UB’s Douglas Basford receives 2015 NEA Literature Translation Fellowship

The award will support his English translation of 15th century sonnets by barber-poet Burchiello

Release Date: November 13, 2014

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Head shot of Douglas Basford.

Douglas Basford has received an NEA grant to help him complete his translation of sonnets by the Italian poet (quite controversial in his day) Domenico di Giovanni (1404–1448), known as "il Burchiello."

a painting of Burchiello.

"Il Burchiello" by Florentine painter Cristofano dell'altissimo. Credit: Sailko.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Poet and translator Douglas Basford of the University at Buffalo has received a 2015 Literature Translation Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts to support his translation of the sonnets of Italian poet Domenico di Giovanni (1404-1449), known by his nickname Il Burchiello (Little Barge).

Basford, who also is a critic and scholar of history and rhetoric of science, is a lecturer in the UB Department of English, where he has served as assistant director of the composition program since 2008. He was a National Endowment for the Humanities summer scholar in 2013.

A winner of several poetry and translation prizes, Basford has published translations of poetry and prose in a number of important journals; co-edits the online journal “Unsplendid,” which specializes in poetry in received forms; and is the Italian language editor of Coeur Publishing, a new venture for book-length translations of world literature.

Burchiello was a barber-surgeon whose Florentine shop was a gathering place for the city’s literati and others. The shop hosted impromptu sonnet matches at which barbed, versified insults were levelled by competitors and at which he read his bawdy, defiant, satirical, playful work, which piles up bizarre images “alla burchia,” that is, like the merchandise on river barges and boats. 

Basford is one of 20 recommended NEA translation fellowships for 2015. In total, the NEA will distribute $300,000 in this round to support new translations into English of fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry in 12 different languages.

NEA Chair Jane Chu says the NEA’s support of literary translation “is one of the most important ways we can broaden our nation’s perspectives while also making the work of these talented writers and translators more available. This award will go a long way in fostering a sense of empathy and understanding for how people from different countries and cultures connect with each other and live their lives.”

And Burchiello certainly had an unusual life and poetic form with which to connect.

His sonnets address subjects as wide-ranging as medical quackery, fortune-telling, pest-infested accommodations and the violence of jousting, to bathing, clerical misbehavior and the bookish excesses of scholastics and grammarians.

His style and subject matter were so popular that they were widely imitated for two centuries after his death, even by Lorenzo de Medici, who was known to keep a book of poetry by Burchiello next to his bed.

During his lifetime, however, Burchiello wrote on behalf of another Italian family in opposition to the Medici, for which he was sent into exile. He became seriously ill and was imprisoned for debts and for insolent, violent behavior. His sonnets of this period addressed to various authorities and patrons move between pleading, rage and gallows humor. He eventually died in penury.

The approximately 200 surviving sonnets by Burchiello will form the basis for Basford’s anticipated book-length publication “Oarless: The Sonnets of Burchiello.”

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