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.  

No comments:

Post a Comment