On Translating Dante


f             .....e nos podrèm entendre 
            Facilament, qu'es mon parlar roman 
            Parier coma lo tieu, e de comprendre 
            Ton òc ò lo francés amé mon sì 
            Non es esfòrç que non pòsqui entreprendre
            — Voice of Dante in Renat Toscano's Lo Grand Viatge,  

    I have read Dante, off and on, for about ten years. I have often thought about translating the Commedia. But the Commedia is so overtranslated, unlike certain other works which English-speakers don't even know about. Hell there are whole literatures (like this one, or this one or this one) whose existence is generally unknown. Why bother with Dante the Overtranslated, when I could be translating things that English-speakers can't already read?

   Turns out the answer is: to see what I can do with it.

   You'd think I'd go for the Inferno. But, seriously, everybody does the Inferno. It is the easiest of the three books, and also the weakest, though the first three cantos are great. I'd go so far as to say that nearly half of the Inferno is basically a virtuosic waste of the reader's time and of Dante's talent.

    So, there I was, nel mezzo del camin della mia giornata, trying to take my mind off of things I had to do. For spits and tickles, I sat down and tried my hand at the opening of the Purgatorio. Then I found myself translating more. Before I realized it, mi ritrovai per un viluppo. I had translated half the damn canto, while formulating ideas about how to translate the Commedia. Cercai una maglia rotta nella rette, e balzai fuori! Onward to canto's end. Eventually I did more, and did another of the Paradiso. I now have draft translations of three cantos from the Paradiso and two from the Purgatorio in my files. Colpa è di chi m'ha destinato al foco. 

Lasso! Avviene elli a persona? 

    Yes. The Commedia has been translated into English a ton. A metric fuckton, in fact. Sometimes even a metrical fuckton. There are at least 60 different English translations of it to my knowledge, and that is just the complete translations of all three books. Those who have produced complete English translations of at least one of the books (most often the Inferno) number well over a hundred. Those who have translated a complete canto into English may be impossible to count, numerosi come le arene del mare.

    In fact, the Commedia has been translated more into English than into any other language. I am not quite sure why this is. But part of it probably has to do with the fact that English-speaking Protestants and Anglicans were late in warming up to Dante's blend of classical mythology and Catholic theology. The Inferno was thus much more brand spanking new.

    Another reason I think is that the Commedia is in some respects harder to translate into English than some other languages. The terza rima, which was by no means always easy for Dante to square off in Italian, doesn't come easily to English translators. Most English pentameter is moreover blank verse, in which Dante's habit of end-stopping can feel clunky.

    Getting down to brass tacks, what would I bring to this frankly overcrowded and sometimes overrated table? There are many questions of philosophy and theology to be tackled in a Dante translation. I am not going to talk about them.

There are also questions of form and diction. Those I am going to talk about.

    Dante used the techniques of versification he inherited, including scrambled syntax and deletion of word-final vowels (a tactic probably adopted by imitation of Occitan verse where post-tonic vowels are much rarer.) His prosody can also be "rude" by later standards, and he sometimes plays loose with linesHe is not always polished or refined in the manner of a Petrarch. When the occasion calls for it, he is just as capable of delivering a versified Italian version of the Lord's Prayer as he is of using words like merda "shit" (Inf. XVIII) and culo "arse" (Inf. XXI). Before he was condemned to eternal worship in the deepest circle of the Italian canon, his style was considered borderline barbarous by some later poets, not least because he veered between "high" and "low" at will. The translator should feel free to follow Dante in this.

   A reputation as a pioneer of unaffected and plainspoken vernacularity has been pasted onto Dante like a feelgood bumper sticker slapped onto the ass of an embalmed corpse. To be sure, it makes him an appealing figure in an era when poetry (especially English-language poetry) is subjected to much corporal punishment if it tries to put on airs.
   This reputation would have likely struck Dante himself as bizarre and maybe a little insulting. Especially when applied to the Commedia, where the language gets progressively odder as you go along. The notion that he was "revolutionary in writing in the contemporary vernacular" has repeatedly been seized on in ways that make people strive for contemporaneity and readability and plainspokenness every which way. But he was not at all unusual in using the vernacular for high poetry. Courtly poetry in Romance vernacular had existed in the Italian peninsula for over a generation, and in Occitania and France for over two centuries. Nor was he the first to treat philosophical themes in Romance vernacular verse, as the Occitan Boecis demonstrates.  He was unusual in treating a classically-informed theological epic in vernacular, when such a genre practically cried out for Latin. Few others in his day would have dared have Virgil speak in a Romance vernacular.

   He also did unusual things not just with the vernacular, but to it.

   While the Commedia uses lots of paired down, colloquial language and (in the Inferno) occasionally obscenity, it is far from being the "natural" language of anybody's speech, even at the level of vocabulary.
   In some parts, particularly the Paradiso, Dante seems to be straining to make the language unhuman. He coins a great many words (somewhere between two and five hundred, depending on how you count) of which a number caught on and survive today. When an Italian reads the Commedia today, they may not notice all the neologisms, because they have since been adopted into normative Italian. A great example is the verb inurbarsi "to enter a city, to get citied" coined in the Purgatorio, which took on a life of its own in Italian and today has developed the semantically extended sense of "to become refined, to lose one's rustic manners." Other famous Dantean coinages  include trasumanare "to go beyond the human, to transhumanate" and contrapasso "an ironic punishment which fits the sin, a counterpass, a contrapoise" (or as I would translate it: a splayback.)  The Commedia contains many even odder coinages like inluiarsi "to go into him, to be inhimmed" and intuarsi "to go into you, to inyouate, to be inyoued." The mountain of Purgatory "dis-lakes itself" (si dislaga) and "dis-evils" (dismala) those who climb it. Pasiphae, when she climbs into the mock-cow in a fit of godwrought lust, sins by "embeasting herself" (imbestiarsi). In Hell, Virgil refuses to "pulchrify" (appulcrare) beggars, and a simoniac pope speaks of another who goes "simonizing" (simoneggiare). There are even greek-inspired neologisms such as teodia (theody) from "theos" (god) apparently patterned off of salmodia (psalmody.) The proportion of neologisms in the Paradiso is at least twice that of the other two books. As Dante slowly enheavens himself, language itself grows unworlded to express hereafterthoughts.
   Dante also uses existing words in esoteric or otherwise odd ways (e.g. in Purg. XXVI where "mortale" is used as a noun to refer to the mortal fleshly part of the self).

   With Dante, it seems to me an English translator should be willing to avail themself not only of all the English that exists, but also of some English that doesn't exist.

   Aut inveniam viam aut faciam.

   Many of Dante's lines are contorted in a way that would not disgrace even the most recherché of Elizabethan sonneteers. There are even some lines (e.g. "Farotti ben di me volere scemo") where the syntax is so scrambled and elliptical that commentators are still in disagreement as to how to parse them even if the general meaning is clear.
   The distortions of syntax in which a medieval Italian, Spanish or French poet will freely indulge, but which are forbidden to the English translator, are rather on par with the kind found in Milton's Paradise Lost. For example:

...So Satan spake, and him Beelzebub
Thus answer'd. Leader of those Armies bright,
Which but th' Onmipotent none could have foiled....

A milder form may be found in Jennifer Lawrence's lines from "Doubt Not" written in the 1920s:

...That I would never leave a barren plain 
The forest dewed with what we know as love
Was true when true it was. I say again
I love thee, and I will be on the move
And afterward from out my bullseyed heart
Pluck out boy Cupid's most innocuous dart. 

   Milton didn't actually talk like this anymore than you do. We accept this kind of thing in Milton, because circles of literary arbitration are forever populated by souls too cultured, or just too cowardly, to suggest that such a great poet's work is vitiated by mere syntactic scrambling. Likewise, we have been trained — through the repeated thought-terminating injunctions of experto crede that often prevail in matters of artistic taste — to remember that it is "unnatural" when we are faced with anything written after WWII. De gustibus non est...ah booshit. The incoherence of such an aesthetic is obvious from the unfavorable reaction a polished Elizabethan sonnet will earn from the reader if you tell them it was written last week, and from the favorable reaction you can earn by writing in Elizabethan English so long as you credit your work to some obscure contemporary of Shakespeare. Yes, I've tried it.
   The same goes mutatis mutandis for other elements of the traditional English poetic register which  are so out of favor with present audiences that their use would hinder more than help any translator whom the reader knows to be operating in the here and now, such as the thou/you distinction,  contractions like 'neath, e'er, o'erta'en, 'twas, lexical items such as twain and inflections such as third person -eth. While 'twas, 'tis and twain were actually part of living English until some time in the 1700s, even Shakespeare probably didn't actually use the pronoun thou unless he was versifying or praying (though it does survive in some non-standard varieties of English. Listen to I Predict A Riot by the Yorkshire band Kaiser Chiefs, and you'll hear it used quite naturally in the second line, rhymed as it happens with a very colloquial British word.) What's more, forms such as ta'en have hardly ever been a part of anybody's real speech anymore than Miltonic syntax. Like the Occcitanoid apocope of cammin, correr, mar in Dante's lyric Italian (instead of the cammino, correre, mare which he would have used in probably all but the most rapid of speech) they came into existence mainly as an aid to poets. Today they are eschewed as poeticizing artificiality by people who have successfully convinced themselves that they are something other than that in Milton.
   The contemporary prejudice of the reader on this point cannot be ignored. The reader cannot be expected to know better anymore than could the critics who once fulminated against Whitman for not using rhyme and meter. The 20th century, which plenished the Anglophone poet so many useful and sorely needed new tools, has for better and for worse smeared this particular implement with pathogenic shit. (Yet each man kills the thing he loves...) Today, as with any other superstition when it is widely shared, one must humor people to some extent. Despite my instinct to use "all of the English that exists" this particular part of the language would cause more problems than it could possibly solve. So while I have allowed myself free rein (and sometimes even free reign) with neologisms, particularly when it comes to concepts relating to the afterlife, I decided to make very moderate use of syntactic scrambling in translating Dante (just as in translating other medieval Romance poetry), and have allowed myself no recourse to the traditional poetic register except in those few cases where it seemed outright moronic not to do so. You're welcome.

   Another point of order for me as an English translator of Dante is to respect the terza rima and do it in a way that adds to the poem rather than subtracting from it. When it comes to translating Dante, there is a long, labored and ludicrous tradition of insisting that terza rima is impossible (or prohibitively difficult) to pull off in English. One finds the same excuse offered up by English translators of other rhyming poets, even when translating French rhymed couplets, where — as Pope or Dryden will show — this is actually pretty easy to do in English. Even when English verse is translated into Italian, rhymes are very often not duplicated. The real reason is that the translator just doesn't want to bother with rhyme. I think sometimes the the translator has little experience writing rhymed verse of their own in English, and therefore is not up to doing it in translation. Poets who are able to write in rhymed metrical verse in English, such as Richard Wilbur, John Ciardi, Dick Davis and William Jay Smith are quite able and often eager to do so when they translate. (Though notably, Eugenio Montale in translating English verse into Italian doesn't always bother with it, and Longfellow who normally translated Italian verse into rhyme used blank verse in rendering the Commedia. And of course Ugo Foscolo quite approved of blank verse English translations of Dante.)

An honest and respectable position would be "it's impractical for me to do, as I have other priorities in what I want to bring out to the reader." But it is simply a face-saving move for the translator to tell their readers and themself that "English just doesn't allow" a certain practice, rather than admit to a personal inability.

As to terza rima, witness the opening of Shelley's famous poem:

    O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being, 
    Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead 
    Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing, 
    Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red, 
    Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou, 
    Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed 
    The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low, 
    Each like a corpse within its grave, until 
    Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow 
    Her clarion o'er the dreaming earth, and fill 
    (Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air) 
    With living hues and odours plain and hill....

    The idea that English is uniquely rhyme-poor is true only in the sense that it has fewer rhymes which would satisfy Italian or French (or Chinese or Persian) definitions of "true" rhyme. It is true that Italian contains many more rhyming words than English, but this simply means that repeated rhymes may be more acceptable in English than for Dante's Italian. English inflectional morphemes very rarely can produce rhymes the way they can in Italian or Russian. In English such morphemes don't carry stress, and so inflectional rhymes are possible only when secondary stress falls on -ing or -es (e.g. rhymes like Dante's intrai/abandonai/trovai where the rhyme depends on identical verb inflection would be on par with entering/abandoning/harrowing.) Still, even traditional poetic English permits itself various approximate rhymes (like Shelley's thou/low/blow above which didn't rhyme in his pronunciation anymore than they do in yours.)
    Nobody who has so much as glanced at Spenser's Faerie Queene or Byron's Don Juan can be forgiven for maintaining the idea that English doesn't have the rhymestock to handle terza rima in a long epic. In these works, the stanza requires either three or four lines to have the same rhyme sound.

    One of the problems with replicating Dantean terza rima has not to do with the difficulty of finding rhymes, but with the way English speakers react to them. Dante often uses "stunt rhymes" which call attention to themselves by their sheer ingenuity. In English, this kind of thing is traditionally restricted to comic verse as in William Cole's

On my boat on lake Cayuga
I have a horn that goes Ay-ooogah...

Or

The once was a Bishop of Birmingham
Who rogered young boys while confirming 'em.
To comply with his wont
They'd bend over the font
As he pumped his episcopal sperm in 'em.

   Dante on the other hand uses stunt rhymes as a virtuosic display. Many of his neologisms are rhyme-words confected for that purpose. I see no reason not to follow Dante, and break with English tradition, on this. Readers who can't or won't handle e.g. Gomorrah rhyming with bore her and the neologism Phantasmagora are advised to look elsewhere.
   In the Commedia, Dante also often uses Latinate forms, or words that in his own day were quite archaic, in order to supply the rhyme. He may use a word like schife at line-end in ways that make it unclear whether he means the verb schifare "loathe, abhore" or simply a rhyme-wrenched form of schivare "to flee."

   The anonymous author of one of the earliest surviving commentaries on the Commedia, one of the very few commentators who seem to have known Dante personally, relates:
Io scrittore udii dire a Dante, che mai rima nol trasse a dire altro che quello ch'avea in suo proponimento; ma ch'elli molte e spesse volte facea li vocaboli dire nelle sue rime altro che quello, ch'erano appo gli altri dicitori usati di sprimere
(I heard Dante say that the need to find a rhyme never forced him to say anything other than what he had intended to say, but that he often made the words in rhyme position say different things than what other poets used them to express.)   
    If sufficient occasional latitude is allowed with rhyme, and if the translator is willing to make the kind of effort which Dante deserves in any case, terza rima is quite doable. If Dante occasionally reached a bit in Italian for rhymes, why shouldn't English reach more often and farther?

    Once in a long while, Dante allows himself glaringly imperfect rhymes, some by "Sicilian" precedent and some by sheer license, which later generations found unacceptable. In the Commedia, -olto rhymes with -orto-esse with -isse, -omo with -umo etc. Dante's versification also generally allows for imperfect rhymes between open and closed o and e, rhyming e.g. cuore [kwɔ:re] with amore [amo:re] and questa [kwe:sta] with testa [tɛ:sta]. It is rather like allowing rhymes between English bate/met or coat/thought. This property of Italian poetry is masked by the writing system which doesn't distinguish between such vowels on the page.

    I use imperfect rhymes of various types — orders of magnitude more than Dante did by any definition — and make no bones about it. I use rhymes drawn from different dialects of English. I also play loose with English versification. Unbending iambs are neither necessary nor desirable in a poem like this in modern English for a modern audience. The regularity of rhyme allows for a little loosening of the pentameter anyway. I take the iambic pulse as a base, but the only strict requirement is that each line have five identifiable beats.

Or, shit, I could just translate him into the native tongue of Arnaut Daniel:

En meytat del chamin de nostra vida
Revengui soptamen per selva escura,
On la dreita via m’era gandida.

Ay com dire qu’era m’es chauza dura,
Aquela selva, bocs sauvatge e fortz,
Que son pensars ancuey me deznatura

Tan amara es que pauc plus fos la mortz
Mas per trassar lo Bon qu’eu lai trobei
Çai lo demais dins de meu trobar sortz...

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