On Translating Amelia Rosselli

Amelia Rosselli’s experimental approach to poetry and trilingual interweaving have only recently been discovered by readers of English. The daunting challenges of translating her work are only partly responsible for this delay.

After Variazioni belliche, translated as War Variations by Lucia Re and Paul Vangelisti (Green Integer, 2003) and La libellula, “The Dragonfly: A Selection of Poems 1953-1981”, translated by Giuseppe Leporace and Deborah Woodard (Chelsea Editions, 2009) it was Jennifer Scapppettone’s bold and impassioned translation of Rosselli’s work- Locomotrix—Selected Poetry and Prose of Amelia Rosselli (University of Chicago Press, 2012) that introduced a greater portion of the fevered, tortured, and fractured world of the poet to English readers.

Scappettone’s book also provides substantial context and background: a perceptive introductory essay, Rosselli’s own ars poetica, “Spazi metrici”, interviews, photographs and early critical appraisals.

Jennifer Scappettone is a poet and Associate Professor of English at The University of Chicago.

Alessandro Cassin met Scappettone, in person, in New York on November 28th, 2012 shortly after the publication of Locomotrix.


Rosselli’s oeuvre consists of the following collection s of poetry :

Variazioni belliche, Milano, Garzanti, 1964.

Serie ospedaliera, Milano, Il Saggiatore, 1969.

Documento (1966-1973), Milano, Garzanti, 1976.

Primi scritti 1952-1963, Milano, Guanda, 1980.

Impromptu, Genova, San Marco dei Giustiniani, 1981.

Appunti sparsi e persi, 1966-1977. Poesie, Reggio Emilia, Aelia Laelia, 1983. (2nd Edition  by Edizioni Empiria, Rome, 1997.)

La libellula, Milano, SE, 1985.

Antologia poetica, Giacinto  Spagnoletti, editor. Milano, Garzanti, 1987.

Impromptu, bilingual edition  curated by A. Rosselli( French traanslation postface by J.-Ch. Vegliante), Paris, Tour de Babel, 1987.

Sonno-Sleep (1953-1966), Roma, Rossi & Spera, 1989.

Sleep. Poesie in inglese, Milano, Garzanti, 1992.

Variazioni belliche, Fondazione Marino Piazzolla, 1995, Plinio Perilli editor preface by Pier Paolo Pasolini.

Le poesie, Milano, Garzanti, 1997

L’opera poetica, a cura di S. Giovannuzzi, con la collaborazione per gli apparati critici di F. Carbognin, C. Carpita, S. De March, G. Palli Baroni, E. Tandello, introduzione di E. Tandello, Milano, Mondadori, 2012 (“I Meridiani”).

The prose volumes:

Prime prose italiane (1954)

Nota (1967-1968)

Diario ottuso. 1954-1968, Roma, IBN, 1990.

The essays:

Una scrittura plurale. Saggi e interventi critici, Novara, Interlinea, 2004.

Neoavanguardia e dintorni, with Edoardo Sanguineti and Elio Pagliarani, Palermo, Palumbo, 2004.

Lettere a Pasolini. 1962-1969, Genova, S. Marco dei Giustiniani, 2008.

È vostra la vita che ho perso. Conversazioni e interviste 1964-1995, Florence, Le Lettere, 2010.

Présentation d’A. Rosselli (La libellule), in Recours au Poème (Paris).


Published translations by Amelia Rosselli:

Emily Dickinson:  Tutte le Poesie. Milan, Mondadori, 1997

Evans, Paul. Dialogo tra un poeta e una musa. Rome, Fondazione Piazzolla, 1991.                                                                                                        

Plath, Sylvia. In Le muse inquietanti e altre poesie. Milan, Guanda, 1965. 2nd  Edition,  Milan, Garzanti 1985.                                                                                                                        

In English translation:

Hospital Series, translated by Roberta Antognini, Giuseppe Leporace and Deborah Woodard, New York, New Directions, 2015.

Impromptu: A Trilingual Edition, translated by Diana Thow, Montreal, Guernica  Editions , 2014.

Locomotrix Selected Poetry and Prose of Amelia Rosselli, a Bilingual Edition, edited and translated by Jennifer Scappettone. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 2012.

The Dragonfly: A Selection of Poems: 1953-1981. Translated by Deborah Woodard and Giuseppe Leporace. New York, Chelsea, Editions, 2009.

War Variations: A Bilingual Edition. Translated by Lucia Re and Paul Vangelisti. Los Angeles, Green Integer, 2005

In French translation:

Impromtu. Translated by Jean-Charles Vegliante. Paris, Tour de Babel, 1987

In Japanese translation:

Tatakai no vuarieshon. Translated by Tadahiko Wada. Tokio, Shoshi Yamada, 1993.


In Spanish Translation:

Poesìas. Translated By Alessandra Merlo in collaboration with Juan Pablo Roa and Roberta Raffetto. Montblanc, Tarragona, Igitur, 2004.

Books on Amelia Rosselli:

Baldacci, Alessandro. Amelia Rosselli. Laterza, Rome, 2007. 2nd Ed.2014.

Baldacci, Alessandro. Fra tragico e assurdo: Benn, Beckett e Celan nella poetica di Amelia Rosselli. Edizioni Università Di Cassino, Cassino, 2006.

Barile, Laura. Laura Barile legge Amelia Rosselli. Nottetempo, Rome, 2014.

Bisanti, Tatiana. L’opera plurilingue  di Amelia Rosselli. Edizioni ETS, Pisa 2007.

Carbognin, Francesco. Le armoniose dissonanze. “Spazi metrici” e intertestualità nella poesia di Amelia Rosselli. Gedit Edizioni, Bologna, 2008.

De March, Silvia. Amelia Rosselli tra poesia e storia. L’Ancora del Mediterraneo, Naples, 2006.

Fusco, Florinda. Amelia Rosselli. La scrittura  e l’interpretazione. Palumbo, Palermo, 2008.

Loreto, Antonio. I santi padri di Amelia Rosselli. “Variazioni belliche” e l’avanguardia. Arcipelago Edizioni, Novara, 2014

La Penna Daniela. La Promessa di un semplice linguaggio: la dinamica delle fonti nell’opera trilingue di Amelia Rosselli. Carocci, Rome, 2009

Limone, Giuseppe and Simone Visciola Eds. I Rosselli: eresia creativa, eredità originale. Guida, Naples, 2005.

Passannanti, Erminia. Sulla Poesia  di Amelia Rosselli, Brindin Press, 2012.

Sanelli, Massimo. Il pragma: testi per Amelia Rosselli. Dedalus, Naples, 2000.

Savinio, Stella, and Rosaria Lo Russo. Amelia Rosselli… e l’assillo è rima. In La furia dei venti contrari,  A documentary film. Le Lettere Florence, 2007.

Snodgrass, Ann. Knowing  Noise: The English Poems of Amelia Rosselli. Studies in Italian Culture: Literature in History. New York, Peter Lang , 2001.

Tandello, Emmanuela. Amelia Rosselli: la fanciulla e l’infinito. Donzelli, Rome, 2007.


Amelia Rosselli was born in Paris in 1930, the daughter of Marion Cave, an English leftist political activist, and Carlo Rosselli, an Italian anti-Fascist leader, the founder, with his brother Nello, of Giustizia e Libertà, a liberal socialist movement. Giustizia e Libertà rapidly became the main non-marxist Italian resistance movement.

Before Carlo Rosselli and Marion Cave were reunited in Paris in 1929, Carlo had escaped from a Fascist penal colony on the island of Lipari, while Marion, pregnant with Amelia, had been arrested for complicity in Carlo’s escape. Carlo, Marion and their three children lived in France as political exiles. In 1937 Carlo and his brother Nello were assassinated at Bagnole de l’Orne by La Cagoule (a French Fascist militia group) acting on orders from Mussolini.

Soon after the funeral of Amelia’s father and uncle the Rosselli extended family (the grandmother —the playwrite— Amelia Pincherle Rosselli, Marion, Nello’s widow, Maria Tedesco Rosselli and all the children) moved to Switzerland, England and finally, in 1940, to the United States.

The family settled in Larchmont, New York.  Amelia attended Mamaroneck’s Public School where she graduated in 1945.

The Rossellis returned to Italy in 1946, but soon after, Marion and the children went to London, where Amelia attended one more year of high school required to access to university in Europe. In England, she also studied piano, violin and composition. Contemporary music and ethnomusicology remained a strong interest throughout her life.

Her mother died in England in 1949, plunging Amelia, then 19, into a deep depression.  Back in Rome, she worked on her poetry, and lived by translating from English and French. Her relationship with poet Rocco Scotellaro and his untimely death in 1953, cast a long shadow on the rest of her life.

Taking a distance from her fathers’ political legacy she joined the Communist Party in 1958.

Among her principal literary influences, Rosselli often mentioned Dante, Rimbaud, Campana, Joyce, Kafka, Scipione and Montale.

Elio Vittorini and Pier Paolo Pasolini were the first to recognized Rosselli’s unique poetic voice, before the publication in 1964 of her first book of poems, Variazioni belliche.

While her main focus was poetry, Rosselli had a keen interest in music theory, which brought her into contact with the composers Luigi Dallapiccola, John Cage, David Tudor, Luciano Berio and Karlheinz Stockhausen. In the 1960’s she also participated in theatrical performances by Aldo Braibanti and Carmelo Bene.

With each subsequent book, of poetry — Serie ospedaliera (1969) Documento (1976), Primi scritti (1980), Appunti sparsi e persi (1966-77), Impromptu (1981), Antologia poetica (1987), Sleep (1992) — she refined a bold approach to language transcending conventional syntax and grammar with her incandescent verse.

Between writer’s blocks and bouts with depressions her last years were occasionally brightened by public readings and closeness to a new generation of young poets. Her life ended in suicide on February 11, 1996.


Alessandro Cassin: Your last name points to an Italian descent.

Jennifer Scappettone: I am a third generation Italian American. Part of my fascination with language derives from the amalgamation of languages that was present in my household: some Neapolitan, some unidentified shards of Italian dialect, some Yiddish because my parents grew up in the Bronx which, at the time, was half Italian and half Jewish. At a very young age I heard some of these languages without being able to identify them as such. I just knew they were my family’s language.

AC Were your parents fluent in Italian?

JS Their Italian was very ragged around the edges, something that caused me great sadness. I felt something had been lost.

AC Did your own experiences of overlapping languages gave you a way into Rosselli’s own trilingual approach?

JS Certainly discovering the poetry of Amelia Rosselli poetry gave me a new purchase on the languages present in my childhood and a new understanding of the hybridity of my Italian background. Even though her background was nothing like mine.

I learned through Rosselli how tradition gets carried along, gets distressed, tattered, and reemerges in pieces.

AC How did you arrive to poetry translation?

JS I had been studying Italian for a number of years and I wanted to translate as a means of honing my poetic skills. I began with Eugenio Montale and concentrated on works that had already been translated by poets with whom I had studied: Charles Wright had translated beautifully some of Montale’s and Campana’s poems. In graduate school I took a workshop with the translator and classicist Anne Carson, and I began translating Rosselli in earnest during that period. Anne was very encouraging to me, and that support was precious, because the work itself is daunting.

AC How did you discover Amelia Rosselli?

JS I was introduced to her work, in January of 2000, by one of my professors, Barbara Spackman, and was immediately fascinated upon contact with her body of work. It really was like nothing else I had ever encountered in any language.

AC Rosselli’s poems, both in form and content, are difficult to place into a literary tradition. How would you describe her “voice” or poetic practice?

JS The associations in her stanzas are allowed unpredictability. The logic of unfolding in Rosselli’s poetry is very, very different from what was happening on both sides of the Atlantic in the more conservative narrative and confessional verse that followed modernism — where even when it’s not a rationalist logic that guides, it all comes together in the person of the poet writing, or in the personage that is imagined to be the poetic speaker.

AC Perhaps there are ways in which American readers can approach her work with greater openness than in Italy. There, the reading of her work has too often been projected onto her tragic family history and her being the daughter of Carlo Rosselli.

Amelia chose poetry as a response to history, and in so doing, in her own words, she “transgresses poetic decorum”. Can you trace how this occurs?

JS The way in which Rosselli addresses history in her poems is much more indirect than people might imagine at first. In other words it is not the writing of witness. You almost never find an autobiographical trace except in a fragment that is quoted all the time. “Nata a Parigi travagliata nell’epopea della nostra generazione fallace…” (Born in Paris Labored in the epic of our fallacious / generation…). Instead history is kaleidoscopically refracted in her works; it is processed in the everyday. There is never a meta-historical analysis, never the arrogance of history with a capital H —history already understood— but rather history as processed almost in a corporeal way, as encountered in the low things. She was so attached to the low things.

AC History confronted through language…

JS Yes. You can read history in the fractured logic of her work. In the syntax that is so tortured, in the neologisms… that is where you find history. The English language meeting the French language meeting the Italian language: that is the history she addresses. And of course there is literary history, from Dante, the Dolce Stil Novo, from the metaphysical poets… It’s an experimental approach to history, never a historical narration.

AC In what sense do you think of her work as political?

JS It is a political act to damage the national language. And it’s felt by those who read the poetry. It’s very transgressive, very discomfiting to read extra prepositions or prepositions lacking, or an infinitive where it should not be, inverted syntax, or a word that sounds like Tuscan dialect of the Twelfth century, but does not exist.

AC On some level these devices seem like roadblocks, making comprehension a struggle, yet they point to something very specific.

JS It forces an awareness of the violence of fascism, not ever naming it as such. An awareness of the experience of encountering a language that is wounded. And a language that is itself violent, inflicting wounds.

AC Her work is not written in three languages, it sort of occurs across languages.

JS I am drawn to her sense of a quest for a universal language. I was surprised to find in Rosselli’s personal library, now in Viterbo, Frederick Bodmer’s The Loom of Language, which is a renegade linguist’s attempt to lay out the cognates of the major languages, so that people could easily learn multiple languages. The book was published in 1944. The explicit dream of the autodidactic approach to language learning that Bodmer designed was a world in which we could all understand each other, so that there would be no more war. I find it fascinating that Amelia Rosselli had treasured it and studied it carefully.

That desire for communication across difference is at the heart of the political implications and consequences of language. What I find so compelling is the absolute paradox that out of a desire for universal forms would come a very hermetic, erudite, difficult and in some ways even illegible poetry.

AC How would you characterize her relationship with Italy?

JS She wrote that she moved back “Per amore di questo paese” (for love for this country)— she loved Italy ardently. I find it absolutely poignant that she chose Italy, the nation state that issued the death order for her father and her uncle. It means that she wanted to understand the nature of the betrayal. So it is a critical act but also a devotional act. It is almost as though her relationship to Italy is similar to her relationship to God. God comes up over and over again in her poems in a way that is highly critical. And at the same time there is a devotional aspect to these poems, they are at times almost like prayers. These authorities with a capital A, which are both the object of devout passion and of devout criticism for someone that has been so hurt by them, are the obsessive targets of an incredibly complicated, melancholic, charge.

Her devotion to Italy is also a consequence of the love for those she was close to: Rocco Scotellaro, her own father and others. It also comes out of her love for the geography of the country; I think she truly loved the geography of the Tiber, of Rome.

AC Being seen as the daughter of Carlo Rosselli must have been both a high distinction and a burden. How do you think it played out for her?

JS I was told by another poet that when in 1991 she was invited to NYU for a conference on Italian literature titled The Disappearing Pheasant she was introduced only as the daughter of Carlo Rosselli…

I am not sure how to put this, but it is clear to me that she is addressing her father in much of her poetry. The figure of the daughter… and the male figure being addressed may be seen as one of the myriad I/thou dyads in this work.

I think that she saw her work in much the same way as Carlo Rosselli saw his: she is writing for liberation. Not to liberate Italy as a nation state—and she famously chose not socialism, but communism. Still, her writing is a circuitous continuation of the work of her father at a more intimate level.

AC Your book displays a passionate, inquisitive approach to her work. You seem to try different strategies and techniques in your translation of different poems. Even the conception of the book seems to trace a kind of discovery journey, yours and the reader’s toward Rosselli’s complex universe…

JS It was from the start a truly empathetic task of transit toward something which is really so distant from my own experience. And yet… I felt so close to it, the more I studied and the more I understood about her struggle. Her work was showing me the beauty of the grammar of the poor, or the beauty of the contamination of the language which breeds a new language and gives a name to uninscribed experiences. I am referring to that which has been experienced on a somatic level or an emotional level but has not been given a name yet. She coins terms for those experiences. It’s discomfiting to encounter a name for something that’s never been named before, but it’s also illuminating.

AC You have worked on and lived with Rosselli’s poems for twelve years…

JS Lived with them is a good way to describe it. It has been a very intimate experience, I feel like I’ve known her, yet I have come to her work after she passed away… it’s the craziest feeling!

AC In translating a relatively unknown poet into another language one becomes also partly biographer, critic and scholar. Your introductory essay is part biography, critical analysis and translator’s note. And in a sense the whole book reads like an introduction to Rosselli’s life and work for an English speaking audience. Can you describe how this book was put together?

JS When I began, there was no book of translations of her work available in English. I knew that Lucia Re and Paul Vangelisti were working on Variazioni belliche, so I started by translating Serie ospedaliera, during the summer of the year 2000, while living in Trastevere. The more I read, the more I felt that in order to understand that book, readers would have to understand what it came out of, and what came of it, afterwards. Serie ospedaliera is a much more hermetic book than Variazioni belliche. I was afraid people would not be able to appreciate the many references to gardens, spaces, interiors, without having encountered the battlefield that is her first book. The first book has more identifiable historical markers. That is when I began to think of what a “selected poems “ would look like. That of course expanded the whole problem because I needed to account for the many different vectors of her production.

AC Can you give me some examples?

JS In order to understand her Italian writing you need to see her English writing. Ideally I would have liked to have more room for her French writing as well— but publishers have their limits for what is marketable, and I was already pushing those to a great extent. As a substitute I selected parts of her diary in three languages, so that readers could at least get a sense of how she was charting the relations between these three languages. I also felt it was important to give a substantial biography which, of course, led to a problem: there is no complete biography, only Silvia De March’s partial biography. I had to cobble it together out of the things I had read, the conversations I had had, and the research I was doing.

AC You also include some of her early critics…

JS I thought it was important to show that two major intellectual figures, Pasolini and Zanzotto, had recognized the genius of this work from the start, even if they were not able to “explain” it. They were among the first to allow us to conceive of it, even in figural terms. They were able to present metaphors to the public through which to experience the poems: this was crucial. Pasolini’s comparison of her work to a terrible laboratory experiment is a very strong image. As is his comparison of her poetry to a mushroom cloud.

AC Eventually you included much more than a selection of poems.

JS I had discovered a world, her world. And in order for readers to experience the multiplicity of her world, they need to understand not only the three languages of her experience, but the many different ways that she cast about for solutions to the schisms of her experience. I wanted to include her theoretical writings and samples of the way she explained herself in interviews.

AC You included photographs and book covers.

JS I felt the need for visual cues, so I embarked on the adventure of seeking out photographs. After devoting ten or eleven years to someone’s work, the discovery of what she looked like was immensely moving. Seeing her as a child vacationing on the French Riviera was touching, as was hearing Silvia Rosselli explain to me that they were in Westchester County (so close to where I grew up), when a certain picture was taken.

AC In a sense you were providing a context for the poems?

JS The whole book is meant to be a series of touchstones for further exploration. I cannot say I have mastered the material. She has a line in her diary in three languages — “la poesia è fatta di liberazione, non di riflessione” (poetry is a matter of liberation, not reflection) and in a way I want people to feel free to explore this work for themselves. I don’t want to explain it away.

AC One of the ways she described her work was “poesia di ricerca”, what does this mean to you?

JS I am very interested in the concept of “poesia di ricerca”. One of the American poets with whom I am closest, Lyn Hejinian, whose book of poetic essays is called The Language of Inquiry, speaks of the notion of experiment. This is why Pasolini was so accurate when he compared Rosselli’s poetic process to that of a terrible laboratory experiment, one in which parameters are set —the cube for example— and that paradoxically enables more freedom for the work. The parameters having been set, the process unfolds in a way that is not controlled altogether by the poet. Rosselli really gives the material precedence. It is not her ego that is controlling: she was always trying to escape the ego through poetry. She thought that the ego was something to be explored with one’s analyst.

AC How did you know when to stop, where to end the book?

JS A project like this could have gone on for years. I felt, era ora, it was time for this work to meet an English speaking public.

I am sorry I did not have the benefit of the Meridiano Mondadori edition (an annotated complete works volume, which was finally published after Locomotrix). That would have been of great help because essentially I was writing notes and annotations to poems all on my own, with the occasional help of an editor abroad who had consulted a primary document more recently than I had at her archives in Pavia. The Meridiano edition was taken on by Stefano Giovanuzzi and a whole team of scholars who worked in her archives, people who are geographically much closer to the source material than I was able to be.

AC Can you venture what impact your book has had or will have?

JS The people who have encountered the book in English and have been struck by it have produced all kinds of hypotheses about how American poetry might have been changed had she been introduced in the ‘60s, as she wanted to be. People are finding links with American poetry of the ‘60s and ‘70s that are real, because she was reading and writing about Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, John Barrymore, Charles Olson. She was also reading writings of the Black Power movement; she was entirely tuned in to what was happening in the US. Her work is a part of American literary history, despite the fact that most people don’t know it.

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