Q&A Interview with Gianluca Rizzo

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In The Complete Poems of Michelangelo, Gianluca Rizzo reproduces Joseph Tusiani’s masterful translation of Michelangelo’s poems. Read the author’s full Q&A about the book below:

1) Tell us about when the idea for compiling this book first came to fruition. Is there a story behind it?

This book was born out of my conversations and continued collaborations with Prof. Luigi Ballerini, a fixture of the Italian Studies scene in North America. He put me in touch with Prof. Anthony Julian Tamburri, whose intellectual generosity and love for Italian literature (regardless of whether it was written on one side of the pond or the other) is infectious. Through Prof. Tamburri, I was introduced to Joseph Tusiani, and our very first conversation, on that faithful day in October 2019, has found its way into this volume. Meeting Tusiani was a rare treat, as he had been (and still very much was when I met him) a pillar of the Italian American intellectual community in New York City. In a matter of minutes, Prof. Tamburri, Prof. Tusiani, and myself were chatting it up, like we had always known each other. It was clear to me that the three of us shared the same appreciation for literary translations: not only a necessary tool for inter-cultural and inter-linguistic communication, but actually one of the great modes of modernist (or perhaps even, more simply, modern) writing. Tusiani was a master of the in-between space that separates and, at the same time, binds together Italian and English. It has been a true delight to bring his work back into print and circulation.

2) What was the most challenging aspect of this project?

This project posed an interesting challenge from a philological point of view. I know that doesn’t sound too sexy, but it was actually an interesting little conundrum. Tusiani’s translation had originally been published without the facing Italian original. In order to make the translation shine even brighter, I wanted to add the Italian. Tusiani had used Frey’s edition of the Rime (1897), the best one available at the time. However, the same year The Complete Poems was published, Enzo Noè Girardi issued a new, updated, and much more authoritative edition of Michelangelo’s canzoniere, one that radically changed the order in which the poems were presented, and made small adjustments to some of the poems. What to do? After much handwringing, I decided to go with Girardi’s edition and I rearranged the order of Tusiani’s translations to match it. I think this solution gives us a vivid image of how thriving the study of Michelangelo’s works was around 1961: a wonderful time capsule, as well as a thoroughly enjoyable and useful volume for our contemporary readers.

3) What was your experience working with the editor/editors of this book?

It was great to work with Suzanne Rancourt and Barb Porter, who followed the entire process, from start to finish, with great professionalism and warmth. I am very pleased with the way the book has turned out!

4) What was the most surprising thing you found/discovered in your research process for this book (while reading Michelango’s poems and writings…etc?)

Michelangelo’s impetuous creative process caused him to leave some of his works unfinished. This gave critics, in spite of the long centuries that separate us, a chance to glimpse at the unparallel technique, the deep intuition, the vigorous nature of his inspiration. Similar considerations could be made regarding Michelangelo’s poetry. They offer a window into the life of the master, both his quotidian, sometime banal routines, as well as his recurring fears and existential obsessions. In his poems, quick notes to thank friends and acquaintances for small gifts of foodstuff are recorded right next to passionate reflections on mortality, faith, and the role that art can have in either saving or damning one’s immortal soul. Such range of emotions, themes, circumstances, and thoughts presents endless challenges to the translator. This is where, I think, Tusiani’s skill is most evident: he never backs away from that challenge, poem after poem. In the end, I think he achieves what all translators aspire to do (but are often too modest to admit): influence the way a classic is read and received in the target language. Tusiani definitely succeeded in this regard, and I feel like I got to learn a few tricks from a great master.


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