On “I loved a Sparrowhawk”
Samantha Pious

Translation is a form of scholarship, but it is not always methodical.

When Rebecca Levi (the translation editor at Volume) wrote to me requesting a translator’s essay, I started looking through my notes on the sparrowhawk sonnet and had a minor panic attack when I realized that Francesco Trucchi (the poem’s nineteenth-century editor) had cited a manuscript in the holdings of the Vatican Apostolic Library but had failed to specify the folio numbers.

In the note to his edition, Trucchi tentatively attributes the sparrowhawk sonnet to a thirteenth-century woman poet, La Nina Siciliana. Scholarly tradition held that La Nina was the beloved of Dante da Maiano (a contemporary of Dante Alighieri), with whom she had exchanged a series of love sonnets. Since the mid-seventeenth century, she had figured in numerous histories, biographies, dictionaries, and travel guides, and a sonnet attributed to her had appeared in several anthologies. Trucchi conjectured, primarily on aesthetic grounds, that the sparrowhawk sonnet might well have been composed by the same woman author.

There was only one problem: “La Nina Siciliana” did not exist. The love sonnet attributed to her was likely composed not in thirteenth-century Sicily but in sixteenth-century Florence. Or, to be more precise, the love sonnet dated from the year 1527, at the printing office of Giunta Press, whose anthology of sonnets and songs contained the very earliest mention of “Monna Nina.”

In my panic, I began to suspect another hoax. What if the sparrowhawk sonnet was as inauthentic as its supposed author? What if Trucchi had composed the poem himself?

Luckily, I was able to access digital images of the manuscript on the Vatican Apostolic Library’s website and confirm that the sparrowhawk sonnet does in fact appear there. But when I read the manuscript text, I realized that Trucchi had done a great deal to regularize not only the spelling but also the meter in his edition.

It was fairly easy for me to transcribe the poem straight from the manuscript and––as is the norm for modern-day editors of medieval texts––to add line breaks and punctuation. My panic was over, and my problem solved.

Or is it? I first translated the sparrowhawk sonnet four years ago, in 2016, before learning the full story of “Monna Nina” as a sixteenth-century hoax. At the time, I was certain that the scholars who had argued against her existence were merely doing their best to erase women from literary history. Despite my classmates’ admonishments with regard to the unknowability of authorial intent, I knew that no poem could exist unless there was also a poet. And Anonymous––the saying goes––is nearly always a woman.

At this point, you may be asking why gender matters in the first place. Given the statistics compiled by Meytal Radzinski in May 2014, the answer seems obvious. But it is more than that. As I read and reread the sparrowhawk sonnet, I recognize and relive my own experience in what I imagine to be the speaker’s mourning for her lost love. I remember the figure of the knight-as-sparrowhawk in a narrative poem by Marie de France, another “semi-anonymous” figure whose historical existence as a woman poet has also been disputed. The plain style of the sparrowhawk sonnet, with its assonant rhymes, repetition of words and syntactic structures, and fairy-tale imagery, reminds me more of a ballad than a sonnet. Sometimes I wonder if it could be a distant precursor to Gwendolyn Brooks’s sonnet-ballad,” though Brooks uses enjambment more frequently and to much greater effect than this particular sonnet-writer. As a woman myself, writing in a poetic tradition that (I hope) includes or at least gratefully acknowledges Brooks as well as Marie de France, I would like to believe that Anonymous is, yes, a woman. I would feel duped if she were not.

Belief, of course, is not evidence. As generations of feminist literary scholars can attest, women’s authorship is a difficult thing to prove. If we cannot agree on what makes a woman, how can we possibly identify her voice? I have no way of knowing this poet’s gender, despite the affinity I feel for the poem’s speaker.

Then again, translation is not so positivist as theory or criticism. It always requires a leap of faith––faith in the author’s capacity to make meaning, faith in the translator’s capacity to understand. A translator must often honor her first instincts.

Samantha Pious' translations of Renée Vivien are available as A Crown of Violets (Headmistress Press, 2017); her translations of Christine de Pizan are coming soon. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Pennsylvania.

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