Confounding the Apes

P.N. Furbank

  • The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, translated by Allen Mandelbaum
    Everyman, 798 pp, £14.99, May 1995, ISBN 1 85715 183 6
  • The Inferno of Dante. A New Verse Translation by Robert Pinsky, illustrated by Michael Mazur
    Dent, 427 pp, £20.00, February 1996, ISBN 0 460 87764 X
  • Dante’s Hell translated by Steve Ellis
    Chatto, 208 pp, £15.99, March 1994, ISBN 0 7011 6127 2

There are several different things one can be aiming at in a verse translation, leaving aside the genre known as ‘Imitation’, in which poets like Samuel Johnson, Ezra Pound and Robert Lowell have done such marvellous things. A verse translation may aim to be an independent modern work in its own right. Or, I ought rather to say, this is what some famous and admired translations have in fact been. If you took Pope seriously as to the degree of fidelity required of a translator of Homer (‘to copy him in all the variations of his style and the different modulations of his numbers ... not to neglect even the little figures and turns on the words, nor sometimes the very cast of his periods’), his own Iliad would give you rather a turn. Then again, a verse translation may plead to be read purely as a translation: as a compromise and a substitute, offered as such and hoping occasionally, by some good fortune of language, to reach transparency. (The transparency will, of course, be illusory, since the translator will of necessity be working within a different verse-form from the original; verse-forms do not transplant. But then, illusion is all any reader need ask for.) But thirdly, you can have a translation which is intended neither as a work of art nor as a substitute for a work of art, but as a form of exposition – in the way that you might teach rifle-drill with a dummy rifle. This is what Ezra Pound meant when he said of his brilliant and bizarre version of Guido Cavalcanti’s canzone ‘Donna mi priegha’: ‘As to the atrocities of my translation, all that can be said in excuse is that they are, I hope, for the most part intentional, and committed with the aim of driving the reader’s perception further into the original than it would without them have penetrated.’ Of these three new translations of Dante (not all of them quite new, for Allen Mandelbaum’s was first published ten years or so ago), Mandelbaum’s and Pinsky’s belong firmly in the second class, whilst Ellis’s, which makes a point of the modernity of its idiom, aspires perhaps a little to the first class.

The 20th century has been awash with Dante translations: Laurence Binyon’s in the Thirties, Dorothy Sayers’s in 1949, John Ciardi’s in 1955, Mark Musa’s in 1971, C.H. Sisson’s in 1980, not to mention an Inferno by assorted poets broadcast by the BBC’s Third Programme in 1961, the prose versions by John Sinclair and Charles Singleton, and an admirable translation – again in prose – by Robert Durling, which will be published in this country by Oxford next year. Behind this we may perhaps see the influence of Eliot’s famous Dante essay of 1929 and of his own verse, which was haunted by Dante more than by any other poet. There was also the impossible challenge offered by the Dantesque episode in Little Gidding. Eliot wrote: ‘This section of a poem, not the length of one canto of the Divine Comedy, cost me far more time and trouble and vexation than any passage of the same length that I have ever written.’

There are poets whom one should probably not try to translate at all, for instance Mallarmé and Racine. Dante is certainly not in that category, for occasionally someone, just for a moment, brings it off. Shelley comes near to doing so in his version of ‘Matilda Gathering Flowers’ from the Purgatorio; at least he achieves one or two very beautiful effects.

Yet were they [the branches] not so shaken from the rest,
But that the birds, perched on the utmost spray,
Incessantly renewing their blithe quest,

With perfect joy received the early day,
Singing within the glancing leaves, whose sound
Kept a low burden to their roundelay.

Moreover, in The Triumph of Life Shelley not only matched the fulgorous prosopaeia of the Divine Comedy, he managed to create a sustainable Dantesque verse style.

It is necessary to be clear about where the main difficulties for a translator of Dante lie. The hendecasyllabic (11-syllable) line, which is the staple of Italian verse, has very little in common with the English iambic pentameter. It is true that, as with English metre, it is based on stress, but, unlike the pentameter, it has no feet. Dante makes this point explicitly in his Latin treatise the De Vulgari Eloquentia. ‘We must not omit to mention,’ he writes, ‘that we take feet in a sense contrary to that of the regular poets [i.e. classical writers], because they said that a line consisted of feet, but we say that a foot consists of lines.’ The hendecasyllable line has a heavy stress on the tenth syllable, and it has a caesura, but beyond that it is a very fluid and flexible affair. Often one’s ear detects three main stresses (‘Nel mézzo del cammín di nostra víta’), but all sorts of other stress-patterns are also possible. Italian words could be said to fall more easily into verse because of their lilting stress-pattern, and Dante mentions the word sovramagnificentissimamente as one which makes a perfectly acceptable hendecasyllable line in itself.

On the subject of the hendecasyllable, it is worth noticing something that Eliot did in his Dantesque passage in Little Gidding. In Dante’s terza rima one from time to time finds a ten-syllable line, or rather a group of three such lines (versi tronchi), rhyming on a single rather than the normal double syllable. Eliot, who is writing terza rima without rhyme, takes a hint from this, and makes it a formal rule to alternate an 11-syllable line with a ten-syllable one. This, as an attempt to domesticate Italian verse, is cunning; for often his ten-syllable lines, in contrast to his 11-syllable ones, will read more or less like an English iambic pentameter (for instance: ‘The eyes of a familiar compound ghost’; or ‘We trod the pavement in a dead patrol’), and this helps to bring home the quite different wave-pattern, the more springy quality, of the 11-syllable lines.

Unrhymed terza rima is of course a paradox, though it is the solution adopted by two of these translators, and unquestionably a lot is lost by abandoning rhyme. Dante appears to have invented terza rima – a form in which a new set of rhymes has begun before the preceding one has been completed – and it has, in his hands, a wonderful knitting or weaving effect, a combination of stasis and forward motion. Often, too, rhyme gives his lines the effect of a charm or incantation, a necromantic quality which arouses superstitious awe.

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