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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to editor@pnreview.co.uk

This article is taken from PN Review 263, Volume 48 Number 3, January - February 2022.

Translating Dante Alberto Manguel
Ned Denny, B: After Dante (Carcanet) £18.99

Heavenly host singing Gloria in Excelsis, engraving by Gustave Doré, c.1868

How much do poets know about their own creations? Other than post-partum rationalisations such as Poe’s ‘Philosophy of Composition’ or Coleridge passing on the blame to the Person from Porlock, there are not many confessions of how the trick works, and even these are rarely convincing, maybe because deep down inside every bard is in fact a doubting, doubtful craftsperson with little or no idea of how this creation thing came about. Dante, however, was clearly aware of what he was accomplishing as he was working on his Commedia. Rarely was a poet so conscious of his craft, of how his thoughts were faithfully incarnated in his words, both as sense and as sound. I can’t think of any other poet who with such hubris dares us, his readers, to follow him on the sea of invention and discovery that he is himself fording for the first time, while proudly telling us to ‘wheel about’ because our puny crafts (except for a few happy ones) cannot cross the ocean he is about to cross: ‘Do not set out,’ he warns us at the beginning of Paradiso, ‘on depths where, losing me, you’ll lose yourselves.’ What poetic chutzpah, what absolute confidence in the poetic art, are necessary to tell us, as Dante does, that he’s received among the inhabitants of the Noble Castle of the First Circle of Hell –Homer, Horace, Lucan, Ovid, Virgil himself— who anoint him ‘sixth of their sage company’? And this only four cantos into the poem that with circular logic will prove the truth of this colossal assertion. That is not all. Dante tests the reader further, by swearing ‘by the verses of his Commedia’ that what he will describe next (in Canto XVII of Inferno) –the appearance of monstrous allegory of fraud– is true. So we are left with this conundrum: either we believe in the truth of the preceding cantos, so convincing in their beauty and poetic honesty, and thereby accept the truth of fraud (material and imaginative fraud, i.e. counterfeiting and fiction) or we stop reading and close the book. ‘Errori non falsi’ (‘not untrue inventions’) Dante calls them later on, in the sense that Cocteau defined himself as ‘a lie that tells the truth.’ In this complex maze of fictive story and deeply honest meaning that demands that we believe six impossible things before breakfast – what should the reader, even the best of readers, do?

Translators are (must be) among the best of readers. They cannot merely skim the surface of the text, or appropriate it as their personal looking-glass. They must pull the text apart, change the tone and connotation into whatever other language they are translating, and reassemble the whole lot as something that is and is not a faithful rendering of the original. Every text depends on the vocabulary, cultural landscape, musicality, grammar and syntax of the language in which it is composed, and is born from the ideas and images that this particular language allows. Translators, obedient to the etymology of their title, must carry the dismembered text from one linguistic continent to another, and hope that in the new soil it will grow new branches and new fruit. Translators must know their text literally inside out, with a much more questioning and demanding eye than the author’s. And if this feat is almost impossible in the case of any simple text, how inconceivably greater the difficulty becomes in the case of a text such as the Commedia, rigorously constructed in a new tongue (Tuscan) and with a new rhyming scheme (terza rima), dependent of a numerological code as strict as any gematria, bound to a theological framework that must dialogue with the revealed wisdom of the Fathers of the Church, and subject to historical, mythological, astronomical, astrological, botanical, zoological, and literary givens written out in the obligatory library of a fourteenth-century European scholar. How to accomplish such a feat in a language such as English with different scansion, syllabic stress, religious dogma, historical references, music? A translator’s ambition sometimes rivals that of a poet, and many have attempted the impossible. Since the first published translation in 1782 of Inferno in blank verse by Charles Rogers, and the first translation of the entire Commedia three years later by Henry Boyd, in rhymed 6-lined stanzas for the original rhymed tercets, to the latest ones many translators into the English language have dared to split the infinitive and to boldly go where many have gone before. Today, English can boast of more translations of the Commedia than any other language.

Like the perfect boiling of an egg for Cordon Bleu chefs, the translation of the first line of the Commedia is the determining test of a translator’s ability. ‘Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita’ is a perfect summation of the poem, with echoes of the incipit of Psalm 113, ‘In exitu Israel de Egipto’ in reference the ‘three-score years and ten’ allotted to us in Psalm 90. It conjures up the ancient image of the road of life, and introduces the first-person singular narrator (the Pilgrim) included in the plural ‘nostra’. There is plenty more to discover in those first seven words, but these echoes will suffice for a comparison.

The first two English translators were variously conscious of these connotations. Charles Rogers wrote:
When in my middle Stage of Life, I found
Myself entangl’d in a wood obscure...

Henry Boyd:
When life had labour’d up her midmost stage,
And, weary with her mortal pilgrimage...

The chasm between Rogers’ interpretation and Boyd’s is unbreachable. These first two intrepid explorers of Dante’s road of life see it, the first, as a piecemeal gradient, the second as the protagonist of the pilgrimage. Dante, of course, stated it as a simple, commonplace image that, in the allegorical reading, becomes Life itself (as the road travelled, not the traveller) and in the literal reading, the commencement of the journey.

A little over a century later, in 1908, H. F. Cary, translating against Boyd, wrote in plain English:
In the midway of this our mortal life,
I found me in a gloomy wood, astray.

The twenty-first century, perhaps with an eye on the seventh centennial of Dante’s death celebrated this year, saw a deluge of Dante translations concocted by poets, scholars, academics and mere apassionati that attempted to find in post-Reformation English a tongue that would adequately echo Dante’s endemic Florentine. A few of the productions were honourable and pleasing, many were not and resembled in their inadequacy those curious versions of European films ‘translated’ by Hollywood for American audiences.

One of latest versions of the Commedia to land on my desk was the oddly titled B by Ned Denny, subtitled after Dante to help unimaginative readers such as myself understand what they are about to read. The ‘B’ as the reader discovers is justified by the nomenclature chosen by Denny for the three parts of the poem: ‘Blaze’ for Inferno, ‘Bathe’ for Purgatorio, and ‘Bliss’ for Paradiso. Puzzling choice, but modestly justified since the familiarity of twenty-first century English-language audience, by and large, is limited to horror films and video games for the first part, practically nothing for the second, and to chains of sex shops for the third.

Denny is a poet deeply conscious of the limitations and riches of the English language, and its differences with Italian. While Italian verse is accentual and syllabic, mostly choosing feminine rhymes over masculine ones, and prefers the hendecasyllable for its verse (as in the Commedia), English verse prefers the iambic pentameter, where the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables creates the metre, slightly varying certain parts of the line of verse. In most Latin languages, the stress sequence is quite regular, with the stress commonly falling on the tenth syllable. In Italian, for instance, metre is formed by a pattern of long and short vowels, and is determined merely by the position of the last accent in a line of verse; when a word ends with a vowel and the next one starts with a vowel, both are considered part of the same syllable (for example, ‘Gli anni e i giorni’ consists of four syllables: ‘Gli an-’ ‘-ni e i’ gior-’ and ‘-ni’.) Taking all this into consideration, Denny explains his method: ‘Rather than ape the Commedia’s outward form, I have aimed to create a living equivalent different from but parallel to the highly structured and numerologically-minded original. Each of B’s nine hundred stanzas is a roughly 12 by 12 block, the ground plan of the Book of Revelation’s radiant ‘foursquare’ city’ line-lengths vary but no stanza falls short of or exceeds 144 syllables, this number evoking both the 144,000 who ‘sung as it were a new song’ and the hours in the six days of Creation (and thus the end and the beginning of sacred time). With the addition of the single hanging line with which each canto opens and closes, this gives a total of 11,000 lines for the whole poem – transposing, in a sense, Dante’s hendecasyllable onto the vertical plane.’

The result is a perfect blend of poetic inspiration, structural discipline and common sense. Of course, Denny’s translation, with all the good will in the world, cannot be called literal. It is however, I believe, faithful to Dante. These are the first two lines:
In the midst of the stroll of this life that some call good
I came to my senses in a corpse-hued wood,

‘Stroll’ is a strange choice  for Dante’s ‘cammin’ changing the passive ‘road’ or ‘path’ for the active ‘stroll’ that demands someone to undertake the action. ‘Some call good’ is not in Dante. And yet, it might be assumed that the Epicurean notion of a materially-enjoyable life (that Dante will see condemned in the circle of the heretics, those ‘che l’anima col corpo morta fanno’ which Denny reads as those ‘whose spiel was a myopic creed of the mortal soul’) is present in Dante’s vision of our error-laden earthly path of life; if so, it is deeply buried in the adjectiveless ‘nostra vita’ and Denny has boldly mined it. ‘Mi retrovai’ translated into ‘I came to my senses’ is exactly right. The verb ‘retrovarsi’ means ‘to find oneself in a certain place’: surely the physical idea of location can be extended, profitably, to the notion of the sudden illumination necessary to initiate the forthcoming pilgrimage. And ‘corpse-hued’ for ‘oscura’ is most probably what Dante had in mind: the dark night of the soul lost in the dark wood of sin whose wages are death. One could go on.

In a 1932 essay on the translations of Homer, Borges suggested that a translation is merely another draft of the original: he added that the various drafts of a text can be regarded as ‘translations into the same language’. The biography of a text can therefore be seen as the succession of drafts, translations included, which add to or subtract something from the supposed original. (Borges also said that the notion of a definitive text can belong only to religion or fatigue.) If this is so, then translators have the choice of several strategies. They can attempt to be faithful to the text both in sense and sound, but in doing so risk betraying the text through that very faithfulness by introducing novelties and artifice that may be absent in the original language, because what is natural in one tongue might be startling or unconvincingly odd in another.

I believe that a translation must, like Borges’ draft, stand on its own and require the comparison with the distant original. Every reading is an interpretation, every interpretation effects a change that requires a new reading and allows for a new interpretation. A translation is not a many-layered Troy that Schliemann discovered and that successive archaeologists have dug out in search of the authentic Ilion known to Helen. Somewhere in the distance, between the lines of Denny’s B: After Dante, lies Dante’s Commedia: unscathed, immaculate, perfect as perhaps no other work of literature. To look for archaeological precision, to demand from the translation the exactitude required in a document as proof of identity, is to mistake the role of the reader for that of the philological censor. Denny is certainly not Dante, B is certainly not the Commedia, but (in the eyes of this reader at least) B is one of the best versions of the great poem I have read, and Denny has written a great English-language poem in its own right.

This article is taken from PN Review 263, Volume 48 Number 3, January - February 2022.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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