The Book's Lover

The Book's Lover
Damiano Cali

Monday, July 22, 2013

Translations are Hell (Choosing an Inferno): Naomi

I've been re-reading Dante's Inferno.   For fun. (I know, I know.  I am that deeply geeky.)  And I am madly in love with my translation of it, and wanted to share it with you, Gentle Readers.  
Dante's 9 levels of Hell, by Sandro Botticelli
A few words about translations: I am a self-confessed translation snob.  Perhaps it’s the training in Shakespeare, which makes me reticent to accept subpar renditions.  For example, I have seen many editions of Shakespeare where footnoted modernizations turn Hamlet into hamburger.  Shakespeare says:
… There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all…. (V.ii.)

If I were to “translate,” I might say: “God controls everything, even something as small as a sparrow’s death.  If something happens now, it’s supposed to.  If it’s not happening now, it will happen later.  All we can do is prepare.”  

Now, the first passage gives me goosebumps, and makes me *happy sigh* a little each time I hear it; it’s truth-in-poetry.  The second one is mere explanation: dry, soulless, lacking. 
I don’t want to dislike a book or an author because the translation is bad.  The translation should give the ideas of the original author a chance to affect a larger audience.  That’s why we translate books…

So I can read Dante, when I don’t read Italian.  
Rodin's "Gates of Hell"
 When it comes to choosing a translation edition, I have a process:  choose a passage, find it in each book, compare.  It’s how I buy translations, dictionaries, even travel guides.  When I chose my Dante a few years ago, I spent about two hours sitting on the floor in Very Distinguished University’s bookstore, surrounded by every translation they had on hand.  As I pondered, I had a few criteria:

      1) The translation needed soul.  So all prose translations were put back on the shelf.  This girl was not interested. 
2) I wanted, but did not require, a facing-page translation.  (You know, original language on one page; translation on the other.)  Because of my Romance language background, I like to look at the original language and see how much I can parse it.  Some editions have the original text in Part I of the book, followed by the translation in Part II, but that’s pretty clunky to navigate.
      3) Scholarly notes.  I prefer footnotes to endnotes, but I definitely wanted the occasional editorial comment on context or word choice.  Since I’ve never taken a class on Dante, and I was reading for education as well as pleasure, I wanted someone to give me a little guidance. 

After a few hours of consideration, I chose Michael Palma’s translation of Inferno.  This was a wonderful decision, as the book is fabulous.  This was a terrible decision, as he has not published Purgatorio or Paradiso.  And I need them!

I have such a crush on Palma’s translation.  It’s not word-for-word exact.  But the soul is right.  So many writers are intimidated by translating poetry.  It’s with excellent reason—good poetry is hard enough to write oneself, let alone trying to capture the essence of someone else’s poetry while remaining true to the original rhyme scheme.  Dante in particular has been a challenge, and so many translators have thrown up their hands and reverted to prose!  O the humanity.  Translators have done Dante in free verse, blank verse, and bastardized terza rima with elimination of the linking rhyme. 

[For those who are unfamiliar, Gentle Readers, terza rima is a poetic rhyme scheme collected in tercets, or lines of three, much like a couplet is collected & rhymed in twos.  Each middle line—for example, the “B” of an A-B-A tercet—is the main rhyme for the following tercet.  To wit: A-B-A, B-C-B, C-D-C, D-E-D, etc.  Terza rima is traditionally iambic (an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable), which sounds like a heartbeat (duh-DUM).  Shakespeare is also traditionally iambic.]  

Palma keeps Dante’s terza rima (including the linking rhyme), so the rhythm and the rhyme pull your reading forward.  He also keeps the beauty, so when you read about Paolo and Francesca, you’re struck with the hopelessness of their passion and their punishment.  (Did you know that Rodin’s The Kiss is figured after Paolo and Francesca?  The statue illustrates the moment of the first forbidden kiss, when “that day we did not read another line.”)

In his introduction, Palma explains why his translation is a little less flowery than some others.  He reminds the reader that Dante is famous for writing in Italian—the vernacular—rather than Latin.  In Dante’s lifetime, “serious” works of literature were written in Latin, partly so that other intellectuals could read one another's ideas without translation problems (O the irony!), and partly so that authors appeared to be extending classical lines of inquiry.  Latin showed that these authors were taking up the torch, so to speak. Dante changed that.  He wrote a “serious” work of literature, a piece with religious overtones, classical bones, and political significance, and he wrote it in everyday speech.  

So Palma keeps his translation pretty lean and mean.  The words are well-chosen but the manipulation of language seems effortless.  It’s clear, it’s readable, and it’s still lovely. 

It’s not perfetto.  I have a few niggling problems: Palma’s “All you who enter, let no hope survive” does not hold a candle to John Ciardi’s “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”  Frankly, Palma's rendition of the most famous of all Dante quotations is pretty clunky.    But all in all, I’m a big fan. 

I won’t get even more pedantic in this post, but please don’t let Dante frighten you.  He’s canonical because he’s good, not necessarily because he’s hard.  If reading a prose translation gets you into reading Inferno, use it!  (Just don’t tell me.  My heart will bleed.)  Please give it a shot.  It’s lovely, it’s frightening, it’s intense.  And each Canto is pretty short, so each “chapter” is readable.  

Don’t abandon all hope… give the poetry a chance.  

Palma has two publications of his Inferno: the facing-page translation which I own, and the Norton Critical Edition, with additional essays and explication.  Both are available relatively cheaply.  

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Celebrations & Cheesegasms: Naomi

Each Fourth of July, my family gathers in the Adirondack Park to partake of boats, beer, and bonding.  Usually in that order.  There are upwards of 30 of us, so the beer helps with the bonding. 

 We’ve been going to the same spot for years, so it feels a bit like home.  And no, Gentle Readers, this is not glamping.  We do not do electricity.  Or hot water.  Or beds.  We do flashlights, and weekly showers, and air mattresses.  We are tent campers!  We laugh in the face of cabins.  We breathe the clean piney air and swim in the loon-filled lake and sing around the softly-glowing campfire.  And when it rains, we remind each other that we are having FUN, dammit!
(Wee One)

Usually, I do some hiking, some boating, and a lot of sitting in a lawn chair with my feet in the lake, reading my book in the sunshine.  This year was a bit unusual.  People were popping in and out of the campsites like mad.  One of my cousins had a baby on the Fourth, so Grandma & Grandpa Bear went home to meet Baby Bear.  Dad lent his newly-refurbished Sunfish to one of our crew, who flipped it and then promptly sent the mast, boom & sail to the bottom of the lake. My roommate from Super Little University (which is just off the edge of the Park) came with her husband and toddler to join us.  It was the Wee One’s introduction to A) sleeping in tents, and B) fireworks.  It was a very exciting year.  

 [Side note: The majority of the campers departed one day before I did, taking 95% of the camping materiel home with them.  I was staying just one more night, and was traveling light.  I had a pop-up tent, a tarp, a sleeping bag, Fritos & cherries, a 6-pack of beer, and a bottle of wine.  These were my worldly possessions as I waited for my SLU roommate to return from her family field trip to join me for dinner. 

And then it rained.  The heavens opened.  It monsooned.  I had to move my tent out of a puddle.  Then I had to move it out of a new puddle.  I had to tweak the tarp situation.  It was so wet I eventually took off my raincoat (why bother?) and just got soaked to the skin.  Then, alone, in the rain, wet under my tarp, I opened my bottle of wine.  And drank it, straight from the bottle.  For the “grown-up” campers had taken all the cups.  I was the person that Mommies hide from their children.]

…But I got no reading done.  So today’s post is about my other favorite thing: food.  

In honor of Dad’s July birthday, we extended our vacation to include a cheese-making class at First Light Dairy Farm & Creamery in East Bethany, NY.  This tiny farmstead is owned by Trystan & Max Sandvoss, two brothers who make artisanal cheese.  They have a small herd of pastured goats for goat’s milk, and an arrangement with a local organic farm for cow’s milk.  They hold regular classes where foodies and wanna-bes learn how to make cheese.  

We dragged Dad out of bed at the crack of dawn and threw him into the car without a word of where we were going.  He finally figured it out, but it may have been the overwhelming eau de vache that gave him the hint.  After almost an hour of cheese indoctrination, we headed off to the creamery, where we started our Grand Cheese Adventure.  

When Mom and I finished covering our shoes in sanitation booties like something out of a crime procedural, we found Dad already in the Make Room, stirring what would eventually turn into cheddar.  (Did you know that “cheddar” is actually a verb?  One can cheddar things… who knew?)  Trystan, the  older of the cheese-brothers (and the one with the glasses above), waxed poetic about yeast and mold and other things that make food yummy, as the milk slowly began to cheesify.  It took all day to make the cheddar, as each step needs to cook while the yeasts do their thing.  Trystan was a great guide—a cheese proselytizer, if you will—and all our basic recipes ended up with hints and illustrations and shortcuts scribbled in the margins. We were not able to eat our cheese that day, as the cheddar has to age for a couple of months before it's delicious.  But the creamery kept us rolling with samples, which kept everyone more than happy!

When we hit the mozzarella stage, cheese-making became infinitely more entertaining.  In order to properly make mozzarella, it needs to be stretched.  A lot.  Like taffy.  It also needs to be over 100 degrees, so it’s very toasty taffy. I've not really gotten a reason why mozz needs to be stretched, but it's the most fun you'll ever have making cheese, so who cares?  When it's shiny and stretchy, you can make it into bocconcini (tiny mozzarella balls) or a regular roll of mozz. (If you over-stretch, you still get cheese, but it's more like string cheese.  Edible, but not awesome.)

We cooked up some ricotta just before lunch, and trooped off to eat.  Not only does the First Light Workshop teach you how to make cheese, they also feed you.  Best. Workshop. Ever!  Younger brother Max desperately tried to fit in one bite of food for every eight questions.  I would not have blamed him if he'd just told us to shut it 'til he was done eating.  The food was fabulous!  Mushroom leek quiche made with local cream.  Fresh salad with creamery feta.  Golden butternut squash soup topped with the ricotta we just made in class.  For dessert: a homemade brownie filled with chevre and a glass of local whole milk.  

Had I not been in (semi)public, I might have licked my plate clean.  Or stolen food from my table-mates.  It's probably best that I was supervised.

After lunch we learned how to set chevre, and just as our cheese-making fantasies were reaching their heights, we wrapped up.   We might have just gone home, but after listening to the brothers talk about "the girls" all day, we wanted to meet the goats!

They're a mixed herd of Alpine and Nubian goats.  Alpine goats have beards, even if they're female...just like dwarf women in Lord of the Rings.  Nubians have long floppy ears, like Leo the Lop.   Also, for future reference, goats like hot pink shorts.  Or how my knees taste.  It's hard to say which.  But I had lots of new friends.  

Poor Trystan was nearly run over by the goats.  The brothers interact with each one of their herd daily, and the goats see them as parent figures.  So if you've ever seen a favorite teacher mobbed by a group of preschoolers, you'll have an accurate picture of Trystan with his "girls."  The only difference was that the calls of "Hey! Hey!  Look at me!" were replaced with a little more friendly head-butting.  Other than that, the similarities were uncanny. 

I folded myself into the car at the end of the day smelling of goat, and clutching my goodie bag of cultures, yeasts, and directions.  In theory, I now know how to make four kinds of cheese: chevre, ricotta, cheddar, and mozzarella. One day soon, when the temperature outside is not reminiscent of the surface of the sun, I will try to make my very own cheese.  

If you would like to join in the fun, my friend at andthenshechangedmylife wrote this awesome post about how to make mozzarella.  Try her recipe until I return with my own battle-tested version of 30-Minute mozzarella.  Stay tuned for imminent cheesy disaster!