How not to translate Dante, Part II

Since Black Friday and Cyber Monday are coming up, I’m looking forward to adding some more Divine Comedy translations to my collection. The ones I want most are by Allen Mandlebaum, John Ciardi, and Thomas Bergin (the lattermost unfortunately appearing to be out of print). There are also a few others I’m interested in, like Robin Kirkpatrick, Robert and Jean Hollander, and, until recently, Clive James.

I pulled up the Amazon preview of the James translation for a recent vlog which included a compare and contrast of thirteen versions of the famous opening twelve lines, and didn’t think it was that bad. But when I later read further in the preview, I discovered many shocking divergences from the original Italian, among them large chunks of entirely invented lines.

Knowing Canto I of Inferno by heart in the original Medieval Florentine Tuscan really comes in handy when deciding if I’d like to buy a translation. It makes it so easy to tell when the translator is staying true to the original, indulging in some gently creative liberties within reason (to stick to iambic pentameter or a rhyme scheme, or to enhance the emotional, dramatic, or visual impact), or just outright inventing things to look hip, modern, creative.

Mr. James falls into the lattermost category. He also employs the annoying habit I thought was consigned to the rubbish bin—using old-fashioned words like yonder, whereat, and aught else. Dante wrote in the vernacular, the language of the common people, not a flowery, pretentious, archaic, musty style. At least Mr. James didn’t use Elizabethan English like Longfellow and Laurence Binyon.

Ironically, he also peppers the text with contemporary phrases and slang, like “enough said” and “chilled with the shakes.”

Mr. James uses no footnotes, which are kind of really important in any translation worth its salt. While you certainly can read the Commedia without any outside study or explanatory notes, that makes it much harder to fully understand many important things. You can use your own judgment as to whether you want to interrupt your reading by constantly looking down at footnotes or flipping to the notes section, read each canto without footnotes and then reread it with footnotes, read the footnotes first and then read the canto, or any approach you feel most comfortable with.

However, Mr. James does manage to convey information normally found in footnotes in another way—directly inserting it into the text. E.g., he point-blank tells us the believed symbolism of the three beasts in Canto I of Inferno, when Dante never explicitly stated anything to that effect. That’s as annoying as an English teacher overanalyzing every last word!

All these extra lines serve to make the poem thrice as long.

This is one of the reasons I dislike the Gutnick Chumash, a Torah translation and commentary found in some Orthodox synagogues. They insert stories and interpretations from the Midrash right into the text, never mind that’s nowhere in the Torah. The Midrash is a collection of rabbinic interpretations, reimaginings, and explanations of the Torah, including fantasy, folklore, and politically-motivated claims like slander of Yishmael and Esau.  Sorry, nothing will ever make me believe, e.g., Rebecca married Isaac when she was three and he was forty, nor that Esau was practically Hitler.

This translation feels in some ways like a Divine Comedy for reluctant readers, since a lot of sentences are so short and staccato. Take, for example, Virgil’s first lines:

“No, not a man. Not now.
I was once, though. A Lombard. Parents born
In Mantua. Both born there.” That was how
His words emerged: as if with slow care torn,
Like pages of a book soaked shut by time,
From his clogged throat. “Caesar was getting on
When I was young. That’s Julius. A crime,
His death. Then, after he was gone,
I lived in Rome. The good Augustus reigned.
The gods were cheats and liars. As for me,
I was a poet.” He grew less constrained
In speech, as if trade talk brought fluency.
“I sang about Anchises’ son, the just
Aeneas, proud, peerless. When proud Troy
Was burnt to ashes, ashes turned to dust
Which he shook off his feet, that marvellous boy.
He did what any decent hero must:
Set sail.”

A speech that occupies nine lines in the Italian is bloated to eighteen, twice the original length!

Mr. James was a poet, literary critic, novelist, TV personality, and songwriter, NOT a scholar of Dante studies, Medieval history, or Italian literature. I most trust translations by people who’ve been passionately immersed in a subject for years, for the same reason I go to professional body piercers instead of tattoo artists offering piercings on the side or sketchy characters working out of a van down by the river.

Author: Carrie-Anne

Writer of historical fiction sagas and series, with elements of women's fiction, romance, and Bildungsroman. Born in the wrong generation on several fronts.

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