Translating Plowmen into Italian
by Emily Mellen
A plow, they say, to plow the snow.
They cannot mean to plant it, though—
Unless in bitterness to mock
At having cultivated rock.
Un aratro, dicono, per la neve arar
Ma non è possibile che la intendano piantar–
Se non per deridere in amarezza
L’aver coltivato la pietra grezza
My first obstacle in making this translation was the poem’s premise. Frost builds his poem off of the name of the machine we call a snow plow. The poem is a joke about the relationship of a snow plow to the regular work of plowing in New England. In Italian a snow plow is called a spazzaneve or “snow sweeper,” rather than using the word plow, or “aratro.” I decided, however, to use only words related to plowing in order to make clear the meaning of the poem if one knows the concept and how it relates to English. This maintains the poem’s relationship to its original language and to the context in which it was born, while (I hope) rendering it legible to an Italian-speaking reader.
My next task, to literally translate each of the words of the poem, was not very difficult because of the relationship between English and Italian. That is to say, that most English words have a direct Italian equivalent. For example, the word bitterness is used in a metaphorical sense in English. Bitterness refers directly to a taste of food, but it also refers to a feeling of resentment and sadness at the conclusion of a situation. In this case, I believe that the bitterness Frost refers to is the bitterness of a New Hampshire farmer who has to contend with constantly rocky soil. This double sense of bitterness is shared in Italian, as is the knowledge of frustration with rocky soil, which is also a reality of the farmer in less fertile parts of Italy. The most important shared concept in the poem is the idea of plowing the land itself, which relies on a tradition of European agriculture that would presumably not exist in languages that do not use this particular tool or method.
After a literal translation of the poem, I went back in order to try to make the poem rhyme and to sound like a poem in Italian. I should add a very very very large caveat that I know next to nothing about Italian poetry or poetry in general. I do know, however, from reading Italian poetry and songs, that they tend to drop the final “-e” on verbs, especially when they fall at the end of phrases. So, “arare” becomes “arar” and “piantare” becomes “piantar.” I also know that there is flexibility in the order of verb and object, so in order to find a rhyme, I made the line “Un aratro, dicono, per arare la neve” (A plow, they say, for plowing the snow) into “Un aratro, dicono, per la neve arar” (A plow, they say, for the snow to plow) and the line “Non è possibile che intendono piantarla peró” (It’s not possible that they mean to plant it, though) into “Ma non è possibile che la intendono piantar” (But it’s not possible that they mean it to plant).
The second couplet was a little trickier. I understand the joke of the final couplet to be that farming in New England is like plowing rock. So, I took it as important that the final word was “rock,” which serves as a sort of punchline, and gives a comical, bitter tone to the entire poem. My original literal translation of the entire couplet was:
Se non per amarezza deridere
L’aver coltivato la pietra
This is pretty literal. The only word I waffled on was using “per amarezza” (for bitterness) or “in amarezza” (in bitterness). Although “in” was more literal, I thought “per” was necessary to communicate the sense of “in order to” that the “to” in “to mock” gets across.
Because I didn’t want to move the word “pietra” around, I first tried to find all the other words I could think of that could also mean rock. There are a lot, but this didn’t work, because none of them contained an ending that rhymed with deridere. In fact, this would be unlikely because this kind of ending is almost always for verbs. Also, as a note, I intuitively decided not to change “deridere” to “derider” because of the emphasis. Whereas “arare” and “piantare” both hold their emphasis on the penultimate syllable (aRAre, pianTARe) and dropping the final “e” has no effect, I feel that with deridere, in which the emphasis is on the antipenultimate syllable (deRIdere), dropping the final “e” would make it seem like “deriDER,” which is confusing and incorrect. Again, I’m not an expert and I have no idea if this intuition is correct or what grammatical rules it’s based on, but that was my reasoning.
After trying my list of rock names and realizing they wouldn’t work, I started thinking of synonyms for the word “mock,” but before I got very far into this, it occured to me that I could also move “amarezza” to the end by changing the line to “Se non per deridere in amarezza,” which left me with the very common word ending “-ezza” (roughly, -ness) to rhyme. Then, I realized I could add the adjective “grezza” (course, rough) to the end of my final line, which keeps the placement of the word “pietra” and only deepens the meaning slightly, in a way that I feel is consistent with the mood of the poem.
The last part of my translation was to try to think about the meter of the poem. Again, I know nothing about poetic meter, so I asked for help from my brilliant colleague Catherine Addington, who advised that English use of stress probably does not have an easy equivalent in Italian. As long as none of my lines were awkwardly long, the poem’s sense of meter was probably fine, she advised. Through reading the translation out loud several times, I determined that I could easily read it in a way in which all the lines lasted equivalently long, which I, as a music scholar, of course measure in 4/4 time. This is almost certainly an imperfect method for incorporating meter and could doubtlessly be improved upon by someone who knows more about poetry, but I hope it will be helpful.
After I finished my translation, Catherine helped me reach out to Italian professors at UVA for approval and correction. Thank you to Hiromi Kaneda and Stella Mattioli for reading over and providing feedback on my translation. Stella Mattioli kindly pointed out that I had forgotten to pluralize the title to “Aratori” instead of “Aratore” and that I needed to change the grammatical form of the word “intendono” (present indicative) to “intendano” (present subjunctive) because of the sentence structure.
Translating this poem from English into Italian is not particularly difficult, because English and Italian words often have a close correspondence due to their identities as Indo-European languages with relatively similar cultural histories. In the case of “Plowmen,” which relies on agricultural concepts for its sense and imagery, a shared history of relatively similar agricultural practices is key. As we describe in the about page, Chris also worked on a translation of this poem into Western Abenaki, which we decided not to feature on the final version of the site. He had a very different experience, in part because the concepts that the poem relies on did not relate to Abenaki agricultural practice and the words did not have easy correspondences with Abenaki words. It is also worth noting that there are a much wider array of resources for translation from/into European languages than from/into many indigenous languages. Due to the scale of our project, we do not propose any solutions to this vast problem, but would like to note that it exists and that we would embrace any contributions of public domain translation resources specifically oriented towards the questions of translation into indigenous and other non-European languages.