Man on the move … Dante, Robert Harrison, and The Divine Comedy in the NYRB

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Da Man.

Links to Robert Pogue Harrison’s essay in the current New York Review of Books are everywhere – why should we be an exception?  All the more so, since we wrote about him a few days ago here, celebrating his most recent honor and title, Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres de la République Française, which has a rather pleasant ring to it. His latest review, “Dante: The Most Vivid Version,” considers Mary Jo Bang‘s translation of the Inferno and Clive James‘s translation of The Divine Comedy, as well as Dan Brown‘s Inferno.

I had the privilege of attending Robert’s class on Dante’s masterpiece a year or so ago, and so it’s no surprise to me that his essay focuses on … motion:

… the big difference between the sinners in Dante’s Hell and the penitents in his Purgatory is that the former are going nowhere, while the latter are moving toward a goal, namely the purgation of their sins and their eventual assumption into Paradise. In Purgatory time matters, and motion has a purpose. In Hell, by contrast, no matter how much the souls may be buffeted by storms, or run on burning sands, or carry heavy burdens, motion leads nowhere. In Dante’s vision Hell is a never-ending waste of time.

The great metaphysical doctrine underlying The Divine Comedy is that time is engendered by motion. Like the medieval scholastic tradition in which he was steeped, Dante subscribed to Plato’s notion that time, in its cosmological determinations, is “a moving image of eternity.” He subscribed furthermore to the Platonic and Aristotelian notion that the truest image of eternity in the material world is the circular motions of the heavens. Thus in Dante’s Paradiso, the heavenly spheres revolve in perfect circles around the “unmoved Mover,” namely God.

In the final analysis there are two kinds of motion in the world for Dante: the predetermined orderly motion of the cosmos, which revolves around the Godhead, and the undetermined motion of the human will, which is free to choose where to direct its desire—either toward the self or toward God. Yet be it self-love or love of God (love of neighbor is a declension of the latter), what moves the heavens is the same force that moves both sinners and saints alike, namely amor.

infernoRobert’s familiar music made for wonderful reading last night, but here’s the surprise.  He rather likes Bang’s translation.  If one one is going to take liberties with the translation – and she does– there should be a payoff, and “the payoff is a highly dynamic phrasing, with imagery and rhythms that intensify the sense of entrapment and disorientation,” he writes. I haven’t followed the reviews for Bang’s translation, let alone read the book, but most of the early critical bouquets were thrown by jazzed-up media types who like their Dante to sound like an addled meth addict.  Robert’s reading is more nuanced and intelligent than those hasty reactions … we have waited over a year for it.

Clive James does ring Robert’s bell on occasion – he singles out this passage towards the end of the essay, from the end of the Paradiso:

…but now, just like a wheel
That spins so evenly it measures time
By space, the deepest wish that I could feel
And all my will, were turning with the love
That moves the sun and all the stars above.

 


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5 Responses to “Man on the move … Dante, Robert Harrison, and The Divine Comedy in the NYRB”

  1. Harold Says:

    I was surprised that neither the reviewer nor the translators under review addressed the question of why Dante uses the verb “mi ritrovai”, rather than “mi trovai” (I found myself) in the first lines of the Inferno. When I studied Italian in the 1970s, we were taught, and Singleton and most Italian critics concurred, that “mi ritrovai” (literally, “I found myself again”) actually means not simply, “I found myself”, but “I came to” or recovered consciousness, i.e., “I realized I was in a dark wood because the right way was lost”. This puts a different slant on the whole phrase “I found myself in a dark wood.” In other words Dante realized that he was lost in sin (the dark wood). Of such small differences is poetry made.

    I guess philological criticism is really dead. Seriously, Dante’s Italian is not that difficult and uses quite a limited vocabulary. A second year student of Italian ought to be able to read it. What is difficult is the meaning of what he is trying to say in those simple words, which can’t be grasped without informed commentary. I think anyone who really wants to engage with Dante ought to read him in Italian. As I said, it is not really that difficult.

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Thanks for this, Harold. Much to think about. I have the Singleton translation, and it says, “Midway in the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wood…” and the notes to the text don’t qualify these words at all. (Sayers, in another translation I have handy, says “I woke to find myself in a dark wood…”) I’d love any cites you have for Singleton.

  3. Harold Says:

    It’s in the commentary: http://books.google.com/books?id=xbB5PE9O9KEC&q=ritrovai#v=snippet&q=ritrovai&f=false

    I believe Singleton’s commentary is based on Grandgent, I have Grandgent but I don’t have it with me right now. In any case, I don’t think it was original to Singleton. If you google it you can find it in other places.

    I have to say that my Italian dictionaries — that is, the ones I have in my house — don’t support it necessarily. I will take a look at Sapegno when I get home.

    BTW, As I recall — this is from a long time ago — Italian scholars don’t think all that well of Singleton. They object (or used to object) that his reliance on Thomas Aquinas was anachronistic. Albertus Magnus was the theologian that would have influenced Dante (and also Aquinas). It is fascinating and I expect scholarship has moved on since I was a student.

    On the web I found a Dutch e-book , “Divine Comedies for the New Millennium Recent Dante Translations in America and the Netherlands” Edited by Edited by Ronald de Rooy (Amsterdam University Press) about recent translations of Dante into English

    This book quotes Mark Musa’s translation:

    >”Midway along the journey of our life
    I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
    for I had wandered off from the straight path.” It is a prose translation, but it is printed in such a way that it becomes possible to see the original scansion in terzinas on the facing page. To give a sample we read the translation of the two opening terzinas:

    1) In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost.
    4) Ah, how hard a thing it is to say what that wood was, so savage and harsh and strong that the thought of it renews my fear!

    Durling’s is a straight translation with at least one surprise: ‘I came to myself ’ is quite different from ‘I found myself ’, which we have seen many times. The explanation for this new rendering is given in the commentary:

    “In our view, the prefix ri-, rather than denoting repetition here, serves to intensify the inward nature of the event: Dante is describing a moral awakening. 28”

    This translation is an example of how scholarship pushes for precision and interpretation and how hesitant it makes a translator to use verse rendering.<[end quote]

    Perhaps English translators are wise to simply go for "found myself", still the reader does lose something. If Singleton translated it as "I found myself", he did provide a note in the commentary explaining what he thought Dante meant.

  4. Harold Says:

    Correction: the sentence beginning “It is a prose translation. .. ” follows an omission of a sentence explaining that the next sample translation is from the work of Robert M. Durling. This omitted sentence s hould also have begun a new paragraph. (It is very hard to post quotations within quotations.)

    Should read:

    >”Midway along the journey of our life
    I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
    for I had wandered off from the straight path.”

    The last translation I shall consider in this context was made by Robert M. Durling and comes with a ponderous commentary by Ronald M. Martinez. It is a prose translation, but it is printed in such a way that it becomes possible to see the original scansion in terzinas on the facing page. To give a sample we read the translation of the two opening terzinas:

    1) In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost.
    4) Ah, how hard a thing it is to say what that wood was, so savage and harsh and strong that the thought of it renews my fear!

    Durling’s is a straight translation with at least one surprise: ‘I came to myself ’ is quite different from ‘I found myself ’, which we have seen many times. The explanation for this new rendering is given in the commentary:

    “In our view, the prefix ri-, rather than denoting repetition here, serves to intensify the inward nature of the event: Dante is describing a moral awakening. 28″

    This translation is an example of how scholarship pushes for precision and interpretation and how hesitant it makes a translator to use verse rendering.<[end quote]

    Perhaps English translators are wise to simply go for "found myself", still the reader does lose something. If Singleton translated it as "I found myself", he did provide a note in the commentary explaining what he thought Dante meant.

  5. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Thanks, Harold. This is very useful. I didn’t see Singleton’s not in the commentary. He didn’t appear to gloss this line at all.

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