‘On Christ’s Nativity’: sonnets by G.G. Belli, translated by Anthony Burgess
The sonnets below first were published in the Times Literary Supplement (TLS) on 23 January 1976. The first two of five linked poems, these sonnets later appeared with some alterations as part of the novel ABBA ABBA in 1977. The headnote from the TLS, below, is possibly by Burgess, and has never been reprinted.
Burgess was not the first or only person who tried to put Belli into English. Harold Norse published English translations of Belli in 1960, 1966 and 1974, copies of which are in the Burgess collections in Manchester. Robert Garioch famously translated some of Belli’s sonnets into Scots. Burgess believed (wrongly, as it turns out) that James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence had both wanted to translate Belli into English.
Edwin Morgan reviewed ABBA ABBA in the TLS on 3 June 1977. He described Burgess’s versions of Belli as ‘English tinged here and there with Manchester dialect. The translations are pungent and ingenious: fairly free as regards added detail, or local and modern analogy, but very properly sticking to the Petrarchan rhyme scheme which permits some finely strained and inventive collocations.’ By ‘pungent’, Morgan may have meant ‘extremely rude’, which is also true to the spirit of Belli’s original poems.
Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli (1791-1863) was the author of a series of over 2000 sonnets in popular Roman speech, which were not published during his lifetime: the first reasonably complete edition appeared some twenty years after his death. An excellent introductory essay on his work, making apt comparisons with Gogol and Joyce, can be found in Eleanor Clark’s Rome and a Villa.
You know the day, the month, even the year.
While Mary ate her noonday plate of soup,
The Angel Gabriel, like a heaven-hurled loop,
Was bowing towards her through the atmosphere.
He crashed a window. Mary, without fear,
Saw him come through the hole in one swift swoop.
A lily in his fist, his wings adroop,
“Ave,” he said, and after that, “Maria.
“Rejoice, because the Lord’s eternal love
Has made you pregnant — not by orthodox
Methods, of course. The Pentecostal dove
Came silently and nested in your box.”
“A hen?” she blushed. “For I know nothing of –”
The angel nodded, knowing she meant cocks.
Only a few weeks after did our Virgin see
The need to make a matrimonial match,
To build a nest wherein the egg could hatch
(Her little belly had begun to burgeon, see.)
It was therefore a matter of some urgency.
She didn’t seek the freshest of the batch;
The one she gave her hand to was no catch,
But any port will do in an emergency.
The foolish gossips gossiped at the feast:
“She might have got a younger one, at least,
Not an old dribbler frosty in the blood.”
But that old dribbler standing by the side
Of such a beautiful and youthful bride,
Found his dry stalk was bursting into bud.