The Inferno of Dante.
The Divine Comedy. Volume I: Inferno. Trans. Robert M. Durling. Introd. and Notes by Ronald L. Martinez and Robert M. Durling. New York: Oxford UP, 1996.
It is a truism that each generation needs its translation of the Commedia. The truth is we need more than one: in order to serve different publics, and to be assured at least one of them will be suitable. In my case, the story began with the stentorian blank verse version of the architect Lawrence Grant White: confident, dignified, and tactful, faithful to narrative continuity, much less so to exegetical accuracy. At the same time I explored the laconic majesty of Louis Biancolli, playing this sparse verse translation (also musically) off that of White, wondering at times how two such divergent works could be derived from a single source. I was less patient with the overrhymed Dorothy Sayers and John Ciardi, despite their popularizing effect. As a graduate student, I was introduced to the prose versions of John Sinclair and Charles Singleton, both of which are distinguished by a pristine sobriety and excellent sense of balance and linguistic appropriateness (without mentioning the unexceptionable commentary of the latter). My translation of choice, that came amicably to supplant all those named above, by its grace, subtlety, and rigor, its overall icasticita, was that of Allen Mandelbaum.
All of the accomplished English translations of the last fifty years (Sinclair's is actually from 1939) have aimed at syntactic and philological rigor, artfulness, economy and an English that is one's own (unlike, say, that of Longfellow). Versified translations have tempered rigor with imagination, in search of a parallel music to Dante's, again in a manner appropriate to the translator's usage and time. Prose translations have aimed at clarity above all, and philological and exegetical accuracy. Yet both prose and verse modes naturally require sensitivity to Dante's poetics and overall architecture, in recognition of the multiple sub-genres of his poem and the pervasively polysemic allegory and connotative aspects of his poetic language. Thus both verse and prose translators have sought out Dante's manner of locating verbal structures that are themselves contents to the work. And both groups have no doubt come to know the enormity of the challenge and the countless pitfalls.
D. H. Lawrence has written: "The basic error of the translator is that he preserves the state in which his own language happens to be instead of allowing his language to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue." I can say with confidence that neither Robert Durling nor Robert Pinsky commits this error in translating Inferno. Despite vast differences between these two works, each allows its language to be powerfully affected by Dante's Italian; each offers a vigorous and novel solution, graceful and abundantly worthy of attention and study.
Robert Durling's Inferno (soon to be followed by the other canticles) has the remarkable feature of being almost absolutely faithful to Dante's syntax, even in its most lapidary forms. It does so with great economy so that at times the tercet shrinks to two elegant prose lines, as here with Caiphas: "Then I saw Virgil marveling over him who was / so basely stretched cross-wise in the eternal exile" (23.124-27). Durling's prose translation follows by 25 years that of Singleton, which came at a similar interval after that of John Sinclair, the Scottish theologian. Like those eminently scholarly contributions, this is the product of years of diligent study and erudite linguistic craft; it also contains an apparatus of notes, commentary and illustrations that testify to an extremely fruitful collaboration between the translator and commentator Ronald Martinez (as already seen in their volume on the rime petrose, Time and the Crystal).
Thus the Durling translation evinces an uncompromised embrace of literality; the resultant translating style assumes a fast bond between Italian and the Latin cognates in the English language. The bond between etyme and sememe is pushed to the power of a trope in its own right. This reluctance to recoin the original word can result in a halting style lacking in vividness: "but what does it help me, since my members are bound?" ("membra," 30:80-81); "Oh eternally laborious mantle!" ("O in etterno fatiscoso manto!," 23:67); "whose stench was displeasing even up here" ("facea spiacer," 10:136); "'Your speech makes you manifest as a native of that noble fatherland'" ("La tua loquela ti fa manifesto / di quella nobil patria natio," 10:25-26). The creed of literality means that the translator refuses to interpret, so that for "gridando 'Perche tieni?' e 'Perche burli?'" (7:30), instead of the usual "Why do you hoard? Why do you squander?," we read "crying: 'Why do you hold?' and 'Why do you toss'?" This practice can grow a bit wooden, as in "On my right hand I saw new cause for pity" ("A la man destra vidi nova pieta," 18:22), where "pieta" would be better rendered by "anguish" or "torment," and "man destra" does not need "hand" to be clear. In four of five such uses Durling translates with "right hand" (Mandelbaum uses none), as in the following tercet, where Dante's switch from past to present to past tense--made only for the purposes of rhyme is not called for in the translation;
Io sentia gia da la man destra il gorgo far sotto noi un orribile scroscio, per che con li occhi 'n giu la testa sporgo. Allor fu' io piu timido ... (17:118-20) I could already hear at my right hand the torrent making a horrible roar beneath us, and so I lean out my head, looking down. Then I became more afraid ...
I believe certain transpositions beg the issue or miss the semantic point (of established usage), as for "Ma tu chi se' che 'n su lo scoglio muse" (28:43), "But who are you sniffing at us from up on the ridge," where the intransitive verb musare meant to linger; or, in the same canto, "corata" rendered as "pluck" (appertaining to animals) instead of vitals or vital organs; or for Mohammed's violent display of rending his chest, "Or vedi come io mi dilacco!" (28:30), the weak "Now see how I spread myself!" There is, I find, a sort of misplaced concreteness here, a loss of clarity and simplicity due to the pursuit of an unattainable exactitude.
But, as Durling and Martinez note in the Preface, "there must be some tension, some strain, in any translation that respects the original" (v). The magnificent passages one could cite are numerous. Consider the limpid version of Francesca's speech on the triple action of Love, ironic because of the courtly register of a quest, and also because she assumes Dante has pity on her and Paolo:
Of whatever it pleases you to hear and to speak we will listen and speak to you, while the wind is quiet for us, as it is now. The city where I was born sits beside the shore where the Po descends to have peace with its followers. Love, which is swiftly kindled in the noble heart, seized this one for the lovely person that was taken from me; and the manner still injures me. Love, which pardons no one loved from loving in return, seized me for his beauty so strongly that, as you see, it still does not abandon me. Love led us on to one death. (Inf. 5:94-106)
Consider in comparison Robert Pinsky's version of the same lines, in which I have highlighted semes that deviate from the original:
Now we will speak and hear as you may please To speak and hear, while the wind, for our discourse, Is still. My birthplace is a city that lies Where the Po finds peace with all its followers. Love, which in gentle hearts is quickly born, Seized him for my fair body which, in a fierce Manner that still torments my soul, was torn Untimely away from me. Love, which absolves None who are loved from loving, made my heart burn With joy so strong that as you see it cleaves Still to him, here. Love gave us both one death.
The visual rhyme of the three tercets begun with "Amore" is maintained by Durling, along with the stilnovist gracefulness that compounds the irony of the passage, while Pinsky does neither. The blind utterance of Francesca, "e 'l modo ancor mi offende" is rendered "in a fierce / Manner that still torments my soul" (Pinsky), while Durling concisely has "and the manner still injures me." Pinsky translates from Francesca's subsequent speech "Nessun maggior dolore" as "No sadness is greater," while Durling has: "There is no greater pain" and rightly renders "soli eravamo e sanza sospetto" (5:129) as: "we were alone and without any suspicion" (Durling), to which Pinsky adds a qualifier, "Alone, suspecting nothing, at our leisure" in order to "rhyme" with "measure" and "treasure."
Pinsky's is, in general, an energetic and forceful contribution to the diffusion of the Inferno in America; almost a mirror opposite to the Durling, it abounds in paraphrases and periphrases, and interpolations of lexis and syntax. It is a verse translation based to no small degree on previous translations.
Dante's statement on the impossibility of adequate "musical" translation of poetry, "Sappia ciascuno che nulla cosa per legame musaico armonizzata si puo de la sua loquela in altra trasmutare, senza rompere tutta sua dolcezza e armonia" (Convivio I, VII), stands as an eternal monition to those who attempt to versify the Commedia. Pinsky has chosen to write a "consonantical" terza rima, with abundant though not exclusive use of near-rhymes and rhymes in lines 1 and 3 of each tercet, and, when possible, in line 2 linking the tercets (which are divided by a blank space). Line length is allowed to vary generally between a hypermetric iambic pentameter and pseudo-alexandrine richly dotted with enjambment. The musical results are often delightful:
che non e impresa da pigliare a gabbo discriver fondo a tutto l'universo, ne da lingua che chiami mamma o babbo. Ma quelle donne aiutino il mio verso ch'aiutaro Anfione a chiuder Tebe, si che dal fatto il dir non sia diverso. (Inf. 32:7-12) It is not jokingly that one begins To describe the bottom of the universe-- Not a task suited for a tongue that whines Mamma and Dadda. May the muses help my verse As when they helped Amphion wall Thebes, so that Word not diverge from fact as it takes its course.
The frequent use of a longer line than Dante's and occasional lacunas in sense means 296 fewer lines overall, and fully 54 fewer lines in Cantos 1 and 2 (224 as against 278). Examining those cantos one finds such drastic elisions as the following:
Pero, se l'avversario d'ogne male cortese i fu, pensando l'alto effetto ch'uscir dovea di lui, e 'l chi e 'l quale, non pare indegno ad omo d'intelletto; (2.16-19) That the Opponent of all evil bestowed Such favor on him befits him, chosen for glory * e temo che non sia gia si smarrito, ch'io mi sia tardi al soccorso levata, per quel ch'i' ho di lui nel cielo udito. (Inf. 2:64-66) I fear he may be already lost, unaided: So far astray, I've come from Heaven too late.
I understand the metamorphic desire to acknowledge and emulate Dante's own near-demiurgic ambition, beginning as someone lost--in Pinsky's case as a non-speaker of Italian--and moving towards comprehension, totality. The spiritual investment in this project is authentic and invigorating. As stated, the versification hinges on a matrix of near-rhymes and rhymes; typically this results in a modified syntax intent on recreating the sense of mimetic-diegetic continuity and story-line. This effort implies a lessening of philological rigor and an unconcern for the sort of polysemic (cryptic, ironic, lapidary) costructions that Dante is famous for, and thus a tendency to miss the textual cruxes that animate much scholarly debate. Pinsky abridges the poem's spontaneity, the "fast register" Contini wrote of, for the sake of narrative fluidity and the music of Pinsky's own ear, which is not without echoes of 19th-century American poets. While his lexis is at times romantic ("fen," "acedia's dismal smoke," "fosse"), Pinsky is vastly legible, and his daughter Nicole Pinsky's notes are appropriately matched to the popular edition this is destined to be. John Freccero's introduction is a fine synthesis of the poem's place in Dante's life and opus; it mentions the translation briefly, referring to its "power and extraordinary accuracy." Freccero also writes six analyses of selected cantos, and Pinsky adds six more.
The dust jacket of the Durling translation reads, "Robert Durling's translation brings a new power and accuracy...." Given that these two terms are used for both works, I would ask exactly what "power" and what "accuracy" are involved here. What can the reader and scholar expect to find there? In his essay "The Task of the Translator," Walter Benjamin rejects the sort of accuracy that invests itself in "reproduction of sense" or "transmission of information," urging that the translator instead "incorporate the original's mode of signification, thus making both original and the translation recognizable as fragments of a greater language." To reproduce the "mode of signification" requires "a literal rendering of the syntax which proves words rather than sentences to be the primary element of the translator." Plainly, Durling has achieved such a rendering, daring at times to delve into the archaic and strangely Latinate roots of a certain English word, not because of its obscurity but its precise replication of the density and polyvalence of Dante's usage. These densities are lucidly glossed in the notes that follow the individual cantos and in the 16 short essays (10 by Durling, 6 by Martinez) found in the "Additional Notes" at the end. These include eight divergences from Petrocchi's text. I do find points I would dispute--is not "rance" (23:100) intended as "yellow" or "golden," not "orange," particularly given the tie-in with Dante's use of Uguccione da Pisa's etymology of hypocrite? And why is "com' a scaldar si poggia tegghia a tegghia" (29:74) "as one props pan against pan to cool" instead of to "heat"?
Pinsky's power and accuracy is focused rather on a sense of versimilitude: his Whitmanesque wordsmithery combines a steady stream of phonic tropes with the intimate sense of a drama unfolding, and it invokes this privilege as a form of sacred song. The license assumed to accomplish this recreation (the manipulation of syntax and lexis, the bypassing of ambiguous or indefinite aspects of the original) achieves a "power" that can only be defined as rhapsodic and an "accuracy" perhaps at odds with that which Benjamin had theorized, but noteworthy all the same.
Certainly the following passages are vulnerable to criticism: (1) In Virgil's self-introduction to Dante, "Poeta fui, e cantai di quel giusto / figliuol d'Anchise" (1:73-74): "A poet, I hymned / Anchises' noble son," one could object to the elimination of "I was," or the use of "noble" or "hymned" (instead of "righteous" and "sang"); (2) In Dante's invocation of the muses and his own genius and craft, the imploring to a "voi" and the prediction made to a "tu" are conflated: "O muse, o alto ingegno, or m'aiutate; / o mente che scrivesti cio ch'io vidi, / qui si parra la tua nobilitate." (2:7-9): "O Muses, O genius of art, O memory whose merit / Has inscribed inwardly those things I saw--/ Help me fulfill the perfection of your nature"; (3) In the same canto, Beatrice's "vegno del loco ove tornar disio" (2:71) is overstated: "[I] come from where I crave / to be again," and "pieta" (2:106) is rendered as "pity" rather than anguish; (4) Concerning Farinata, the concise "Dintorno mi guardo" (10.55) is padded: "his gaze began to dart / Anxiously around me"; (5) The usurers described: "dal collo a ciascun pendea una tasca, / ch'avea certo colore e certo segno / e quindi par che 'l lor occhio si pasca" (17:55-57) is rendered by Pinsky as, "Each had a purse hung round his neck--adorned / With certain colors and a certain device / Which each of them with hungry eyes consumed"; and Durling: "from the neck of each hung a bag of special color, with a special emblem, and their eyes seem to feed there." The adjective "special" points to the specificity of the family devices, while "certain" does not; and Pinsky simply wipes out the verb "par" and the subjectivity it denotes. The same occurs in "ma fiorentino / mi sembri veramente" (33:12): "But you are surely Florentine," while the opposite, a "seeming" added superfluously, is in "ma poco dura a la sua penna tempra" (24:6), "But only a while because her pen, it seems / Is not sharp long."
These are perhaps minor matters; and indeed, Pinsky has stated that he does not seek to render English more Italian: "I have tried to make an Inferno in English that stays true to the nature of English" (xxi) and that "attempts hopefully, sometimes perhaps desperately, to find a commensurate relation of elements" (xxiv).
Consider in this regard the second tercet of the poem, "Ahi quanto a dir qual era e cosa dura / esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte / che nel pensier rinova la paura!" (1.4-6) is rendered: "To tell / About those woods is hard--so tangled and rough / And savage that thinking of it now, I feel / The old fear stirring." The immediacy of "selva selvaggia e aspra e forte" is broken, the referent of the three adjectives obscured; but Pinsky is loyal to his own recasting, which here fuses the difficulty of the pilgrim's "telling" and that of the actual woods of hell he encountered. The stress is on movement, rhythm, and drama. If Pinsky's "accuracy" depends on the theory of the reproduction of meaning, Durling's "incorporates the original's mode of signification" and attains to a closer, almost epidermic, sense of Dante's language, his symbols and his silences, all of that which lies beyond verbal communication, in the metaphysical music of the Comedy. At the end of Canto 21 Dante writes: "lasciali digrignar pur a lor senno, / ch'e' fanno cio per li lessi dolenti." Pinsky translates "it is the wretches who boil here that they menace--so let them grind / As fiercely as they like, and scowl their worst"; Durling: "let them snarl as much as they please, they are doing that for the sufferers in the stew." Earlier in the same canto (in which Durling translates the devil's fantastic names and Pinsky does not), Dante writes: "Allor mi volsi come l'uom cui tarda / di veder quel che li convien fuggire / e cui paura subita sgagliarda, / che, per veder, non indugia 'l partire"; which Pinsky translates: "I turned my head / Like someone eager to find out what it is / He must avoid, who finding himself dismayed / By sudden fear, while he is turning back / Does not delay his flight"; and Durling: "Then I turned, like one eager to see what he must escape, whom sudden fear robs of vigor, / and, though he looks, does not delay departure". Only the latter quickly and immediately conveys the pilgrim's state of mind, the suchness and urgency of fear which one does not simply "avoid" but from which one "escapes."
To state it again with Benjamin, "the intention of the poet is spontaneous, primary, graphic; that of the translator is derivative, ultimate, ideational." Both Pinsky the poet and Durling the translator have struck a careful mediation between these elements, with the emphasis on their particular strength. Through them one sees the theme of translation and writing itself as basic and functional to the Commedia's unfolding, its spiraling autopoesis in history.
The University of Georgia
Review Article Annali d'italianistica 15 (1997). Edited by Dino S. Cervigni.