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From Dante's 'Inferno:' Canto V; a translator's note.

I have tried to make an Inferno in idiomatic English, as accurate as possible, in lines of terza rima that will suggest some of the force and suppleness of Dante's form.

Dante invented terza rima for the Commedia, and its effect--combining onward movement with a feeling of conclusiveness in each step--seems integral to the poem, something well worth trying to approximate.

It may be helpful to say a few words about rhyme:

Italian is relatively rich in rhyme, while English--despite having a far greater number of words--is relatively poor in rhyme: thus, the triple rhymes of the original can put tremendous strain on an English translation. One response to this strain, one way of dealing with the tortuous demands of terza rima in English, has been to force the large English lexicon to supply rhymes: squeezing unlikely synonyms to the ends of lines, and bending idiom ruthlessly to get them there.

This translation rejects that solution and instead makes a more flexible definition of rhyme, or of the kind and degree of like sound that constitute rhyme.

On the other hand, I have not accepted just any similar sounds as rhyming; rather, the translation is based on a fairly systematic rhyming norm that defines rhyme as the same consonant-sounds--however much vowels may differ--at the ends of words. For example, the opening tercets of Canto I include the triads "tell/feel/well," "sleep/stop/up" and "shows/ease/gaze."

This system of like sounds happens to correspond to some preference of my own ear, a personal taste: for me such rhymes as, say, "swans/stones" or "gibe/club" or "south/both" often sound more beautiful and interesting than such hard-rhyme combinations as "bones/stones," "rub/club" or "south/mouth." This idea of harmony seems even more clear with disyllabic or "feminine" endings: "faces/houses" is more appealing than "faces/places"; "flavor/quiver" has more interest than "flavor/savor" or "giver/quiver."

The reader who recognizes these examples I have taken from poems by Yeats, who is a master of such consonantal rhyming, might speculate that such sounds are similar for English: roughly as "like, " perhaps, in the context of English and its great sprawling matrix of sounds, as are "terra/guerra" or "belle/stelle" in the tighter Italian fabric.

But such speculation aside, and regardless of my own predilections, consonantal or "Yeatsian" rhyme can provide an audible scaffold of English terza rima, a scaffold that does not distort the English sentence, or draw excessively on the reaches of the English lexicon. In this scaffolding, mere vowel rhymes--even as close as "claim/feign" or "state/raid"--have been arbitrarily excluded, as taking away some of the backbone or stringency of effect. The goal is to make enough of a formal demand to support the English sentence, but not so monstrous a demand as to buckle it, or to mangle the particularly delicate gestures English syntax and idiom make as they accomplish work another language might perform with inflected endings.

(It remains to add that by extension words which end in vowels can be rhymed by a consistent system in which round vowels rhyme with one another--"now/throw," or "clue/saw"; as can closed vowels--"be/why" or "stay/cloy"; and, that the disyllabic rhyme so sticks out in English that it can acceptably be made a step more approximate, as in "bitter/enter/blunder"--perhaps it must be made more approximate, in order to avoid the comic feeling of limerick, or of W.S. Gilbert.)

This is a brief outline of the general principles behind a work which in practice, as the reader will see, does not apply them without occasional compromises and slidings. As to hard rhymes, there are many, but as I worked I often found myself revising them out, or striving to make them the first and third members of a triad, rather than adjacent, to keep them from leaping out of a pattern I have labored to make expressive in its variations.

Though we call it a form, verse is physical, and in this sense the sounds of a poem are its body. And terza rima is the body which Dante devised for his Commedia.

In Canto XII, when Virgil and Dante come down a rocky slope and approach the chief centaur Chiron, wise teacher of heroes, Chiron makes an interesting observation to his followers:

As we came close,

Chiron drew an arrow's notch back through the tangle

Of beard along his jaws, and clearing a space

For his large mouth, to the others he said:

"Have you observed how that one's steps displace

Objects his body touches? Feet of the dead

Are not accustomed to behave like that. Dante displaces the physical stones of the infernal world, though shades like Virgil who dwell there do not. And yet, in an apparent contradiction, Virgil sometimes carries the body of Dante about, as in Canto XXIII:

My leader took me up at once, and did

As would a mother awakened by a noise

Who sees the flames around her, and takes her child,

Concerned for him more than herself, and flies

Not staying even to put on a shift:

Supine he gave himself to the rocky place

Where the hard bank slopes downward to the cleft,

Forming one side of the adjacent pouch.

No water coursing a sluice was ever as swift

To turn a landmill's wheel on its approach

Toward the vanes, as my master as he passed

On down that bank that slanted to the ditch,

Hurtling along with me upon his breast

Not like his mere companion, but like his child I suggest that this is not simply an inconsistency, but an indication that the relation between the two poets, living and dead, Christian and Pagan, one of them still embarked on his venture, the other having completed his, is a relation between two worlds: a point of intersection between moral reality and physical reality.

Embodiment, in some such sense, is the Inferno's action, and its meaning, and its method. The prosodic embodiment Dante invented for his poem is characterized by tremendous forward movement, a movement that, in English, the prose translations have sometimes rendered more effectively than those in verse. To catch some of that quality, at once propulsive and epigrammatic, I have allowed myself the compromise or liberty of enjambment, at times letting the sentence run over the line ending more aggressively than in the original, and also crossing freely from tercet to tercet. The Italian line and sentence not being the same as the English line and sentence, I have hoped to imitate some of Dante's forward movement, in the body of an equivalent English form.

In Italian, Dante's hard rhymes do not stick out as violently as tripled hard rhyme would do in English, especially if it were end-stopped. In English, the varying sentence length made possible by enjambment helps the narrative move and breathe.

To the image of Virgil skidding downhill on his back, while clasping Dante to his chest, Dante adds the simile of water coursing through a sluice to turn the regularly spaced vanes of a millwheel. This simile can serve as an image of the relation of lines and stanzas, like regular vanes, to the surging fluid of the sentence. At the same time, the motion of the embracing poets represents a related dynamism of spirit and matter. This translation's arrangement of rhyme, sentence, line and stanza attempts hopefully, sometimes perhaps desperately, to find something like an equivalent relation of elements--improvised and imperfect at every point but pushing on: trying to turn the wheel surely enough to accomplish what work it can.
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Author:Pinsky, Robert
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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