Edmund Prestwich: On Translating Dante

Dante_Gabriel_Rossetti_-_Paolo_and_Francesca_da_Rimini_(1862) ‘Paolo and Francesca da Rimini’ by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1862)

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DANTE’S COMEDY: TRANSLATION AND INTERPRETATION

Three things keep drawing me back to Dante’s Commedia: the skill, inventiveness and human depth of his story-telling, his lyrical genius, and the beauty of his terza rima meter. His use of terza rima can only be enjoyed in Italian, which for me involves heavy dependence on English translations and on the notes and glosses in modern Italian given in Anna Maria Chiavacci Leonardi’s editions of the Commedia for Zanichelli and Oscar Mondadori. In this essay I want to focus on comparing how the narrative and lyrical aspects of the poems come through in Ned Denny’s freely adaptive poetic version, B: After Dante, and in two scholarly translations, one by Robert and Jean Hollander and one by Robert M. Durling, though I will make some more mention of the terza rima form.

Like all translators and imitators of works in other languages, Denny, the Hollanders and Durling have all had to balance faithfulness to the original against the need to use the natural energies of the language they’re writing in and to express things in terms that resonate within their own culture. This means both interpreting and building on the original. ‘A good poet is no more like himself in a dull translation than his carcass would be to his living body,’ said Dryden. Sir John Denham wrote in 1656 that ‘Poesie is of so subtile a spirit, that in pouring out of one Language into another, it will all evaporate; and if a new spirit be not added in the transfusion, there will remain nothing but a Caput mortuum [that is, a skull].’ However, a main point of translation is to enlarge one culture by bringing into it energies and imaginings from another. From that point of view, too complete a naturalising of the import may dilute its value. These pulls work with different strength at different ends of the spectrum between pure translation and adaptation. The desire to carry across as much as possible of what’s alien in the original will be strongest at the scholarly end, the need for naturalisation strongest at the ‘version after’ one. Broadly, I feel that translating much more closely than Denny does, Durling and the Hollanders are much more successful in transmitting the narrative and dramatic aspects of the Commedia, but that Denny triumphs in lyrical expression, not always but often enough to make his book a valuable addition to the Dante lover’s shelves. There’s not much room for lyricism in the Inferno, so from this point of view he’s at his strongest in the Paradiso and the many lyrical passages in the Purgatorio

Narrative in the Commedia works on what you might call macro and micro scales. Embracing everything else, there’s the single, mythically compelling, beautifully unified and coherent story of Dante’s journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. For the first 64 cantos, this is also the profoundly moving story of his changing relationship with Virgil. Set within the overall frame there’s a multitude of subordinate stories involving a vast range of emotions, experiences and characters. The whole work’s hold on the imagination depends both on the compelling power of these subordinate narratives and on the clarity and power of the overall development. The way Dante integrates the macro scale with the inset micro narratives makes his work unique in my reading experience. I will pause to say something about the terza rima form at this point, because it seems to me that the integration of the different narrative levels is most smoothly and completely realized by means of it, when one reads the poem in Italian. Unfolding ABA BCB CDC and so on, it keeps things moving and thus keeps the longer perspective clearly in play. The poet James Merrill expresses this aspect beautifully:

No verse form moves so wonderfully. Each tercet’s first and third line rhyme with the middle one of the preceding set, and encloses the new rhyme-sound of the next, the way a scull outstrips the twin, already dissolving oarstrokes that propel it.

At the same time, the line and the tercet do themselves generally function as small, distinct units of perception and of narrative unfolding, producing a clear focus on the immediate detail being presented.

Unfortunately, terza rima in the full sense – in other words with full rhymes – is almost impossibly difficult to write in a sustained way in English. T S Eliot suggests how serious a problem this is for the Dante translator when he says:

a different meter is a different mode of thought; it is a different kind of punctuation, for the emphases and the breath pauses do not come in the same place. Dante thought in terza rima …

If the clarity of the overall narrative depends on the clear, simple topography of Dante’s afterworlds and the vividness with which he presents the points of transition between its different levels, the power of individual encounters depends particularly on gifts we associate with drama. Episode after episode is made memorable not just by the situation of his characters or the stories they tell but by the intense, individual presence they’re given by the very distinctive ways in which they speak. From this the encounters get their emotional and moral richness and their human depth. As sinners speak in the Inferno, we’re made to see their sins simultaneously from the point of view of the divine justice that has placed them where they are and from their own point of view as they committed them, because none of them have truly repented. Moreover, and still more so if we’re reading aloud, we’re made to act out and live through their feelings. We find ourselves implicated, especially where emotions we may be prone to in real life are involved, and this prompts self-examination. Even where we find the sins and sinners in question alien or immediately repulsive, we still inhabit their minds in our imaginations, as we might inhabit the minds of a villain if were acting in a play. It’s true that on one level the fates of all these different souls are object lessons but I wouldn’t keep going back to the Commedia if that were all they were. There’s a multiplication of conflicting perspectives – that of the sinner, that of Dante the character in the poem at the particular stage of moral perception he’s reached at that point in the story, and that of the divine justice that has placed the sinner or, in the Paradiso, the saved soul, wherever he or she is.

The first encounter that puts you strongly in the presence of a particular sinner is that with Francesca, who committed adultery with her husband’s brother and was murdered by her husband. Entering the circle of the lustful, Dante and Virgil are met by a wailing, cursing confusion of souls swept through the dark on violent winds that are like perpetuations of the passion they surrendered to. Then, out of the faceless, whirling multitudes a cataract of resonant names emerges, and finally the silent Paolo and the plaintively eloquent Francesca. Contrast with what went before gives an extraordinarily naked intimacy and, I would say, pathos to her story, though different readers react to her in very different ways. I’ll look at a short extract from her speech. In Dante’s Italian she says:

Noi leggiavamo un giorno per diletto
di Lancialotto come amor lo strinse;
soli eravamo e sanza alcun sospetto.

Per più fïate li occhi ci sospinse
quella lettura, e scolorocci il viso;
ma solo un punto fu quell che ci vinse.

Quando leggemmo il disïato riso
esser basciato da cotanto amante,
questi, che mai da me non fia diviso,

la bocca mi basciò tutto tremante.
Galeotto fu ‘l libro e chi lo scrisse:
quel giorno più non vi leggemmo avante.

I think it’s very clear here how each line is a distinct pulsation ending with a little pause on a key word that lingers in the mind even as we read on. The statements are very simple, precise and concrete, and as each hangs in the air, the space around it seems to fill with resonances we’re left to notice for ourselves, without any kind of nudging by the poet. Take:

questi, che mai da me non fia diviso,

la bocca mi basciò tutto tremante

‘Tremante’ – ‘trembling’ – explodes out of the line without specifying why Paolo trembled. Into the space left by the poet’s silence rush thoughts of different kinds of guilt, fear, excitement and romantic awe, all running together and pulling apart from each other in this overwhelming moment: the awestricken terror of a lover moving towards his unbelievable fulfilment yet still afraid of a rebuff; the couple’s knowledge of the physical danger their adultery will put them in; Francesca’s rapt yet sad reliving of how moved she was by Paolo’s desire; and the awareness of committing a terrible sin. Or look how beautifully the phrase ‘cotanto amante’ – ‘such a lover’ – is set against ‘questi’ (this man). The pointed juxtaposition makes us compare the two lovers from various angles without telling us what to think.

The Hollanders translate the lines like this:

One day, to pass the time in pleasure,
we read of Lancelot, how love enthralled him.
We were alone, without the least misgiving.

‘More than once that reading made our eyes meet
and drained the colour from our faces.
Still, it was a single instant overcame us:

‘When we read how the longed-for smile
was kissed by so renowned a lover, this man,
who never shall be parted from me,

‘all trembling, kissed me on my mouth.
A Galeotto was the book and he that wrote it.
That day we read in it no further.

Here too we’re drawn into the moment. Like Dante, the Hollanders are clear, concrete and almost neutral in their narration, letting inferences and suggestions flower in the space around the bare facts. Admittedly they can’t match the punctuation of the original, to go back to Eliot’s term. If we compare ‘this man / who never shall be parted from me’ with ‘Questi, che mai da me non fia diviso’ we see how much more starkly emphasis falls on the key terms in the original, so that the irony of the lovers’ punishment emerges with more dreadful clarity. However, the Hollanders work in very much the same way as Dante does, keeping the focus on the bare steps of the narrative, letting its implications unfold of themselves in our imaginations.

Denny’s approach seems to me more intrusive and distracting:

We were at a book some idle day, our eyes all ears,
learning of Lancelot and his doomed affair –

quite alone, barely suspecting what lips are for –
and now and again our illumined eyes would meet
then dart back to the page, an unaccustomed heat
pulsating in our smooth cheeks like a coral sea;
but it was only at a certain point, when we
read of how the wondrous spot where a smile takes place
was kissed and kissed to silence by the kisses of his face,
that a depicted world entirely mastered us:
he brought his mouth to mine then, tremulous,
a moment out of time which we have lived in since.
Our morning’s reading ended there. Words made no sense.
As she finished speaking, the ghost whose hand she held

howled. I sank to the ground like a man the knife has felled.

I suppose tastes will vary as to whether this is crudely over-coloured. To me, parts of it seem so, though I enjoy touches of vivid animation like the eyes darting back to the page. What I have no doubt of is that both the clear line of Dante’s narrative and the flowering of the reader’s reflections around it are overwhelmed by the insistence and explicitness with which Francesca tries to impose her own point of view. The fussiness with which it’s developed breaks narrative momentum, and the couplet form seems to retard things further. The over-elaborate development of some ideas may partly be caused by the need to create contexts for the rhyming words but I suspect that the lyrical impulse of the poet – his desire to create patterns and express emotions, to freeze things into vivid but static emotional moments – is also a factor. What else could explain a line like ‘was kissed and kissed to silence by the kisses of his face’? I generally enjoy allusiveness in poetry, but I find apparent echoes of Marlowe’s ‘Hero and Leander’ in the third and fifth lines of the passage from Denny simply distracting.

It’s in lyrical passages that I think Denny triumphs. We see this most continually and intensely in Bliss, his version of the Paradiso, especially in the culminating cantos as Dante climbs closer and closer to the final vision. It may be in little touches of animated simile, as when Dante is momentarily overwhelmed by Beatrice’s words in the starry sphere and compares himself to a tree, bowing to the wind and then springing back. Denny particularizes the tree as a cypress, creating a picture that gives vivid body to the theological idea suggested by the metaphor in the penultimate line, the idea that the healthy soul naturally reaches towards God:

A cypress in the path of the bodiless winds
bows down its slender tip, a dark green spire that bends
back with the vigour of its own sun-seeking force
and thus I swayed at her words

The Hollanders’ literal translation lacks both the visual particularity and the rhythmic animation:

As the tree that bends it highest branches
in a gust of wind and then springs back,
raised up by natural inclination,

so was I overcome while she was speaking –

In the great visionary descriptions Denny’s lyrical power unfolds more extensively. These passages are dominated by imagery of light. As imagery, this light speaks unforgettably in more regular and scholarly translations but Denny makes it sing. Here is Robert M. Durling’s prose version of the famous lines in which Dante, looking into the light that is the mind of God, sees the universe as God sees it. As in the printed book, I’ve separated the terzine as if they were paragraphs:

In its depths I saw internalized, bound with love in one volume, what through the universe becomes unsewn quires:
substances and accidents and their modes as it were conflated together, in such a way that what I describe is a simple light.
The universal form of this knot I believe I saw, because I feel my joy expand as I say this.
One point alone is greater forgetfulness to me than twenty-five centuries to the enterprise that made Neptune marvel at the shadow of the Argo.

And here is Denny:

I saw in its depths, bound by Love in one volume,
the poem the whole universe speaks and conceals –
for God is both essence and its myriad veils –
and this solitary phrase was a simple light…
a knot which to recall makes me pulse with strange delight,
although I’ve forgotten much more of the instant’s
splendour than every single thing that’s happened since
Neptune marvelled at the Argo’s flying shadow.

Idea and its unfolding, rhythm and emotion seem to me to fuse in these lines, catching fire together in a way they don’t in Durling’s literal translation. Sometimes this involves adding his own metaphors, as with the beautiful ones in the second and third lines of this quotation. Living the idea from within, Denny can add to Dante’s words without violating their spirit. Or for another example, there’s such a momentum of surprise in the word ‘flying’ – his addition – and such a contrast with the meditative circling of the previous lines that the ship’s shadow almost seems to fly off the page. Joy in the transient phenomena of this world is beautifully realized within the deep joy of eternity, in a spirit akin to that of Hopkins’s praise of ephemeral things in ‘Pied Beauty’. Here, I would say, the literal version and the more radically recreative one serve different ends. If one is using Durling essentially as an aid to reading the parallel Italian text, one looks to him for the most precise possible expression of meaning on a semantic level and turns to the Italian itself to hear how it sings rhythmically and syntactically. However, if one is reading in English alone, Denny’s freer handling of meaning – not adding thoughts of his own but importing ideas stated or implicit elsewhere in the poem – seems to me to convey the essence of Dante’s thought in a more living and therefore truer way.

Sometimes, of course, different versions of a passage, Denny’s and a scholar translator’s, will achieve poetic expressiveness in different and complementary ways. I think this is true of Denny’s and the Hollanders’ versions of the beginning of St Bernard’s prayer to the Virgin Mary, asking her to grant Dante that final vision. The Hollanders first:

Virgin Mother, daughter of your Son,
more humble and exalted than any other creature,
fixed goal of the eternal plan,

‘you are the one who so ennobled human nature
that He, who made it first, did not disdain
to make Himself of its own making.

‘Your womb relit the flame of love –
its heat has made this blossom seed
and flower in eternal peace.

‘To us you are a noonday torch of charity,
while down below, among those still in flesh,
you are the living fountainhead of hope.

‘Lady, you are so great and so prevail above,
should he who longs for grace not turn to you,
his longing would be doomed to wingless flight.

The Hollanders follow the original closely. I think that in the first two stanzas rhythmic flatness almost does make a ‘caput mortuum’ of Dante’s ideas but ‘Your womb relit the flame of love’ is electrifying and unforgettable. The lines that immediately follow are almost as much so, both in sound and movement and in the evocative interplay of their metaphors. ‘This blossom’, of course, is the vast gathering of saved souls, described as seated in many tiers round a centre larger than the sun, like a gigantic white rose. The whole passage marvelously stretches the imagination between the particularity of the Virgin and her body, on the one hand, and the unutterable vastness of Creation on the other: a vastness transfigured by the Incarnation and birth of Christ. But to my mind there’s a new dip into flatness of expression after the following stanza, so that however potent the ideas might be for a believer, there isn’t enough in the poetry to bring them home to a nonbeliever like me.

Denny has St Bernard say this:

Daughter of your own son, calm and vestal mother –

ah how could I, how could I dance with another? –
most humble and exalted, endlessness’s goal,
who gave such nobility to the human soul
that the entire Creator entered flesh’s tomb…
love was rekindled and remade within your womb,
a love whose warmth opens, in unfading silence,
the white song of this bloom’s immense incandescence.
You are the world’s deathless spring of hope, the daystar
of charity for us throughout heaven; you are
so powerful and prevailing, gentlest lady,
that to yearn for Him yet not turn to your beauty
is to seek to fly without wings…

This sings more softly but more continuously than the scattered singing lines in the Hollanders’ version. Nothing reaches the imaginative height or intensity of ‘your womb relit the flame of love’ and the couplets rhyming ‘goal’ and ‘soul’, ‘womb’ and ‘tomb’ seem to me a little awkward, as though embarrassed by the patness of their rhymes. However, the writing becomes magical with the evocation of love’s opening, the unfolding of the white flower of the saved. Here, Denny beautifully runs together imagery evoking the growth of the foetus of Christ within Mary’s womb and that of the unfolding of the white rose of the church. He does so by means of overlapping syntax. ‘Opens’ can be read both transitively and intransitively. Reading it intransitively, the lines ‘Love was rekindled and remade within your womb, / a love whose warmth opens in unfading silence’ form a unit, figuring both the Incarnation of Christ and His prenatal growth as the opening of the flower of God’s love within Mary’s womb. Reading it transitively, the lines ‘A love whose warmth opens, in unfading silence, / the white song of this bloom’s immense incandescence’ form a new unit, making one see God’s love as the sun shining above and opening the white flower of the song of saved souls. In keeping with this bringing together of God and man, the warmth of God’s love feels more human in Denny’s version than the flame of love does in the Hollanders’. There’s more to the magic of the second of those couplets though. There was nothing particularly striking about Denny’s direct treatment of the paradoxes that open St Bernard’s prayer – ‘Vergine madre, figlia del tuo Figlio, / umile e alta più che creatura’. However, with the vividly sensuous, synaesthetic image of ‘opens, in unfading silence, / the white song of this bloom’s immense incandescence’ he creates a wonder-engendering imaginative paradox of his own, equally suggesting how God’s power and being transcend anything the human mind can conceptualize or even coherently imagine. And if the rhymes at the start of the stanza seemed clanging, that between ‘silence’ and ‘incandescence’ is almost miraculous in its combination of haziness and daring. Full internal rhyme comes into its own with ‘yearn’ and ‘turn’ – the similarity of sound makes yearning but not turning seem almost perverse.

In his Preface, Denny says ‘It should be made clear at the outset that I make no claim to strict fidelity. This is, rather, an interpretation and portrayal of the Commedia in the form of another poem, a subsidiary song, echo or counterfeit though it may be.’ It is, he says, ‘at least partly aimed at those who know the original – a variation, one might say, on a familiar theme – and hence full of conscious expansions, explications, compressions and distortions.’ In accordance with this idea, I think the whole story and the fundamentals of the many dramas it contains are best absorbed in other versions before one comes on to the often beautiful lyricism of Denny’s subsidiary song. And of course it isn’t just lyrical highlights that B offers. Over time, the lover of Dante who turns to it might fruitfully reflect on any number of the ‘expansions, explications, compressions and distortions’ it contains, whether for their own sake or for the perspectives they offer on Dante’s original.

TEXTS QUOTED
Ned Denny: B: After Dante. Carcanet Press. ISBN: 978-1-78410-959-2
Dante Alighieri: Inferno, translated by Robert and Jean Hollander. Anchor Books, Random House. ISBN: 0-385-49697-4
Dante Alighieri: Paradiso, translated by Robert and Jean Hollander. Anchor Books, Random House. ISBN: 978-1-4000-3115-3
Dante Alighieri: Paradiso, edited and translated by Robert M. Durling. Oxford University Press. ISBN: 978-0-19-508742-0

Edmund Prestwich grew up in South Africa but has spent his adult life in England where he taught English at the Manchester Grammar School till his retirement. He has published two collections: Through the Window with Rockingham Press and Their Mountain Mother with Hearing Eye. He has no claims to Dante scholarship but has been a long-term amateur reader of Dante in Italian and in different translations.

(I first read Inferno 5 and memorized a chunk of it in 1972 when I spent a couple of months at the language school in Perugia after graduating.)

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5 thoughts on “Edmund Prestwich: On Translating Dante

  1. Such a fascinating article; so well-informed and deeply thought through. In the light of your conclusion I don’t think I’m ready for Denny’s ‘B’ yet – maybe in time. I rely mostly on the version from JG Nichols which I like and have tried others. I’m tempted now to get hold of the Hollanders’.

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