How to Choose a Translator of Dante
On Tuesday 4th of August three enthusiastic readers of Dante presented favourite translations as part of the third Carmelite Library Lecture for 2015. In conclusion, Robert Gribben, Will Johnston, and Philip Harvey ‘came clean’ with declarations of their likes and dislikes, their own thoughts on good translation of the Comedy and named some preferences. All three sets of closing remarks are published here on the Library blog. These are Will’s closing words.
COMMENTARIES You already know of my liking for American translators of the Comedy. One reason is that Americans have excelled at the related genre of commentaries. American teachers know that everything in a great work of European literature has to be explained to American readers. I start by commending to you three American commentators on Dante. All three of their commentaries grew out of classroom teaching. A marvellous teacher of French literature, Wallace Fowlie (1908-1998) – a fellow Bostonian who grew up about a mile from my house almost thirty years before me -- taught the Inferno throughout the 1970s. He wrote up his lectures in this book, A Reading of Dante’s Inferno (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1981). Its canto-by-canto treatment is the best one-volume introduction to the Inferno I know of. You can buy it on the web.
Second, and quite beyond praise is the scholarly apparatus in Robert Hollander’s three-volume translation of the poem, published by Random House between 2000 and 2007. The notes total at least a thousand pages! If you do not wish to buy Hollander’s volumes, all of the material is available free of charge on the Princeton website: www.princeton.edu/dante. The website includes a search engine. Most recent of all is a one-volume commentary by a Professor at Yale, who has been teaching the poem for forty-five years. Giuseppe Mazzotta’s lecture notes have been published as Reading Dante (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014). Amazingly, he uses the prose translation of his teacher Charles S. Singleton (1909-1985) (from the 1970s). Mazzotta’s discussion of theology shows that for understanding Dante’s “theology embedded in poetry,” a prose translation is best. In a little over 250 pages Mazzotta discusses all the major issues of Dante-criticism in a fresh way that has gone on deepening across a lifetime. He models how to keep growing with the poem.
TRANSLATIONS. A major problem with rendering Italian verse into English is that the Italian language has a much higher ratio of vowels to consonants than does English. An example is the name that Dante invented for the second river of the Earthly Paradise: E/u/n/o/e. Four vowels surround one consonant in Eunóe! Moreover, Italian has fewer monosyllables than English. Dante’s rhymes are almost all of two-syllables (so-called feminine rhymes), and nearly every one of the poem’s 14,300 lines ends in a vowel. As a result Dante’s verse reads rapidly and lightly -- in stark contrast to the English blank verse into which it is often translated. CONSEQUENTLY, NO ENGLISH VERSION COMBINES DANTE’S THREE SUPREME QUALITIES OF RAPIDITY, PLAINNESS OF DICTION, AND DEPTH OF MEANING.
When I am asked, “What translation do you recommend?” I reply as follows. For the whole poem in a single handy volume, I recommend the English poet C.H. Sisson’s (1914-2003) unrhymed translation of forty years ago (1974). Both Philip and Robert have read from it tonight. Using lines of uneven length, it hovers between prose and verse without any fluff. Its unadorned diction accords both with Dante’s plain language and with the exalted subject matter.
THE THREE CANTICHE I then say that the Comedy is best thought of as three separate poems, written across a period of at least fifteen years. For the Inferno by itself I recommend the version of 2002 by the Belfast poet Ciaran Carson (1948- ). We have heard some of his outrageously Dantescan voice tonight. For the Purgatorio I recommend both Robert Hollander’s unrhymed version, written with his poet-wife Jean Hollander, and Charles Singleton’s prose version (early 1970s), unrivaled for matching Dante’s word-choice. And for the Paradiso I recommend the version by my fellow Bostonian, John Ciardi (1916-1985). He spent ten years on that one volume and made no excuse that it took so long. He agreed with T.S. Eliot that the Paradiso (esp. the late monologues by the pilgrim-poet Dante) contain some of the most ambitious poetry in all of literature. Those passages go beyond the Dantescan: they are hyper-Dantescan, a unique genre.
LESSONS OF THE EVENING When Philip, Robert, and I first set out to sift English translations for your enjoyment, I thought the exercise would be straightforward. In the course of preparing, however, I have undergone three shocks. First, I have discovered how much I prefer plain translations, the plainer the better. I also like rapid versions. My former favourites Laurence Binyon and Dorothy L. Sayers now seem mannered, even cumbersome. Second, Seamus Heaney, Richard Howard, Ciaran Carson, and Clive James have taught me that hardly anyone else handles Dante’s dialogues adeptly. A goal, all too seldom fulfilled, should be to make every speech in the poem stand out as if in a stage-play. Third, and most surprising, if you wish to analyse the theology embedded in the poem, a prose translation will yield more precision than any verse translation. If you wish to study Dante’s theology as presented say in Peter S. Hawkins’s wonderful book, The Story of Dante (2006), you should choose a translation that hovers between verse and prose, like those of C.H. Sisson or, yes, Allen Mandelbaum. Or you might choose the weighty volumes (1996-2011) of Robert.M. Durling, the prosiest of all recent translators.
THE GIST My basic advice runs as follows: “Whatever translation you prefer, always have a commentary at hand and keep re-reading it. The greatest pleasure is to come back to favourite passages months or years later and to discover that you have barely understood them before. As what was obscure slowly becomes obvious, you will be reliving the process of growth described by Dante in the poem, for the poem narrates how he too went, like all of us, from being obtuse to gradually understanding the basics of life and then catching glimpses of what lies beyond. As you grow into the poem, you will discover again and again how Dante continued to grow, perhaps to his own surprise. This is a poem to last a lifetime.”
CODA: DANTE’S OWN EXPERIENCE AS A TRANSLATOR
What did Dante think about the task of translation? Did Dante realize what a challenge his poem would pose for later generations of translators? Probably not, mainly because the profession of translator of poetry did not yet exist.
Into the prose of the Convivio (1304-1308) he inserted his own translations from Latin, but in the Comedy (begun ca. 1308) he glides over several issues. 1) How can speakers who lived before Tuscan dialect existed know how to speak Italian in the poem? These magical learners of Italian include the ancient (or mythical) Greeks Homer, the Centaurs, and Ulysses as well as the New Testament Greek-writers (Peter, James and John), not to mention the Byzantine Greek Emperor Justinian (Paradiso 6). The rapid learners include the ancient Biblical Jews Adam and Solomon. Most salient are the ancient Romans who in life spoke Latin: foremost among them Virgil, but also Cato and Statius. In the Comedy somehow they have mastered every nuance of Italian, and Virgil even speaks in a Lombard dialect [Inferno 27: 20]! In more recent times the French King of around 900 Hugh Capet and the Provencal poet Folchetto of Marseille of 1200 all speak Italian. 2) Dante intended his vernacular Tuscan to become a universal language for all Italians, but during his lifetime there were no professional translators or viva voce interpreters of the vernacular. He might have been horrified that regional poets after 1800 would translate the Comedy back into Italian dialects such as Milanese. (See www.dantepoliglotta.it/en) 3) Nor did our poet did envision that major poets would translate his universal Italian into other post-Latin languages such as French or English. 4) The character in the poem who comes closest to having practised professional translation is Brunetto Latini (ca.1220-1294), whose Trésor (Inferno 15: 119) included passages rendered from Latin. That versatility is another reason why our poet treats his beloved mentor so tenderly in Inferno 15.