Jamming up the Flax Machine

Matthew Reynolds

  • The ‘Inferno’ of Dante Alighieri a new translation by Ciaran Carson
    Granta, 296 pp, £14.99, October 2002, ISBN 1 86207 525 5

Throughout the 19th century, Italian critics attributed to Dante’s Commedia the formal and linguistic unity they desired for their country. It is ‘a national Bible’, de Sanctis said; ‘harmony,’ Mazzini affirmed, ‘flows throughout in full tide.’ Similar ideas flourished in Britain and Ireland, encouraged by the tendency of early translators to naturalise Dante in flattened versions of recognisable styles. Cary’s pioneering version of 1805 was predominantly Miltonic; in later years, Robert Morehead transformed Dante into a second Spenser, while Thomas William Parsons made him out to be ‘stately and solemn’ in the manner of ‘Gray and Dryden’. T.S. Eliot’s essay of 1929 argues against such Anglocentric and Italocentric definitions, but only by ascribing even greater consistency and homogenising power to Dante. Written in ‘the perfection of a common language’, the Commedia expresses the mentality of a united Europe: so ‘universal’ is its poetry that it is mysteriously able to ‘communicate’, in the original, even to readers who know no Italian.

The many 20th-century translators, too, tended to produce a monolithic, sometimes monotonous Dante, whether because of the influence of Eliot’s analysis, or because of the difficulty (where this was attempted) of translating into terza rima, or because of the pressure of a view which bears on translations in general: the inclination to think that a translation has succeeded when it has expunged all trace of linguistic foreignness. Even Steve Ellis, whose Hell of 1993 drew attention to Dante’s regional identity by employing the speech patterns of Yorkshire, caught the vigour of his language at the cost of its variety. Before this new translation by Ciaran Carson, perhaps only Peter Whigham, whose version was left unfinished at his death, managed to re-create in English the full orchestra of Dante’s tongues, his ‘strange locust-like phonetics’ (to borrow the extraordinary vocabulary of Osip Mandelstam’s ‘Conversation about Dante’), his interest in ‘smacking, sucking and whistling sounds’, his attachment to ‘seminary-student insults and cruel schoolboy taunts’, the ‘Slavic ducks’ that can be heard quacking in his verse, and the occasional blarings of a ‘mighty tuba’.

For the Commedia includes not only many styles, but several languages, common and uncommon. There is the Provençal spoken by Arnaut Daniel (to whom Eliot refers in The Waste Land) and the peculiar compound of distorted Greek and modified Hebrew yelled out by Pluto, guardian of the fourth circle of Hell: ‘Papé Satàn, papé Satàn aleppe.’ There are of course snatches of Latin, both classical and church, and at several points the boundary between Latin and Italian blurs, as when the abstruse disquisitions in Paradiso bring into Italian the structures and phraseology of scholastic reasoning, or when Virgil, on his first appearance, explains his date of birth: ‘nacqui sub Iulio, ancor che fosse tardi’ (‘I was born under Julius Caesar, albeit late’). The two Latin words interrupt the miraculous transmutation of the classical poet into a speaker of contemporary Italian, creating a sudden lapse in time.

The Commedia’s Italian is also divided internally. Dante’s work of linguistic theory, De vulgari eloquentia, suggests that there may be more than a thousand ‘kinds of speech’ in Italy, and in his great poem several of these are recorded: as Carson notes in the introduction to his translation, the language ‘moves from place to place’. Virgil, representative of cosmopolitan Latinity, is no less significantly a Lombard; Guido da Montefeltro, one of the damned, even claims to have heard him using dialect: ‘Istra ten va; piú non t’adizzo’ (‘Aff ye gang, ah need nae mair advice,’ as Carson renders it). Local identity is important throughout the Commedia, and especially to the inhabitants of Hell. Guido, a Romagnol, is hoping that Virgil will bring him up to date with regional politics, and many of the other damned, imprisoned in a landscape of impersonal judgment, similarly want to re-establish contact with the speech communities in which they were once at home and where they could (as they think) be properly understood. So Ugolino – the traitor starved to death with his sons in the Tower of Hunger – notices Dante’s Florentine accent and tells his story, assuming that Dante must be familiar with the outline and relying on the fellow feeling that any Florentine was likely to have for an enemy of Pisa.

Ciaran Carson is the most polyglot of poets writing in, or in connection with, English (‘the shibboleths are lingua franca since German became current’ is a characteristic line), and the great merit of his translation is that it employs a language as multiple and fragmented as Dante’s Italian – perhaps more so. It sounds less like an epic and more like The Canterbury Tales. Everyday insults – ‘up yours’, ‘you little squit’ – jostle grandiose phrases such as ‘convocation of melodic air’; markedly Irish and Scottish words (‘stirabout’, ‘tawse’) come up against venerable poeticisms (‘the bosky chase’) and Sloaney exclamations (‘O such an awful nook!’). There are hints of American (‘palooka’, ‘hellions’), while anti-French touches of humour turn the devils into ‘seigneurs’ and the divisions within the eighth circle, bolgie, into Parisian ‘arrondissements’.

The contrasting idioms uttered by his damned recall the plurality of tongues which Carson has heard in Ulster and explored acutely in his other poetry. In Hell, as in the place ‘caught between/Belfast and Belfast’, different styles of speech bring with them different imaginings of history, individual and political, so that the questions ‘Was it really like that?’ and ‘Is the story true?’ become difficult or impossible to answer. In his introduction, Carson explores a comparison between his own circumstances and the civil conflict through which Dante lived: in Belfast, ‘we see again the vendetta-stricken courtyards and surveillance towers of Dante’s birthplace, where everyone is watching everyone, and there is little room for manoeuvre.’ In the translation itself, loaded words continue the analogy. Hell has ‘borders’ and ‘precincts’, and at one point Dante is made to ask of his ‘divided city’: ‘Is there one just man/in it? Or are they all sectarians?’

Because words like ‘sectarian’ are so firmly hooked into a particular modern context, they drag the poem towards us and away from medieval Italy. They make it obvious that Dante’s text is not being neutrally rendered into English but that something is being done with it or made out of it. Often, when we read translations, we forget about the intermediary presence of the translator: we like to think that the book in front of us is Vertigo by W.G. Sebald (say), whereas really it is Vertigo, a version of Sebald’s Schwindel. Gefühle. by Michael Hulse. In the Belfast poems, the movement of words from one place or voice to another is a focus of attention. Carson encourages us to see that the slightest transposition matters. When he writes, ‘Spokesman for censored political party spoke in someone else’s lip-synch,’ the dropped articles at once invoke the supposedly impersonal presence of a newscaster and suggest a kind of intonational sclerosis in the speaking voice. His Inferno investigates the processes of verbal transmutation in the same way, and nowhere more sharply than when, in a translator’s equivalent of lip-synch, it employs Italian words.

To bring Italian into an English poem is one thing: in Carson’s ‘Second Language’, for instance, ‘Growling figures campaniled above me’ opens an appropriately dizzying exoticism of perspective. But to use Italian in what is meant to be the English translation of an Italian poem is something else. When he has Virgil say, ‘There’s not much time to lose, so make it presto,’ we might think that he is here latching on to what could be a gift to the translator, a word used by Dante which is also naturalised in English. But it turns out that ‘presto’ is not in fact in the text of the Commedia at this point. The lip-synch is being faked, and indeed there would have been an element of fakery even if Dante had used the word, for ‘presto’ in English (with its aura of foreignness and special affiliations to magic and music) is not the same as presto in Italian. The appearance of the word in Virgil’s speech has about it the dazzle of a short circuit: since it was brought into English without visible modification, it looks like a perfect translation; but because it has been brought into English at all, its meaning must have changed. The difference between the two languages is never more intractable than when they appear to merge.

‘Language can be registered in many ways,’ Carson has said of translating the Irish poet Séan Ó Ríordáin, ‘and bringing one language to bear upon another is like going through a forest at night, where there are many forking paths, and each route is fraught with its own pitfalls.’ His Inferno – a journey beginning in a dark forest – alerts the reader familiar with Italian to many new paths through Dante’s poem; but readers who cannot consult the original can even so gain a sense of the pressure it exerts on Carson’s English. In the canto he chose to translate first, Dante and Virgil encounter a giant buried up to his navel and spouting an incomprehensible babble: ‘Raphèl maí amècche zahí almi’ (incomprehensible, but not untranslatable; Carson gives ‘Yin twa maghogani gazpaighp boke’). As Virgil explains, ‘This egomaniac/is Nimrod, who built Babel; he’s the cause/of all our tribulations linguistic.’ Apart from the last two words, this speech is straightforwardly idiomatic, an instance of the kind of translation that pretends to repair the effects of Babel by conjuring out of the foreign text a recognisable English voice. But what of ‘tribulations linguistic’? Who would ever say that? The illusion of easy communication disintegrates, the curse of Babel reasserts itself, English collapses into translationese. As often in the translation, the failing here is orchestrated so as to exemplify the difficulties to which Virgil refers. Carson does not attempt to overcome our tribulations linguistic, but works imaginatively within them.

Usually, ‘translationese’ is a term of opprobrium, applied (often rightly) to translations which fail to achieve fluency or elegance. Carson rebuts the assumptions surrounding the word: ‘Some of us expect translations to sound like translations, and to produce an English which is sometimes strangely interesting.’ There may be a hint of special pleading here, for it can occasionally be hard to distinguish between the ‘strangely interesting’ and the inept. There are passages in this translation where the awkwardnesses appear to have stiffened into a routine. But more often Carson finds ways of opening up expressive possibilities which are available only to language that is being used to translate. As with other strangely interesting translations (Logue’s Homer, Pound’s Cavalcanti, Browning’s Agamemnon), these can be understood only if we keep in mind the translatedness of the words that we are reading.

What is the date of composition of Dante’s Inferno as translated by Ciaran Carson? Because translations of works from the past belong to two periods at once, their language can have a specially incisive relationship to time. When Carson’s Virgil prophesies the advent of a mysterious political leader – ‘All lowly Italy he’ll galvanise/ to freedom’ – the suddenly un-medieval word (galvanism was discovered in the late 18th century) is itself galvanic, creating the impression that Virgil’s language has leapt ahead of itself to keep pace with his prediction. Puns, as they encapsulate two meanings, can also include two temporalities. With sinners between his teeth, Satan ‘worked his three mouths like a flax machine’: the suggestion here is that it would be best if we could manage to imagine a flax machine (whatever that looks like), but that if we can’t, a paper jam in the fax machine will do.

The most effective layering of times occurs in Canto Four when Dante and Virgil reach the calm place inhabited by the virtuous pagans:

A luminous and open stadium
afforded us a perfect supervision
of that dignified symposium.

It is as though the text, with its sudden agglomeration of latinates, had stepped through Italian to the classical world, dressing itself in Roman costume appropriate to the company that is about to be introduced (Caesar, Hector, Aeneas, Lavinia and so on). But the procession of ‘luminous’, ‘stadium’, ‘afforded’, ‘supervision’ and ‘symposium’ creates a sense of slippage: each of those words is current in modern English, but taken together in this context they require to be understood in comparatively unusual, older senses. You have to shut out thoughts of bicycle safety, football, spending power, playgroups and representatives speaking into microphones, and school yourself into a different kind of linguistic awareness. In the Italian, by contrast, Dante seems straightforwardly pleased at having got such a good ticket to such a great show: ‘Veder si potien tutti quanti,’ he boasts (‘you could see the whole lot of them’). If what strikes Dante is his closeness to classical culture, what strikes Carson is a distance which belies the linguistic continuity; and he brings that sense of distance into his translation.

In those three lines from Canto Four, the impression of shifting focus is increased by the varying line lengths (ten syllables, then eleven, then nine) and hesitant rhythm, which together impart uncertainty to what might otherwise seem grand. This is typical of Carson’s way with verse. Though he shadows the Commedia’s terza rima, he often has recourse to half-rhymes and assonances, and he allows his lines freedom to expand and shrink from their pentameter norm to accommodate his shifts of style and tone. As a precedent, he cites an oral genre, the ‘Hiberno-English ballad’, and he frequently employs alterations in the pattern of stress to evoke a speaking voice. Thus Francesca:

One day, to pass the time, we read of Lancelot,
Who loved illicitly. Just the two of us.

An iambic rhythm plods through the 12-syllable first line and on through the second until it is brought up short by the full stop as something occurs to Francesca. Dante never ends a sentence anywhere other than at the end of a line, but there is a comparable movement in the Italian at this point, which Carson elaborates into the shift from that purse-lipped, kid-gloved word, ‘illicitly’, over the hesitation to the intimate thought and rhythmical flurry: ‘Just the two of us’. The second line, a syllable shorter than the first, ends with a pause of anticipation.

The narrative voice, too, is made vivid: never before in English has the poem sounded less allegorical and more humane. In the following lines Dante, having passed through the gates of Hell, hears for the first time the cries of the damned:

resounding through the starless firmament,
such a commotion of groans and wails of woe,
I wept myself from sheer bewilderment;
outlandish tongues, and accents doloroso,
howls, shrieks, grunts, gasps, bawls,
a never-ending, terrible crescendo,
rising to vast compulsory applause

The alternate falterings and reassertions of rhythm here are eloquent of a mind struggling to bear and comprehend the overwhelming noise, while a trick in the third line – ‘I wet myself,’ you can’t help hearing for a moment, until you grasp the more proper reading, ‘I wept, myself’ – comically, embarrassingly conveys the uncertainty that the narrator was in: ‘Oh no I’ve . . . No I haven’t, phew.’ Like ‘presto’, the Italian words in this passage create a feeling of linguistic interference and signal a departure from Dante. The drift of imagination to which Carson gives himself up in the last few lines – the thought that the cavern of Hell is like a concert hall and the wailing like applause – belongs to a sensibility conditioned by transmissions on Radio Three and black and white footage of totalitarian rallies. Together with its implied hostility to the divine order, the image is not and could not be in Dante.

What is most impressive about the Carson version is its readiness to embark on this kind of searching departure from its source. When it does so, we can observe the modern Irish poet not pretending to stand in for the medieval Italian but measuring himself against him, at once absorbing and resisting the influence of his work. Sometimes, the differential is opened up by obvious allusions to writers Dante could not have known, as when the angry and the lazy, mud-wrestling in the fourth circle, bizarrely summon up an echo of Keats: they ‘beat each other with a wild surmise’. More often, Carson employs a sort of linguistic camp: a phraseology that is obviously exaggerated or out of place, but which is meant to be relished for that very reason. Faced with the Minotaur, Virgil comes over all Disney: ‘Vamoose, you monster!’ The gate of Hell – the ‘spooky door’ – is transposed into the idiom of Scooby Doo. The most extraordinary of these deviations is the description of Paolo and Francesca tumbling and swerving through the air: they ‘steer/so lightly by the starless wind, they seem/a ghostly gondola and gondolier’. This is wrong in every way: it has no root in Dante, whose imagery hereabouts is all of birds in flight; gondolas are not wind-powered; Paolo and Francesca are not from Venice. But the point of such moments is to get onto the page an awareness of the cultural clutter that separates us from Dante: our tendency to imagine action scenes as animation; or our difficulty, when we think of Italy, in clearing our minds of summer holidays and ads for ice cream. Connecting with a writer is sometimes less important than realising that you have failed to connect: it is for this reason that infidelity, in a translator, can be a virtue.