While translation opens literature to new and global readership, it's a delicate process that can lead to drastic misinterpretation.
In a lecture Wednesday titled "Whitman's Leaves, Gamberale's Foglie D'erba, and the Language of Futurism and Fascism," Dr. Marina Camboni will explain how Walt Whitman's poetic declaration of individuality and democracy was misappropriated toward fascist ideologies in early 20th century Italy. Camboni is Chair of American Literature and Director of the Ph.D. Program in comparative literature at the University of Macerata, Italy.
"Whitman was one of the many writers Italian Futurists read and appreciated," Camboni said. "They took from him what they needed. At that time they needed to find models for a ‘new man' in tune with his own time, and new ways of giving artistic form to their experience of modernity, and he provided both."
Using transnational, linguistic and cultural perspectives, Camboni's research looks at how concepts like "manliness" were abused by translators to advance fascist ideals. While Italian modernism provides an extreme example of translation issues, Camboni says that every reader inevitably misrepresents Whitman in his or her own way.
"There is not ‘one' Whitman but there are as many Whitmans as there are readers," she said. "As a consequence, no reader really ‘mispresents' him. Every reader appropriates him in his or her own way. Translators are both readers and mediators who share the cultural atmosphere of their time."
Camboni says Whitman's "Leaves of Grass," a complex and often enigmatic poem of individuality, is easily filled in by a reader's own perspective.
"An Italian modernist writer, Sibilla Aleramo, who was for a time close to the Futurists, pondering in her journal about the influence books had had on her, wrote that books, ‘more than teaching,' provided her with a form of ‘recognition,'" she said. "Books like ‘Leaves of Grass,' which she read and loved, were for her, mirrors in which she could see herself projected, or blueprints to be completed by her as a reader."
Caterina Bernardini, a Fulbright Scholar and visiting researcher at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, works with Camboni on researching the Italian and transnational reception of Whitman's work. Bernardini will join her in a panel on the subject Friday in the Bailey Library. She says she was shocked to discover that not a single book had been written about the Italian reception of Whitman.
"It's a really new and interesting interpretive contribution that [Professor Camboni's] giving," Bernardini said. "It's revolutionary, in the sense that we're used to thinking about the reception of Whitman's work as totally connected to left-wing and if not communist, then certainly left-wing and liberal ideologies."
Bernardini says as her and Camboni's research continues, they may collaborate on a book on the subject.
"There are some essays and some contributions to conferences, but not a full book," she said. "There are books about the German reception of Whitman and the French reception of Whitman, but we do not have a work that exists in Italy."
Erasing the damage done by mistranslation, Camboni says, is impossible, but she hopes new research and projects will help move things forward.
"I am afraid the past can't be ‘fixed,'" she said. "What one can do is study it and learn from it."
Both Camboni and Bernardini have worked with the Whitman Archive, a project designed to digitize Whitman's work and criticism into an integrated online database. Camboni cited the archive as an opportunity for profound learning.
"In a pure Whitmanian spirit, it is making Whitman's texts and manuscripts available to common readers all over the world, and not only to scholars," she said. "The part of the archive devoted to the translations of "Leaves of Grass" in various languages is now adding a cosmopolitan dimension. In this way the archive will also be able to make known the different ways the world responded to the poet who addressed it in his poetry."
If you go:
Wednesday, January 18th 5:30pm
Bailey Library, 229 Andrews Hall