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The Stephen Spender Prize 2020 for poetry in translation
in association with the Guardian

16-and-under category, second prize

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Read the winning entries from previous years

Alessandro d'Attanasio

Saturday in the village

The farmer girl comes from the fields
at the setting of the sun;
with a sheaf of grass, she bears in hand
a posy of roses and violets
to adorn her chest and hair
tomorrow, as usual,
for a day of celebration.

The old woman sits on the stairway
with her neighbours, spinning,
facing the descent of the sun,
and recounting her best years,
when she would adorn herself for the festival;
still healthy and slim, she once
would dance the night with those
companions of a more beautiful age.

Already the whole sky darkens,
the air turns blue, and shadows return
down from ridges and roofs,
to the frosting of the just-risen moon.
Now the ringing of the bell beckons
the return of the festival;
the heart takes relief from that sound.

The boys shouting as one,
jumping here and there
on the small square,
make a glad noise:
meanwhile the farmhand
returns to his modest meal, whistling,
and dreams of a day of respite.

Then when every other light is quenched,
and all else is silent,
you hear the hammer striking, you hear the saw
of the woodworker, awake
in the closed shop under lamplight;
he hurries, and endeavours
to finish the work before dawn.

This is the most welcome day of the week,
full of hope and joy:
tomorrow the hours will bear
sadness and boredom, and each in their thoughts
will return to habitual toil.

Playful young man,
your age like flowered spring
is a day full of joy,
a clear, serene day,
a harbinger of the festival of your life.
Enjoy, my boy;
sweetness, gladness is yours.
I do not wish to say more.
Your festival may yet seem late in coming;
let that not worry you

Translated from Italian by Alessandro d'Attanasio

Il sabato del villaggio

La donzelletta vien da la campagna,
in sul calar del sole,
col suo fascio de l'erba; e reca in mano
un mazzolin di rose e di viole,
onde, siccome suole,
ornare ella si appresta
dimani, al dì di festa, il petto e il crine.

Siede con le vicine
su la scala a filar la vecchierella,
incontro là dove si perde il giorno;
e novellando vien del suo buon tempo,
quando a i dì de la festa ella si ornava,
ed ancor sana e snella
solea danzar la sera intra di quei
ch'ebbe compagni de l'età più bella.

Già tutta l'aria imbruna,
orna azzurro il sereno, e tornan l'ombre
giù da' colli e da' tetti,
a la luce del vespro e de la luna.
or la squilla dà segno
de la festa che viene;
ed a quel suon diresti
che il cor si riconforta.

I fanciulli gridando
su la piazzuola in frotta,
e qua e là saltando,
fanno un lieto romore:
e intanto riede a la sua parca mensa,
fischiando, il zappatore,
e seco pensa al dì del suo riposo.

Poi quando intorno è spenta ogni altra face,
e tutto l'altro tace,
odi il martel picchiare, odi la sega
del legnaiuol, che veglia
ne la chiusa bottega a la lucerna,
e s'affretta, e s'adopra
di fornir l'opra anzi il chiarir de l'alba.

Questo di sette è il più gradito giorno,
pien di speme e di gioia:
diman tristezza e noia
recheran l'ore, ed al travaglio usato
ciascuno in suo pensier farà ritorno.

Garzoncello scherzoso,
cotesta età fiorita
è come un giorno d'allegrezza pieno,
giorno chiaro, sereno,
che precorre a la festa di tua vita.
Godi, fanciullo mio; stato soave,
stagion lieta è cotesta.
Altro dirti non vo'; ma la tua festa
ch'anco tardi a venir non ti sia grave.

Giacomo Leopardi


Translation commentary

For Leopardi, human joy comes from idyllic hope and nebulous imagination. The lightness of the scene derives from the simplicity and familiarity of the Italian; however, it is simultaneously poetic and dreamlike. I used a straightforward and natural lexicon, especially in the imagery. In the second stanza, the elderly lady 'faces the descent of the sun' while wistfully 'recounting her best years': in equating the empyrean to the nostalgic, my translation emphasises Leopardi's attachment to memory. Only the woodworker, symbolising modernity and distance from nature, breaks this melody and simplicity; I used consonance, in describing 'the hammer striking…the saw / of the woodworker, awake', to emphasise the dissonance of night-time labour against the harmony of the village.

Anticipation, not underwhelming enjoyment, is the source of this joy. Leopardi achieves this using enjambment, which I have retained. Within the hendecasyllabic metre, rhymes strengthen thematic connections. I opted to emphasise these connections using sibilance ('with a sheaf of grass, she bears in hand / a posy of roses and violets'), alliteration, as in the third stanza, and consonance in the description of the woodworker.

The final stanza was the most difficult to translate. With an apostrophe, Leopardi's cosmic pessimism achieves temporary catharsis from the suffering of maturity. I translated 'cotesta età fiorita' as 'your age like flowered spring', changing the natural imagery to a more familiar metaphor in English. After this, the tone is prosaic, peaceful, and melancholy, as if an admonition, without enjambment or anastrophe. The poet ultimately conceals the deceptive disillusionment of adulthood from the 'garzoncello': he 'do[es] not wish to say more'. The Italian is archaic, so I split these two lines into three, adding gravitas to the assurance that the young man's carefree stasis and anticipation is indeed a state of perfection, and one that the poet envies.

Alessandro d'Attanasio