immediacy of De Luca’s poetic style in Solo Andata, and the vital rhythm associated with that of Neapolitan.

The challenges I faced include, quite naturally, this mastery of the Italian language and his style which, although it may seem simple, involves complex syntax and poetic tropes. There are many instances of similes and metaphors, and rhetorical devices such as the anaphora, which he relies on to provide the imagery, and in degree to tell the tale. In this one-way itinerary the sea is always present and there are many marine metaphors. The inevitable contrasts that the sea inspires when it becomes a means of survival for men in search of a better future, mix and create an osmosis of multiple meanings. This is placed in constant juxtaposition with life back home, on the African plains. The earth is the antithesis of the sea. The search for equivalencies in English was thus a challenge, as they had to fit into the terse rhythm and structure of his writing. In this I am much indebted to my own translator into Italian, Guido Cupani, who has an impeccable sense of language and was able to enlighten me as to the nuances of the original poem. Rendering Erri’s lyricism and the laconic nature of his poetry into English, as well as the structure and narrative of the sequence, was a demanding,
but ultimately worthwhile task.

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