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 Philip’s closing words.
The Comedy is a translator’s challenge. It is both poetry and story. While most of us live in the hope that poetry and its complexities be given precedence, we know the requirements of storytelling are to tell it right and to the best effect. Then, while there is the unusual story of two men walking around in the afterlife figuring things out, the Comedy itself is hundreds of little stories, some of them told in a few lines. This pull, if you like, between demands of poetic effect and effective storytelling plays a main part in our appreciation of any Dante translation.
Good storytellers: Dorothy L. Sayers. Robin Kirkpatrick and the Hollanders, because they inherited so many poor prosy versions on which to make improvements. We live in the time known as the Contest of the Interpreters, so we are blessed when we find versions that still breathe while surrounded with so much commentary.
Bad storytellers are those who treat the poem as a textbook exercise. I name no names.
What is the ideal mix? Will the narrative inevitably limit the already delicate – if not impossible –matter of getting and transmitting the poetic meanings of the lines? Will too much poetic control send it in directions where the story gets lost and the results are not even Dante but the translator? Dante wished to write sweet poetry (‘dolce’), which means more than ‘sweet’ in English, it means pleasurable, smooth, lasting.
Good long versions in poetry: Henry Cary and C.H. Sisson. I like the Hollanders, and I would like to read more of John Ciardi. Carson and Merwin deliver lastingly good versions because they trust their personal voice and respect the metrics.
Prue Shaw writes, “Dante never let the need to find a rhyme dictate what he wanted to say. On the contrary, he made language says things it had not said before.” (‘Reading Dante : from here to eternity’, p. 95) Clive James should have taken this warning to heart as his version is a curate’s egg of unusual poetic effects that cannot work in duration. Clive joins the Victorian Charles Shadwell and others in daring to translate into quatrains. This is not as eccentric as John Heath-Stubbs who as late as the swinging sixties translated the poetry into the alliterative rhyme patterns of the Middle English poet William Langland.
Actually, I’m not sure there is a good long version. Every translator is controlled by fashions of the time and their own chosen metier. I believe the best way into Dante is to keep open to the choices on offer. Often the exciting translations are those where the virtues are more on the side of the English style of the translator than on their closeness to the Italian. In other words, we like them even if they are not much like Dante.
Another challenge to a translator is that the Comedy is a dramatic presentation of a medieval theological worldview. We do not meet modern translators who share this worldview or prioritise it in their translations. Nevertheless they all have to negotiate with its categories and conditions, punishments and repentances. Translations vary from the reverential and respectful to the sceptical and indifferent.
Worldview: Merwin shows what a reasonable Buddhist living near an extinct Hawaiian volcano can do with Purgatorio.
While much could be said about psychological and spiritual readings of the Comedy and the modern emphasis on Dante’s extraordinary grasp of these things, I offer a further challenge for the translator, that the driving force of the Comedy is hope – faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of these is hope. Abandon hope all ye who enter here, then the rest of the poem operates with the expectation of something better than hell. How a translator conveys Dante’s incredible drive in this regard is something we wonder about every time we grasp the meaning of his Italian.
Seamus Heaney did not continue with translation of Inferno because he could not find the feel that was right for him. He was more honest about the challenges than most. The results we have from Heaney are bravura performances and much of Dante in English fits this last category. Not full length versions, but inspired takes on single cantos, passages or even single lines. T.S. Eliot’s lines in The Wasteland remain unforgettable in a certain state of mind:
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
In truth, this is the readerly place I most spend my time, listening to focussed interpretations of specific parts of the Comedy. I am transfixed by the Rossetti family’s spiritual wrestling match with Dante. The haunted words of Geoffrey Hill or Mary Jo Bangs who use Dante to describe our own modern sense of exile. I love reading Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s patient exposés or Robert Creeley’s airy melancholy. Though what I am admitting to is precisely the modern English reader’s habitual preference for the one-page lyric, rather than the thing that Dante is: the full scale spiritual adventure of life over one hundred cantos