We visited Robert Pogue Harrison today, and that short tête-à-tête reminded us of the excellent piece he wrote a few months ago, “Dante: The Most Vivid Version” in the New York Review of Books. It was a fascinating essay (read it here), but he had reservations about the Clive James version of the first canto of The Divine Comedy, and compared it unfavorably to Mary Jo Bang‘s translation:
Clive James gives us a much less dramatic version:
At the mid-point of the path through life, I found
Myself lost in a wood so dark, the way
Ahead was blotted out….
James omits the all-important pronoun “our,” and his smooth cadence does not suit the emotion of panic nearly as well as Bang’s staccato version. The only reason James tacks on “I found” to the first line, and then tacks on “the way” to the second, is for the sake of a rhyme (James decided to cast his translation in quatrains, and to rhyme them abab). James’s version continues:
The keening sound
I still make shows how hard it is to say
How harsh and bitter that place felt to me—
To interpolate a “keening sound” here is ludicrous, for at the start of the poem Dante has just returned from the luminous realm of Christian beatitude, so he would not “still” be wailing or shrieking with grief. The distortion seems a high price to pay for the sake of a rhyme.
Antony Shugaar of Charlottesville, Virginia disagreed. His letter was published some time ago, but we just found it today, here, and share it with you today:
I’m a professional translator from the Italian, and a longtime aficionado of Dante. I therefore read Robert Pogue Harrison’s piece with great interest. I feel that Professor Harrison may have slighted Clive James’s version on one point. “To interpolate a ‘keening sound’ here is ludicrous,” he writes. And yet, there is a keening sound present in Dante’s Italian, unless my eyes deceive me.
The fourth line of The Divine Comedy begins with the word “Ahi,” which represents a sound and a thought that we have in English only at a barely articulated level. It sounds like “eye,” but with a twist: “iyiyi” is one way I’ve seen it written in English. It is a slightly modified version of the sound an Italian might make after hitting himself on the thumb with a hammer. It is, in short, a keening sound. And as you can see, rendering it in English is no simple matter. Thus, James editorialized.
Longfellow rendered it as: “Ah, me.” Not a keening sound, perhaps, but neither is it the sound you’d expect from someone just back from the “luminous realm of Christian beatitude.” Longfellow’s version sounds like a maiden aunt. Dante’s did not, and in fairness to James, he rendered it, clearly and accurately, by editorializing.
It all goes to show the meaning that you can wring out of a careful reading of Dante.
Of course, I understand the idea of preserving certain aspects for philological reasons. There is a translation of Machiavelli’s Discourses that intentionally reads as if it were written by a Martian, because it closely follows the sixteenth-century original, to give a perfect mirroring of certain terms. But it’s a pity, because Machiavelli was also a stylist.
But I believe that a translator should have freedom. Obviously, with freedom comes responsibilities. The responsibility to be absolutely faithful to the author’s intent (and that intent can only be found in the words of the original, so those words must be read closely). If you think the author’s intent was to write something weird, awkward, and foreign-sounding, embrace that. But on the whole, I think that if it sounded idiomatic in the original, you’re failing the author if you produce anything less than that in English.
I’m happy to produce a fully annotated version of anything I translate, showing where every element came from. Occasionally I’ll invent a joke or a pun to account for one that couldn’t come across. But that adheres to the law of the conservation of meaning: meaning can neither be lost nor destroyed in a closed translational system.
…William Weaver once said that the hardest word in Italian to translate is “Buongiorno.” First of all, we think of it as two words. Second of all, it doesn’t mean “Good day,” except perhaps to an Australian. I often leave words like that in Italian. Unless, of course, the Italian novel is set in New York with American characters. For instance. Or Paris. Or Tokyo.
In Italian settings, you can have odd issues of style, protocol, and engineering. For instance, I remember a short story by Valeria Parrella that talking about someone moving from the road to the sidewalk. But in many places in Italy, the road is made of slabs of stone, and the sidewalk is paved with asphalt. Sort of the reverse of Brooklyn. So you might want to give the reader a tip as to which surface is asphalt, which stone. Or the fact that a sidewalk is where you park your car, now that we’re on the topic (that was a narrative point in a book by Fabio Bartolomei). The best illustration of that point I can think of was a street-cleaning/no-parking sign I saw in Milan many years ago. “Street cleaning next Wednesday, 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. Absolutely NO parking, NOT EVEN ON THE SIDEWALKS.” There you have it.