How to read Leopardi? No, seriously, I’m asking! The paradox of choice in translation

Who’s that clever boy?
Image source: Wikipedia

[I am not a scholar or anything close… instead just a confused consumer trying to read the 19th century Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi in English and finding that it is much harder to choose a translation than I ever expected. But, I hope this post can maybe function as an un-academic bibliography of Leopardi translations, and for my own purposes, a purchase guide for leisure reading.]

Have you heard of the paradox of choice? The concept comes from the 2004 book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less by psychologist Barry Schwartz, who popularized the idea among casual audiences with this 2005 TED Talk. It proposes the counter-intuitive behavioral economics hypothesis that consumer welfare might decrease when the market presents them with too many similar products because the costs of choosing the utility-maximizing option between those products will increase.

…or to eliminate the economics jargon and talk like a normal person, trying to pick the perfect product out of dozens can become stressful, especially for anxious people with what Schwartz calls “maximizer” personalities who fixate on ideals and feel prone to regretting their choices.

Of course, the concept has faced some substantial criticism by economists and the early experimental results have failed to replicate like so many other psychological studies popularized by TED (and then even if it did replicate, I’m not sure how much choosing between 6 jams or 24 can tell us about more serious decisions like purchasing a car or health insurance plan).

However, despite the weakness of the empirical results, I think Schwartz does propose a subtle insight that can apply to our most complex, difficult choices: in economics jargon, taking the time to consider the opportunity costs of a complex decision itself carries an opportunity cost. And in ordinary language again… instead of agonizing over a tough choice by trying to find the best one, you could just make a quick pick and go on to enjoy your day (the easy-going “satisfier” personality type identified by Schwartz).

Simple everyday experience can probably provide better examples of the idea than any experiment every could. Most grocery shoppers won’t worry much about grabbing one of the 175 varieties of salad dressing mentioned in Schwartz’s TED Talk, but they might have trouble choosing which of the 80 Vanguard ETFs they should invest in when planning for their retirement (if they’ve even settled on Vanguard out of dozens of investment companies!). Or to use an example from my own life abroad in Japan, I spent hours researching different remittance options to send money back home to America. But when I finally committed to one, I regretted my choice within a few weeks after I discovered that I could have saved money with a different company. It was the paradox of choice in action: the large number of complex options confused me, and when that confusion produced a suboptimal decision, my nagging “maximizer” personality dragged on my guilty conscience.

For the purposes of this post though, I have a much more trivial example of the paradox: which of the 40-some editions of Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi’s translated works should I read in the office between class periods? The question sounds simple, but then my “maximizer” personality strikes again; I’ve spent the last week reading about how to read Leopardi …instead of, you know, actually reading him. And then as I re-read this post before I hit “publish,” I can’t help but wonder if all of that choice hasn’t driven me insane…

First, it might help to pick out two other examples from the world of translated literature to show how “One Choice” and “Limited Choice” compares with the “oh-my-god-too-much choice” of obscure old Leopardi.

Last year, I wanted to read the early 20th century Japanese horror writer Izumi Kyoka. So, I Googled up his name, clicked the link to Amazon on the first page of the search results, and discovered Japanese Gothic Tales, a 1996 selection of four of his most significant short stories translated by Charles Inouye, a professor of Japanese literature. Apart from the follow-up volume More Gothic Tales, it’s the only collection of Kyoka’s prose work in English. Oh, but Amazon doesn’t have an eBook, so I’ll check Google Books… and great, there it is. I’ve got a cheap digital copy that I can read on the go. One choice, no problem. Perfect.

It becomes a just little trickier when a writer has multiple translators. After Kyoka, I decided to bounce across the world to pick up Montaigne’s Essays. Montaigne has four common translations of his complete Essays (I’m excluding out-of-publication or abridged editions like this one using the Cohen translation). In order of publication year:

Florio 1603. In all of its impenetrable Elizabethan charm! Beyond being the first, this edition has tremendous historical significance: legend has it that Shakespeare read it and used Montaigne’s essay “Of the Caniballes” as a source of inspiration for The Tempest.

Cotton 1685, updated by Hazlitt 1877. This one became the most accessible English edition of Montaigne after it entered the public domain and received a free online republication by Project Gutenberg. If you Google “montaigne essays” you will probably find this one first (plus, Hazlitt’s Victorian prose doesn’t light up my spell-checker red like Florio’s did when I tried to type out ye olde timey title Essayes on Morall, Politike, and Millitarie Discourses).

Frame 1957 or Screech 1991. For modern readers that don’t want to slog through antiquated English, the choice comes down between these two. In my own case, I settled on Screech simply because his edition has an eBook version on Amazon and Frame’s does not. Since I didn’t want to lug a 1000-plus page book-brick around as I rotate between four school offices each week, I haven’t regretted going digital. Limited choice, little problem. Easy.

Ah, but now I get to Leopardi, a writer who, despite his obscurity, dazzled me before I even read him because of the sheer excess of choice in picking a translation. Leopardi has three major works: the Canti (his poems), the Operette Morali (his prose essays and dialogues), and the Zibaldone di Pensieri (his personal notes on philology and philosophy). If you can read Italian, the choice is simple: pick up an original and get reading. But for those us requiring an English translation, the choices multiply across overlapping selections, ambiguous collections, alternative titles for the same works, and even re-publications by the same translator under new titles.

Take for example the efforts of just one translator: J.G. Nichols. Nichols starts in 1998 with The Canti, with a Selection of his Prose, apparently republished without that prose in 2014 under the new title Canti: The Most Important Book of Modern Italian Poetry. In 2002, Nichols also released Thoughts and the Broom, collecting Leopardi’s poem “The Broom” with his short, posthumous Pensieri (though not to be confused, as I initially was, with the much longer Zibaldone di Pensieri). Then for some reason, in 2017 one of Nichol’s publishers seems to have re-released a separate volume of the Pensieri called just Thoughts without “The Broom” (I say “seems” because I can’t follow the chain of publication clearly even on WorldCat). Oh, but then Nichols also has an earlier edition called Moral Fables followed by Thoughts from 2016 which combines Leopardi’s Operette Morali with the aforementioned Pensieri.

Confused? Yeah, me too. I’m exaggerating the challenge here, but when I first Googled up “leopardi operette morali,” I simply didn’t understand my purchase options. Do I buy Essays and Dialogues? Or Moral Essays? And what are the Moral Fables? How do Thoughts fit into this? Are these all different translations of the original title Operette Morali or separate works? Oh-my-god-too-much choice, oh-my-modestly-difficult problem! I have to think about this.

So, just for fun, to feed my confusion rather than resolve it, I put together a list of as many English Leopardi translations as I could find (if anyone can call WorldCat fun…). I won’t call it comprehensive because I’m sure that I missed something and I started to zone out after about 100 search results, so I apologize for any errors or oversights. But eh, whatever, the list is still too long, even if I tried to cut the out-of-print mid-century books that haven’t yet entered the public domain. Maybe you could find them in a university library or with a rare-books seller, but I live in rural Japan so if I couldn’t buy it online or (legally) download it within the first couple pages of a Google search, it doesn’t exist to me.

Anyway here’s what I’ve found. No rigorous citations, just the translator’s name, the earliest publication year listed on WorldCat, and the title with a link to a catalogue entry. I’ve ***starred*** the ones that seem most accessible to casual readers in 2019, with some recommendations at the end:

The Complete (-ish?) Canti

Selected Canti

Operette Morali

Zibaldone di Pensieri


Other Works and Miscellaneous Collections

So, my conclusions? First, don’t do what I did and scour the internet for some phantom definitive edition like one of Schwartz’s “maximizers.” It’s taken me hours to sort all of this out …at this point, longer than I’ve actually spent reading Leopardi! Instead, become one of Schwartz’s “satisfiers” …skip the search, find whatever edition your local library happens to have, and read it. As best as I can tell, all of the books above are serious scholarly efforts made accessible to both academic and casual audiences (with the exception of the complete Zibaldone, see below). To the extent that anyone can translate poetry beyond its native language, I doubt any of them will lead you too far astray. But if you’re like me and don’t have the luxury of an extensive library, I have a few recommendations to help stave off that awful paradox of choice:

For the Canti, neither of Project Gutenberg’s old translations claim to offer a “complete” collection, so maybe check out Kline’s free version available at Poetry in Translation. If you don’t mind spending money, Galassi’s 2010 bilingual edition looks cool for including the original Italian so you can try to read alongside the rhythms of Leopardi’s verse but if you want a more compact English-only text, the more recent Nichols from 2014 seems easiest to purchase of all the selections and collections.

For the Operette Morali, I picked up the 1882 Edwardes translation on Project Gutenberg ’cause it’s free and I don’t mind the Victorian style, but I imagine that Nichols, Creagh, or Cecchetti will use more modern English. Nichols’ 2016 edition specifically seems nice here for including the Pensieri, which draw on Leopardi’s personal selections from the Zibaldone. That’s a great boon for casual readers because the complete Zibaldone is an absolute monster clocking in at 4500 pages in the original Italian and condensed down into *just* 2500 for the English edition. Produced by a team of seven translators (did you notice that et al.?) with even more editors and consultants, the whole effort seems primarily concerned with other academics, especially when considering that much of the Zibaldone itself focuses on Leopardi’s philological scholarship rather than his more accessible literary thoughts. For leisure readers then, the Zibaldone selections in Parks’ 2014 Passions might suffice for a casual sampling.

And phew, wow. That was a lot of work for a little leisure reading. I’ve exaggerated the effects of the paradox of choice here — I’m glad for such a diversity of options in translation* and I had a lot of fun learning about them —  but ugh, I’m tired. Instead of cracking open the Operette Morali for the first time, I think I’d rather start with a nap! Tomorrow then…

* [Maybe a sad aside, a friend of mine who works in academic publishing for an Arabic Studies journal tells me that little Arabic writing — fiction and nonfiction, literary and pulp — has reached English reading audiences in translation. To echo the economists’ criticisms of the idea of the paradox of choice, on balance I think too much choice will always beat no choice at all.]

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