Studying love in translation

By David Levin
March 12, 2024 • Research

Ramie Targoff headshot

Professor Ramie Targoff (Photo by Frédéric Brenner)

The love poem is a standard trope in Western media: an author pining away for their beloved, who is elegant, beautiful, and sometimes elusive. It appears in myriad forms, from rom-coms to romance novels to Hallmark cards and high school notebooks.

According to Ramie Targoff, who is the Jehuda Reinharz Professor of the Humanities, this literary device can be traced back to a single person: Petrarch, the famed 14th-century Italian poet whose work created a template for centuries of future love letters. But how, she wondered, did his influence reach so far? And just how universal are his sentiments in other global cultures?

To test those questions, she’s kicking off an ambitious project to translate Petrarch’s work into a dozen different languages, from Polish to Japanese to Farsi, while retaining its poetic form. Thanks to a major grant from the NOMIS Foundation — a Swiss organization that supports pioneering research in the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities — she’s partnering with Italian scholars around the world, each of whom is taking on translations in their native tongue.

The grant will fund the scholars’ time and the construction of an interactive website to compare multiple translations side by side, which Brandeis doctoral student Tali Cohen has already begun to develop. The site will ultimately offer context and definitions for each version, so visitors can click on particular words that have complex meanings to compare how different languages handle the translation into their own cultures. That will be a particularly important feature, Targoff says, since Petrarch’s original words can easily lose their meaning in translation.

“For example, on multiple occasions Petrarch uses the word ‘veil’ when he talks about a feature of his beloved, Laura. But the term is often a reference to Laura’s body, which is something that covers her soul,” she says. “I could simply translate it as ‘flesh,’ but the actual Italian word has other connotations that I want to register.”

Although the grant was only recently announced, Targoff and her colleagues have already done preliminary translations of 20 poems. Petrarch wrote 366 in all, and she aims to finish at least one third of these during the grant period. The team’s initial efforts will be shared at an exploratory seminar hosted by Harvard’s Center for Renaissance Studies, Villa I Tatti, in Florence, Italy, in March.

As translated poems continue to roll in, the project will gradually help to reveal similarities and differences in expressions of love across the globe — a sentiment the world could use a little more of right now.