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Giuseppe Ungaretti’s Mattina: Interpretative Understanding as Translation.[1]

This note explores the idea that in certain cases – especially those where something has been said to be ‘untranslatable’ – that an interpretative commentary on the actual text using the target language only as an interpretative meta-language is richer and more helpful for a reader than producing a ‘translation’ in the traditional way. In translation as normally understood, the translator creates a new text in the target language. This new text is by definition not the original, but a ‘translation equivalent’. As far as the reader is concerned, it is in an ‘unknown relation’ to the original. This relation depends on some equivalence of literary skills and sensibility between source author and translator. But is it not better to lead a reader to an actual understanding, not only of the poem, but of this fragment of the source language itself and its context? However, this suggestion also cries out for caution. Robert Alter (2004:xix) draws attention to “the heresy of explanation” in which translation is used to explain – even explain away – a source text, with the excuse of aiming for clarity. Translators always have some agenda. Translation by interpretation, in the way it ‘explains’ the source language could indeed be over-explanatory and controlling. So ‘commentary as translation’ needs to be limited just to those ways in which a source text serves as input to a more personal reading – that is, to the formal aspects of language, phonology, semantics, grammar, style - and leave the pragmatic interpretation, the literary understanding, to the reader (with some helpful suggestions, I suppose). But after all, isn’t this exactly what a conventional translation does? In any case, my suggestion is not altogether serious. It is more an exploratory diversion and an excuse for linguistic criticism.


Santa Maria La Longa il 26 gennaio 1917



This is from Mandelbaum’s (1975) edition of Ungaretti. For background, I am also relying on the translation in this edition of the ‘notes’ section of Mondadori’s 1969 edition of Ungaretti’s collected poems, Vita d’un uomo: Tutte le poesie, edited by Leone Piccioni. This particular poem appears in L’Allegria (The Joy), 1914-1919. The poems were written while Ungaretti was an active soldier in WW1. The final published collection originated in three earlier volumes. This poem originally appeared in the third section of L’Allegria, entitled “Naufragi” (Shipwrecks). Ungaretti originally called what became this section of L’Allegria - “L’Allegria di Naufragi” (Joy of Shipwrecks). In his introduction, Ungaretti glosses his original title using the following words; there is a “joy at the moment”, “a momentary exultation” in living which is at the same time always being consumed by time, hence “all is shipwrecked”. He says that this is not a philosophical statement, but a concrete experience of the will to live “despite all”, an experience intensified by being surrounded by death in the war (Mandelbaum, 1975: 205-6). I will look at the language and meaning of Mattina from a number of dimensions.

Consider the framing context of the two line poem as printed on the page. This is the title “mattina” and a named locale and time. Along with the fact of its publishing ‘as a poem’, these provide the first and most basic context for interpretation; introducing both the concept MORNING and that particular morning. This makes the context of the poem’s origin concrete and imaginable. (Following convention I will use caps. for concepts, double quotes for words and lower case for the phenomenon itself.)

Now let’s look at the concepts that the words introduce and their roles in the semantic structure of the poem. Here I will use self-explanatory terminology from Michael Halliday’s (1994) analysis of the representational aspect of meaning. This part of meaning is how language represents experience. Halliday’s meta-language analyzes a clause in terms of processes, participants and circumstances. There is a very useful simplified version of this semantic role representation useful for literary analysis in chapter 11 of Roger Fowler’s 1996, Linguistic Criticism.

In our poem, there is the process expressed by the verb “illuminare”. There is a participant role or, alternatively, perhaps some circumstantial role (a time, a place, a manner, a cause) introduced by the adjective “immenso”. There is also an elliptical or ‘understood’ participant, the subject or speaker ‘I’, the poet’s voice, dramatizing the biographical Ungaretti. Although it isn’t included in the body of the poem, the framing context introduces two more semantic roles which are additional circumstances to the whole represented situation; a time, the “Mattina” (morning) of “26 gen. 1916”, and a place “Santa Maria La Longa”.

The word “illuminare” makes manifest either the mental concept TO ENLIGHTEN – to ‘illumine’ in the sense of gaining a grasp of something - that is, TO CAUSE TO BECOME IN A STATE OF KNOWLEDGE OR UNDERSTANDING or alternatively the physical concept TO CAUSE TO BECOME LIT UP, for example, to illuminate a dark room. (As pointed out by Lakoff and Johnson (1980) many mental process terms are derived from physical metaphors. For example,we say “I see” to mean I understand. Much higher level poetry is based on these ‘poetic’ origins.) “Mattina” expresses the concept MORNING. The word “immenso” also can convey both concrete and abstract concepts, either HUGE, IMMEASURABLE, or INFINITE and UNTOLD. (For these glosses I have used the Collins bilingual dictionary.)

How are these words expressing these concepts put together grammatically; how are the concepts “worded”? What stylistic choices have been made? “M’illumino” is the reflexive 1 person, present tense form of illuminare. It implies an understood subject, the 1st person or speaker. Literally, it would mean EGO REFLEXIVELY BECOMES ENLIGHTENED OR LIT UP - “I illuminate myself”. In fact, Frederic Jones (1977:73)) translates this line literally using these words and John Nims (1960:311) also uses the reflexive.

This needs more work. How is REFLEXIVELY to be interpreted? How could one illuminate oneself? One possible way to interpret this draws on the fact that, in Italian, the reflexive is sometimes used to avoid using the passive voice. If this were the case, then something else in the context, X, is a causer and CAUSED EGO TO BECOME ENLIGHTENED AND/OR LIT UP. Accordingly, Glauco Cambon (1967:27) translates the line as “I am illuminated” and Mandelbaum, in an effort to avoid the passive makes “immense” the grammatical subject and inserts the speaker into the poem as third person object, “Immensity/illumines me”. He does not reproduce the reflexive in English (Mandelbaum, 1975: 41, 208). What could the causer, X be?

The obvious candidate is “d’immenso”. This consists of the preposition “di” before the adjective “immense”. “Di” has many uses. It is like English ‘of’ or French ‘de’; the dictionary lists CAUSE, PROVENANCE and MANNER as possibilities. This seems to solve one interpretative problem. IMMENSITY CAUSED EGO TO BECOME ENLIGHTENED. (This excludes the physical concept LIT UP, as immensity itself can not do this. We need a physical source of light to preserve any physical sense of ‘illumine’ - more on this in a moment.) My interpretative problem is that neither of my Italian speaking informants have any real sense of an external causer with respect to EGO’s change of state, the poet’s enlightenment. The verb is interpreted inchoatively, as representing BECOMES ENLIGHTENED OR LIT UP. Likewise, Nims (1960:311) is adamant that there is no external causer. He writes, “The poet is not illuminated from without by sea or sky. He illuminated himself by the contact: the fire of his own soul burns high and clear in its excitement”. (The ‘exaltation’ Ungaretti himself refers to.) Presumably, this is because the reflexive prohibits (or strongly discourages) a causal interpretation of “di” as a minor predication of cause with “immenso”. (Below I will relate this to the prominence of the "u" sound in "illumino".) This leaves us with the semantic relations of PROVENANCE and MANNER (made out of, measure of, origin of etc.) with which to interpret the relation between immensity and illumination. So this is the semantic picture: there is a change of state in the poet, he becomes enlightened and/or lit up and this is occasioned by immensity or becomes so in a manner best characterized as some unspecified relation between him and immensity.

But what is ‘immense’? Of what is “immenso” a property? The framing context gives us the obvious interpretation - The HUGENESS OR THE INFINITE AND UNTOLD NATURE OF THE MORNING OF 16 GEN. 1916 AT SANTA MARIA. So what happened? THE IMMENSITY OF THAT MORNING WAS THE PROVENANCE AND/OR MANNER OF THE SPEAKER’S ENLIGHTENMENT – some unspecified relationship between the speaker and these properties of that morning as a moment of illumination.

But not only is the illumination abstract and mental/spiritual, COMING TO KNOW, the situation can also be understood physically. MORNING is when THE SUN LIGHTS UP the world, so we can have both senses of “illuminare” A property of the morning as a sensory phenomenon is the occasion and/or manner of some unknown process of enlightenment. Nims (1960:311) freer translation foregrounds this physical interpretation, “(1.) I flood myself with light (2.) of the immense”. We can infer such connections in this framing context. The MORNING with respect to its HUGENESS, its INFINITITY, its UNTOLD nature and in the LIGHT OF THE SUN - How? Perhaps, another day in a seeming recurring infinity of days; the colour of a sky seemingly stretching away to infinity; the overwhelming size and power of the sunlight or the whole scene – which literally LIGHTS EGO UP and allows his mind to be filled with the perception, with LIGHT, the occasion of his more abstract ENLIGHTENMENT. The form makes manifest this potential double meaning.

Two of the translations mentioned above translate this causal or provenance relationship using the English pronoun ‘with’. Jones translates “I illuminate myself/with immensity” while Cambon (1967:27) translates “I am illuminated/with immensity”. And we saw that Nims adds the adverbial phrase, “with light”. On the other hand, as we have seen, Mandelbaum makes the immensity itself the subject – a grammatical function usually interpreted as causer - “Immensity illuminates me”. As we have analyzed it, the Italian makes manifest the relationship between mental and physical experience. One of my informants, Filippo Cardini writes, “…to my ear, the relationship between light/enlightenment and immensity seems to go deeper than one simply involving causation. Somehow, the two concepts seem to merge in one thing: maybe immensity is (also) a form of light, and/or light can (also) exist in the form of immensity. So, one could interpret the poem as something like “Immensity IS?CAN BE intrinsically luminous and the poet gets illuminated by exposing himself (or his mind) to it” and he does so actively.

The reader needs to infer connections like these from the form and meaning potential in Italian in this framing context. The poetry must make those inferences possible which lead to the poet’s intended message, as unspecified and vague and infinitely open as that may be. That’s what Ungaretti means when he says that he struggles in “formal torments” to make a poetic form that is “adherent to the changes in his spirit”. A poet makes manifest in textual form changes in self-awareness through which poetry as “seemly biography” develops maturity as a person (Mandelbaum, 1975:203).

At heart, the question is: how many new contextually warranted inferential connections can readers now make between two things; that morning and those descriptions of it which might satisfy the predicate ‘immensity’ and how this could relate to a mental or spiritual change in the poet? Every poem is a question of this sort? Making these connections will also arouse and articulate feelings. Whose thoughts and whose feelings? That morning and immensity can be connected within a mind under an indefinite number of different descriptions and arouse many diverse feelings. As we read, re-read and reflect, we can try to understand those of Ungaretti and we can relate these to our own thoughts and feelings.

Some of the thoughts will contain basic and universal concepts; those of time and space, object and event, concepts such as EGO, VERY BIG, LIGHT UP, MORNING, CAUSE, PROVENANCE, MANNER, COME TO KNOW OR BELIEVE and don’t need translation. Others may be rational abstractions which are almost culturally inevitable like INFINITE or UNTOLD, even ENLIGHTENED. The most problematic concepts for this translation are those which are culturally specific to Italian society now and in the early 20 century. The same will be true of attitudes. These inter-cultural factors will affect the array of connections available to a reader, and be more severe depending on our cultural, temporal and linguistic distance. For example, even though literary art models the universal within the concrete – that’s why it is so inter-culturally relevant - a twenty first century English reader is likely to view ‘mysticism’ less seriously in epistemological terms than an Alexandria-born Italian youth in 1917 and also to view WW1 through the eyes of to-day’s English-speaking culture. This leads to different thoughts and arouses different feelings.

Now let’s consider the style of the poem.I mean here the choices in wording on all levels of language that warrant connections which must be inferentially interpreted if the poem is to be relevant to the reader. What kind of suggestive parallelism is there at all levels of language? Here are some possibilities:

  • “illumino” is directly parallel with “immenso” in a number of ways. They are graphically parallel, although the first is four syllables and the second only three. They end-rhyme with ‘o’; they begin with the same vowel, both in weak initial syllables. The stresses and lengths of the syllables are parallel, with both /l/ and /m/ pronounced twice in Italian (Nims). The two words are foregrounded in importance and carefully arranged and chosen to be parallel. Thus we are invited to infer how immensity and illumination are connected – how they are the same. How are they or can they be linked in our thinking? This is the open-ended process of interpretation mentioned above and this is what Ungaretti meant us to do.
  • “m’” and “d’” are parallel. My self understanding or self-awareness is parallel to the minor predication of the relation to this situation, this morning here and now, conceived as provenance or manner. How are these somehow the same? Nature and my mind at the beginning of this day.
  • the Latin root and Italian word “lume” (a source of light) is contained inside “illumino” Not only do we have the basic metaphor of a source of light and hence perception, the one lexical form is inside the other, actually modelling the process. The LIGHT that causes it is inside ENLIGHTENMENT and this syllable as Nims (: 311) points out, with its long rounded "u" is the most prominent syllable in the poem. This means it is its informational focus, its foregrounded meaning. This may also foreground its reflexivity, and hence the poet's interiority as the source of light, and as emphasized above, background any sense of an external causer.
  • The syllable /men/ is contained within “immenso”. Although its etymology derives from the past participle of Latin metiri, ‘to measure’, it provides a phonological echo of “mente”, fromLatin, “mens” or mind. Perhaps, this directly models something mental, ENLIGHTENMENT, being carried by the physical MEASURE or whatever is contained within the IMMENSITY OF THAT MORNING. This syllable is parallel with the "u" above, and gains prominence from this association - intensifying the expression with respect to measure - but, perhaps out of respect for the foregrounded refl;exive, is less prominent than the former.
  • “Mattina” and “Maria” are parallel also; beginning with nasals and ending with ‘a’. The nasals parallel those in the other words and la longa parallels the ls in “illumino”.
  • Are there any other allusions or echoes that can be triggered by the form and inferentially developed from our background knowledge of the world? This is the war. It is perhaps far-fetched but according to the dictionary “Mattatoio” means slaughterhouse (perhaps because animals are slaughtered in the morning). And “matta” (fem.) means crazy; furthermore “illusi” and “illudere” mean illusion and deception. Inferentially these allusive echoes, if they can be warranted, are in a complete tension with both the meaning of the poem and its most relevant interpretations. But perhaps we have a warrant for this within the collection and especially this section. At the same time as the concrete experience is of illlumination and lighting up with joy, there is the shipwreck mentioned in the title….maybe “Naufragi” allows us this added inferential dimension. Earlier on, I quoted Ungaretti on the role of pervasive death in his momentary exultations. And other poems in L’Allegria are directly concerned with these topics: the IMMENSITY in question is the SLAUGHTER of humans as if they were ANIMALS, the treatment of humans as if they were THINGS, the death of those with MINDS that must be DELUDED, steeped in saving ILLUSIONS. However, if the poem could imply this; the contextual implication is very hidden away within the joy, the exaltation, an inferential warrant literally hidden within the words, the way light and mind are hidden within the words. I must say, however, that these suggestions are rejected completely by one of my informants

The implications of “MATTINA” are very rich and open-ended indeed, although it is only two words long. We are invited to think how the appearance of morning on this particular day, the immensity of that morning with its light be an occasion for illumination, enlightenment, insight that is so urgent and emotionally expressed. Like all poetry, the problem is that of trying to understand an intensely relevant universal mystery within the complexity of a lived experience. We cannot definitively once and for all cast into words that experience of the poet’s mind being actively illumined by and on the occasion of that morning. That morning, in whatever respect the word “immenso”, can allow us to ‘think out’ whatever it was that occasioned some kind of active grasping or a feeling of grasping something significant in some way remains mysterious; infinitely so. The poem actually reproduces and models that experience, which the reader uses to likewise try to grasp that mystery.

The sense of the infinite – in the “immense” of that morning itself and in its interpretation – reminds us of Kant’s concept of the sublime. This is an aesthetic experience which elicits a sense of our mind being overwhelmed by the magnitude of something – the mathematical sublime – or something’s power – the dynamical sublime. We use the words “profound”, “mystical” or “obscure” to describe such felt meanings, implicit in the mysterious concepts used to interpret what is presented to consciousness, depending on our point of view.

I used the term “felt meanings”. In the pragmatic context of poetry, the actual act of writing and the sheer shortness of the poem makes it seem like a spoken utterance, and one which is urgent. It has been called "poesia-baleno", flash-of-lighning poetry. It has the effect here like “So much depends/ upon” and “I must tell you”, introducing W.C. Williams, ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ and ‘Young Sycamore’, respectively. Combined with profoundly mysterious and suggestive contextual effects, and the parallelism in sound, this pragmatic urgency conveys and arouses affectivity/motivation. Cambon (1967: 27) perceives the lines as “ecstatic”. What has happened is important, whatever it means.

(see my essays on affectivity and its expression, Downes, 1995: 2000.)

I have explored the idea that instead of casting the poems into English, more insight is gained by merely using English as a meta-language for interpretatively grasping the actual Italian wording, and translating the poem that way, through understanding Italian.


Alter, R. (2004) The Five Books of Moses: A translation with commentary. New York: W.W. Norton.

Cambon, C. (1967) Giuseppe Ungaretti. Columbia Essays on Modern Writers 30. New York: Columbia University Press.

Downes, W. (1995) 'Pragmatics of music and emotion' Language Forum 2.2: 1-27

Downes, W. (2000) 'The language of felt experience' Language and Literature 9.2: 99-121.

Fowler, R. (1996 2 ed.) Linguistic Criticism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Halliday, M. (1994 2 ed.) An Introduction to Functional Grammar. London: Edward Arnold.

Jones, F. (1977) Giuseppe Ungaretti: poet and critic. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Lakoff, G and Johnson, M. (1980) Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mandelbaum, A. (1975 trans) Selected Poems of Giuseppe Ungaretti. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Nims, J. (1960) ‘Mattina’ in Burnshaw, S. (ed.) The Poem Itself: 150 European poems translated and analyzed. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

1] I would like to thank Dr. Filippo Cardini and Dr. Gabrina Pounds for their very helpful comments on the Italian grammar and semantics of the text and also my daughter Victoria Downes–Russo for allowing me to be part of her studies of Ungaretti and Italian literature. COPYRIGHT William Downes

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