gb fr

Translating Rimbaud into Italian

Interview with Professor Adriano Marchetti by Valentina Gosetti

VG: You have recently published with Pazzini Editore your translations of Rimbaud’s verse poems (Opera in versi, 2019). Coming after your Italian editions of Illuminations (2006) and Une saison en enfer (2009) for the same publishing house, this latest collection completes not only the Rimbaudian triptych, but your journey of a lifetime as a reader and scholar of Rimbaud’s œuvre. Have you adopted a different approach in the translation and editing of these three volumes or have you tried to express yourself in the same voice?


AM: The volumes that compose this triptych each reproduce different designs and modulations that make them somewhat independent. At the same time, if juxtaposed against each other, they may suggest useful ways to detect key points of dislocation and disruption that mark Rimbaud’s work as a whole.

It must be said, however, that each volume displays both substantial and stylistic heterogeneity. Une saison en enfer and Illuminations only deceptively so, being, instead, underpinned by a sort of monodic (single-voiced) architecture: the first (Une saison), an invented monologue that splits into two voices, and then develops admirably on the scenario of a psychodrama. In 'Alchimie du Verbe', however, where Rimbaud discloses the turning points of his 'histoire d’une de mes folies' ('story of one of my madnesses'), we find scattered lines, which are not mere self-citations, but full-blown reinventions.

PHOTO-2020-06-26-05-04-41_sm.jpgThe second (Illuminations), often referred to as poèmes en prose, on closer inspection, host, almost inadvertently, a fair number of alexandrines or even entire poems in verse.

Rimbaud’s verse poems are certainly the most heterogeneous because of the heteroclite materials they evoke, their varied rhythms, their ever-changing forms of expression, as well as the disparate set of experiences that surround these texts, between 1869 and 1873.

My translations have tried to respect this tonal and timbrical richness, by employing a broader range of approaches. In the Cahier de Douai, a volume that Rimbaud had asked Demeny to burn, he had recorded his past fascination for academic, mythological beauty. After the Paris Commune, Rimbaud’s poetry became a fierce anticlerical, anarchic and parodic invective. Later, against the subjective lyrical poetry typical of the Romantic tradition, he began to compose lines embracing the perspective of the voyant (the seer); these are the lines that seduced Verlaine.

Banned by the Vilains Bonshommes, Rimbaud had to leave Paris and return to Charleville. It is then that the Vers nouveaux or Derniers vers were born, before following the irresistible ambition of acquiring the status of 'fils du soleil' ('child of the sun')', nearing folie, madness.

The last poetic adventure culminates with Illuminations and Une saison en enfer, where he concludes, but not definitively: 'Cela s’est passé. Je sais aujourd’hui saluer la beauté' ('That’s all gone. I know today how to greet beauty').

What is common to the whole work and which underlies it as a sort of basso continuo is the inventive tension, what Rimbaud calls in the Lettre du voyant ('Seer letter') 'le dérèglement de tous les sens' ('the derangement of all the senses'). The constant allusion to further meaning.


VG: During your career you have studied and translated the works of so many different poets and authors. What led you to devote yourself so intensely to Rimbaud’s writings in particular?

AM: At the age of 17, after graduating from high school, through a competition, I was hired by the local bank of a small rural Italian town, to the understandable jubilation of my family of poor labourers. Thus began my first great labour and I sought comfort by taking refuge in literature.

Arthur Rimbaud was the first decisive encounter. He gave a name to that short, yet long (3 months!), period of accounting work: my 'Season in Hell'. He also instilled in me the unexpected courage to take the decision to escape, to leave both my parents’ house and that job. I thus arrived in Bologna for the first time, enrolled at University, while teaching in an evening school. Hard and happy times.

At first, I was fascinated by the many myths that recount the extraordinary story of the teenage poet, the accursed poet, the 'mystique à l'état sauvage' ('mystic in the wild/savage state') as Claudel put it.

Rebellion, transgression, oscillation of the sexes – which is always a disruption of the social order – the multiple forms of love and its thirst, the urgency of freedom. The so-called Lettre du voyant ('Seer letter') left a strong mark, and so did, later, the farewell to Europe and his silence.

Only later did I become passionate about his work. As I was writing my thesis on Simone Weil, I was particularly struck by one of her short notes on Rimbaud, which I paraphrase: 'There are also demonic genii […] the work that corresponds to the maturity of the demonic genius is silence. Rimbaud is its example and symbol'.

Weil understood, in my opinion, an essential element, which is the same trait that Plato recognizes in the poet: delirium, mania, passion – all these aspects are dangerous for the Polis. The poet is delusional, but his delusion is divine (Ion).

Since then, I became convinced that translating Rimbaud’s work could represent one of the sovereign ways to grasp its unprecedented scope. I felt that it was necessary to abandon oneself to that very delusion. It took years of waiting and of listening before I felt ready to attempt the feat.


VG: Was there something that did not fully satisfy you in the existing Italian translations of Rimbaud? What do you think of the art of (re-)translating a classic?

AM: Since Ardengo Soffici’s 1911 translation, multiple Italian editions of Rimbaud’s work have followed. All these are partial, with the exception of the complete works edited by Mario Richter (Opere complete, Einaudi / Gallimard, Pléiade, 1992). Among others, of particular value is the volume edited by Ivos Margoni (Feltrinelli, 1964).

There have been very few attempts to translate Rimbaud’s verse poems into corresponding rhythmic and metric Italian versification. Mostly, the Italian translators have resorted to free verse. However, even in the rare cases where verse was used, including the aforementioned 1992 translation, I could not avoid noticing some unnatural stretches, often bordering on banality, or else, unjustified departures from the original text. Semantic fidelity has often been renounced in favour of rhyming. This risk is inevitable. I consciously decided to run it myself with the intention of bringing back the text, in an absolute and univocal sense, but as fairly as possible, preserving the ambiguity of the terms, directing my efforts to grasping the tenor and the literal flavour of the original, its semantic weight, its rhythms and sounds, its timbre.

Rather than opting for univocal meanings in order to make the work closer to the Italian ear, I hoped to let it be, in all its unfamiliarity and translucent opacity.

Rimbaud does not speak rationally, but enigmatically. And the riddle, which cannot be solved, refers to further possible meaning. His gaze is epoptic, that is, he looks beyond what he sees. As in dreams, Rimbaud breaks all temporal and spatial dimensions, moves beyond the very principles of causality and non-contradiction. Reason is a system of rules that ensures communication by conventionally attaching a unique meaning to words. While, on the other hand, it is on the horizon of madness – Rimbaud must be taken seriously when he defines his poetic adventure 'histoire d’une de mes folies'– that new meanings are created, that language is invented. In turn, in this sense, each translation awaits a further translation. It cannot be definitive.


VG: Is there a particular line, a poem, a passage that you are particularly fond of?

AM: There are so many poems that I cherish that it would be embarrassing to choose only one.

At the top of my mind… 'Les Remembrances du vieillard idiot' ('The Recollections of a Stupid Old Man'), one of the longest and most autobiographical texts of the Album Zutique, which culminates in the evocation of the physically absent father, and the desire to acquire his virility. In this poem Rimbaud anticipates Freud. Even if he does not pronounce the word 'unconscious', it conveys it: what is not governed by the self ('Je est un autre' - 'I is another'); the relation rather than the identity. This form of knowledge, which arises from a not-at-all risible sexual obsession (despite the parodic register that mostly characterizes the poems of the Album Zutique), is empathic. 'Remembrances', here, can be understood as the awakening of the virile organ. Here we find an initiating madness, one conditioned by eroticism, which is the only way of overturning the traditional vision of life and provoke that 'dérèglement de tous les sens' ('derangement of all the senses') that should rhythm poetry. This discovery leads to a deep crisis, to the denial of reason, that is, of that series of rules that support order, but which are able to create nothing. In order to invent, it is necessary to draw from the depth of erotic madness, from the raving delusion of which Plato speaks in one of his Dialogues.

Reason, with its rules, is reassuring in that it does not destabilize meanings. Rimbaud brings language to the point of collapse in order to recreate it. 'Être né poète, et je me suis reconnu poète, ('Be born a poet and becoming it'). This statement, which has the appearance of an oxymoron, is extremely significant: Rimbaud, born a poet, could only be so because he assumed his destiny as a poet, entering the darkness of erotic madness. 'Toutes les formes d’amour, de souffrance, de folie .... Ineffable torture ...' ('All forms of love, of suffering, of madness … Unspeakable torture'. From the Letter to Paul Demeny).

He wrote to his teacher of rhetoric Izambard: 'Il s’agit d’arriver à l’inconnu par le dérèglement de tous les sens. Les souffrances sont énormes, mais il faut être fort, être né poète, et je me suis reconnu poète.' ('It is a question of getting to the unknown through the derangement of all the senses. The sufferings are enormous, but it is necessary to be strong, to be born a poet, and I have recognized myself as a poet').


In my opinion, the basic structures of our unconscious are present in this text, in a symbolic-poetic form. The desire for the unknown, for what you do not have and do not know, is structured around the figure of absence, of lack. It is psychic distance. The space it creates.


VG: Finally, do you think Rimbaud still has something to 'say' today? 

AM: Rimbaud’s silence has been and continues to be cause for investigation and reflection. Heidegger said that Rimbaud is silent, having said all he had to say. This does not mean that his work no longer has anything to say, or that it is not thought-provoking, nowadays. Both what he did say and what he did not say are sources of inexhaustible meaning, like all great works of art. We continue to read and translate Homer and Montaigne. Think of the philosophical and poetic meaning contained in the two statements 'Je est un autre' ('I is another') and 'on me pense' ('I am thought'). The rational system based on clear and distinct ideas is put aside; we abandon the self in favour of an uncertain dip into the depths of the unknown. When one sinks into one's own madness, the ego, the self, changes; it is regenerated into something else and different – this is the sense of 'il faut changer la vie' ('one must change one's life'). The loss of one’s ego is an act of love. Eros is the son of Penia, from whom he inherited most of his main features: poverty, vulnerability, he does not possess since he is possessed. His soul is affected by a restless passion for the other. The self, the 'I', is conservative, and not a creator. It is tired of being itself (it is no coincidence that boredom is one of the dominant themes of the Illuminations). The 'I' must be corrupted by its own unreasonable depths. And this process entails a continuous displacement of one’s self and, with it, a sort of linguistic implosion.

Rimbaud abandons the rational scenario to bask, instead, in the soul’s background. Reading Rimbaud can arouse extraordinary reflections in today’s young people on what concerns the configurations of love. Rimbaud is a daring poet: he takes risks within language, which is what constitutes his creation. The risk is that of being caught by the daimon, by the divine fire, ('être fils du soleil' - 'to be a child of the sun' being his ultimate and essential aspiration). Love, according to Diotima’s words,1 is the metaxy (the middle ground), the link between the gods (who are linked to madness) and men (who are linked to reason). The poet is not the owner of words; he is just their translator into human form. The poet listens, he abandons himself to what the demon dictates, in the depths of his delusion and delirium. 'On me pense': you are not the master of the game; it is language that plays you. Only this loving abandonment, this passion, allows us to translate our part of reason into madness, and vice versa. This whole process also reflects the role of the translator. The awareness of this infinite (in-finite, read endless) work, I believe, is the preliminary condition that allows Rimbaud to be read, re-read, translated and re-translated, still today, as a modern classic. 


Adriano Marchetti, critic, translator, artist, was Professor of French literature at the University of Bologna (Italy). He has authored and edited various volumes and has established various critical editions with parallel text, including Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations, Une saison en enfer, Opera in versi (2006, 2009, 2019). For further information:

Valentina Gosetti, poetry translator and academic, was a student of Adriano Marchetti at the University of Bologna. She is currently an Australian Research Council Research Fellow, following her years at the University of Oxford. She authored Aloysius Bertrand’s ‘Gaspard de la Nuit': Beyond the Prose Poem (Legenda, 2016), and has written various articles and chapters on poetry, translation, and multilingualism. For further information:

Translated from the original Italian by Valentina Gosetti.

1 Diotima of Mantinea is a prophetess and philosopher who plays a prominent role in Plato’s Symposium.

Posted on:Wednesday 29th July, 2020