‘Canne al Vento’ or ‘Reeds in the Wind’?
I got down to the very serious business of reading ‘Reeds in the Wind’, the translation in English of the masterpiece ‘Canne al Vento’, by Grazia Deledda, with a sort of anxiety. Her style is not simple. And her descriptions of Sardinia are really veriste – I don’t agree with the specious discussions about verismo or symbolism: Grazia Deledda belongs to the verismo though, as a great author, she uses her own formula to write, of course, not a standard one. Besides, we have to remember that she wrote Canne al Vento in 1913, so one hundred years ago, therefore with a different sensibility and culture.
My edition of Reeds in the Wind was translated by Martha King, with an introduction by Dolores Turchi, Italica Press, New York, 1999.
To begin with, I object to the title. Reeds are not ‘canne’ but ‘giunchi’.
A reed is ‘a tall, slender-leaved plant of the grass family, which grows in water or on marshy ground’, according to the Oxford Dictionary or OD. Or reed is ‘a weak or impressionable person’: ‘the jurors were mere reeds in the wind’, OD). A cane is ‘the hollow jointed stem of a tall grass, especially bamboo or sugar cane, or the stem of a slender palm such as rattan’, OD again.
Now, I know that for a foreign edition, you can change and adapt the title, usually for marketing needs. But the use of the phrase ‘reeds in the wind’ is misleading and gives the wrong idea of the content of the book. The metaphor of the canes being moved by the wind isn’t an image referring to weak people, as in English ‘reeds in the winds’, but to the necessity of accepting one’s fate in the best possible and Christian way – Efix’s lesson.
Also, the belief that the translator used the word ‘reed’ with the simple meaning of ‘cane’ is wrong; Grazia Deledda knew well the difference between the two plants. She wrote, page 2: ‘vigili come le canne sopra il ciglione che ad ogni soffio di vento si battono l’una contro l’altra le foglie come per avvertirsi del pericolo’ and then: ‘mentre, per non perdere tempo, intesseva una stuoia di giunchi… sette giunchi attraverso un vimine’. The translation is this: ‘like the reeds along the riverbank beating their leaves together with every breath of wind as though warning of danger’ and ‘he wove a reed mat so as not to waste time… seven reeds across a willow twig’, as if the translator didn’t want to use the word ‘cane’ and recognise the difference between the two plants. By the way, in Sardinia there are canes and reeds!
And I have to object to the cover too. Maybe the image is of a Sardinian river, I hope, but it certainly doesn’t represent the landscape of Baronia, or Grazia Deledda’s Sardinia. It is a picture of reeds in their right environment, ‘in water or on marshy ground’, and in this way it repeats the initial mistake again. If you think of Baronia, especially of the past, you will definitely not picture a landscape with water and marshy ground, but a harsh environment, a dry land that was hard to cultivate, like a biblical curse. There is the Cedrino River, certainly, but it was infested with mosquitos and malaria, and in autumn there was the danger of sudden floods (because the land was hard like a stone).
Going on with the comments, the first sentence of the book is, in Italian: ‘Tutto il giorno Efix, il servo delle dame Pintor, aveva lavorato a rinforzare l’argine primitivo da lui stesso costrutto un po’ per volta a furia d’anni e di fatica, giù in fondo al poderetto lungo il fiume: e al cader della sera contemplava la sua opera dall’alto, seduto davanti alla capanna sotto il ciglione glauco di canne a mezza costa sulla bianca Collina dei Colombi’.
Now here is the translation: ‘Efix, the Pintor sisters’ servant, had worked all day to shore up the primitive river embankment that he had slowly and laboriously built over the years. At nightfall he was contemplating his work from where he was sitting in front of his hut halfway up white Dove’s Hill. A blue-green fringe of reeds rustled behind him’.
Now, the first thing that you notice is that in Grazia Deledda’s writing there is a strong sense of time, marked by these following phrases:
‘Tutto il giorno’, which are the very first words of the book, not accidentally; I’d have written: ‘All day long’.
Then ‘un po’ per volta, a furia d’anni e di fatica’, from which you can understand Efix’s efforts, his passion and determination that lasted for many years. ‘A furia di’ is a strong expression that exists in French too: ‘à force de’, while in English is ‘by dint of’. Why the translator used the poor adverbs ‘slowly and laboriously’ is more of a crime (it is the first sentence of the book, c’mon!). Would it be too much to pay attention, even if love is a little beyond the translator’s ability?
Then ‘e al cader della sera’ – notice the conjunction “e” since there is a continuation, a rhythm of the speech that goes on telling the passing of the day.
This feeling is completely lost in the translation. Time is neglected, undervalued. The first word is ‘Efix’, and ‘un po’ per volta, a furia d’anni e di fatica’ becomes ‘slowly and laboriously built over the years’! Besides, the phrase ‘giu’ in fondo al poderetto lungo il fiume’, has been totally erased, and then there is a full stop, so a terrible break, while the next sentence starts with a very cold: ‘At nightfall he was contemplating’. The power of Deledda’s sentence, its rhythm and time have been erased.
Also, there is a false perception of the layout of the scene.
In Grazia Deledda’s writing, behind Efix there is his hut (in fact, he was ‘seduto davanti alla capanna’ and ‘contemplava la sua opera’ that was ‘giu’ in fondo al poderetto lungo il fiume’). Behind the hut, there is ‘il ciglione glauco di canne’, which is like a horizon and is characterised by its colour, not by the sound (‘rustled’ usually refers to a sound). In fact, the colour ‘glauco’ is opposed to the ‘bianco’ colour of the hill, properly called ‘Collina dei Colombi’. In English, we have: ‘A blue-green fringe of reeds rustled (?) behind him.’
Also, I have to say that the phrase ‘he was contemplating his work from where he was sitting’ is not a good expression. And in any case, Grazia Deledda didn’t use it.
So, with only one sentence, the first one, we have completely lost the sense of space and time, the author’s best features, and the wonder of that cameo.
Can I say ‘Efix, the Pintor sisters’ servant, had worked all day to shore up the primitive river embankment that he had slowly and laboriously built over the years. At nightfall he was contemplating his work from where he was sitting in front of his hut halfway up white Dove’s Hill. A blue-green fringe of reeds rustled behind him’ is not by Grazia Deledda? Can I say that the translator betrayed Grazia Deledda’s best feature, which is her ability to draw the Sardinian landscape, at the same time marking the depth of time?
The bad impression given by the start of the translation is confirmed by reading the following pages.
‘Poderetto’ becomes ‘little farm’. Now, usually ‘farm’ is ‘an area of land and its buildings, used for growing crops and rearing animal’, OD. To write that a Sardinian cunzau and a simple pinnittu are a farm conveys an incorrect idea of the place. According to my sensibility and knowledge, only a ‘little piece of land’ could be enough to give the right impression.
‘Di scaglione in scaglione’ becomes ‘from terrace to terrace’, when Grazia Deledda instead wanted to indicate the ‘groups’ of prickly pears, not the places in which they grow.
‘Lontananze cerule di monti ad occidente e di mare a oriente’ becomes ‘the distant blue mountains to the west and the blue sea to the east’, losing a part of the poetry.
‘Il ciglione’ is ‘riverbank’, (confusing the edge/brink/border/shoulder/brow above with the riverbank down below), and so confirming that the scene is not very clear in the translator’s mind; etc.
Furthermore, there are missing terms and adjectives: the enormous horses that only the giants can mount, are green (this is a Sardinian legend); ‘cànanea’ was a snake; the bid red cross against the door of the hut was made of canes, but we already know that the translator doesn’t like the noun ‘cane’, ok; the hut wasn’t low, but conic; etc.
So the first pages, which are maybe the most important for a reader because they characterise the style of the author and open the door to the novel, do not seem good at all. Now, using a Sue Halpern’s English construction that I love so much, we are left to wonder how the translator not only had not been informed about Sardinia and Baronia, but how it was that she did not make a point to become informed, not merely because she is the translator and that’s her job; not merely because she was translating a verist author and the precision of the descriptions is one of the main points of verism; not merely because Grazia Deledda is a Nobel prizewinner and so deserves proper scrutiny and love; and not merely because Reeds in the Wind is one of the few of Deledda’s books to be translated into English, and so has to be safeguarded with care; but because of all of these.
There is a part of this issue that cannot be left, maybe the worst.
We wonder how Sardinia not only had not been informed about the poor translations of Grazia Deledda’s works (which undermine the foundations of a great asset – the writing skills of a Nobel prizewinner), but how it was that Sardinia did not make a point of preparing an official translation of Grazia Deledda’s works, with the assistance of experts who know Sardinia and the writer, with deep editing and for the right portfolio of her books.
How can we valorise our assets other than by giving the right, accurate documents to international readers and cultural institutions?
Reeds in the Wind is not Canne al Vento and ‘Efix, the Pintor sisters’ servant, had worked all day to shore up the primitive river embankment that he had slowly and laboriously built over the years. At nightfall he was contemplating his work from where he was sitting in front of his hut halfway up white Dove’s Hill. A blue-green fringe of reeds rustled behind him’ is definitely not Grazia Deledda’s.
P.s. Macau Daily Times 21 May 2014. Benedict Keith Ip, in his wonderful article, Vox Parva: Grazia Deledda and Sardinia in Macau, wrote: “Her novel, Canne al vento, or Reeds in the Wind is one of the examples that demonstrate her vivid perspectives of understanding Sardinia, in both cultural and religious dimensions. She made use of the famous biblical reference – ‘As these men were going away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John, ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?’ (Matthew 11:7).”
Now, reading my Gospel According to St. Matthew, in Italian of course, I read: ‘Che cosa siete andati a vedere nel deserto? Una canna sbattuta dal vento?’ So, again, we have the Italian word ‘canna’ and the English word ‘reed’.
So I’m going to ask Gianni Criveller to check the original word written in the Gospel: was Jesus referring to a cane or a reed, please?