Posts Tagged ‘Joseph Luzzi’

Is Longfellow’s translation of Dante the best?

Monday, March 28th, 2016
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I have a number of translations of Dante’s The Divine Comedy in my home – among them the translations of Charles Singleton, Dorothy L. Sayers, Peter Dale, and others. 

But perhaps the most neglected one is the battered volumes I found on ebay, translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. This overlooked translation finds a new champion in Joseph Luzzi, in “How to Read Dante in the 21st Century” in the online edition of The American Scholar:

dante

From one poet and scholar…

… one of the few truly successful English translations comes from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a professor of Italian at Harvard and an acclaimed poet. He produced one of the first complete, and in many respects still the best, English translations of The Divine Comedy in 1867. It did not hurt that Longfellow had also experienced the kind of traumatic loss—the death of his young wife after her dress caught fire—that brought him closer to the melancholy spirit of Dante’s writing, shaped by the lacerating exile from his beloved Florence in 1302. Longfellow succeeded in capturing the original brilliance of Dante’s lines with a close, sometimes awkwardly literal translation that allows the Tuscan to shine through the English, as though this “foreign” veneer were merely a protective layer added over the still-visible source. The critic Walter Benjamin wrote that a great translation calls our attention to a work’s original language even when we don’t speak that foreign tongue. Such extreme faithfulness can make the language of the translation feel unnatural—as though the source were shaping the translation into its own alien image.

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… to another.

Longfellow’s English indeed comes across as Italianate: in surrendering to the letter and spirit of Dante’s Tuscan, he loses the quirks and perks of his mother tongue. For example, he translates Dante’s beautifully compact Paradiso 2.7

L’acqua ch’io prendo già mai non si corse;

with an equally concise and evocative

The sea I sail has never yet been passed:

Emulating Dante’s talent for internal rhymes laced with hypnotic sonic patterns, Longfellow expertly repeats the s’s to give his line a sinuous, propulsive feel, which is exactly what Dante aims for in his line, as he gestures toward the originality and joy of embarking on the final leg of a divinely sanctioned journey. Thus, Longfellow demonstrates the scholarly chops necessary to convey Dante’s encyclopedic learning, and the poetic talent needed to reproduce the sound and spirit—the respiro, breath—of the original Tuscan.

Read the whole essay here – it’s fairly short and very interesting.

Lightness in darkness: Italo Calvino on the eve of war

Sunday, July 29th, 2012
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My introduction to Italo Calvino occurred some years ago via the poet Kay Ryan, who recommended Six Memos for the Next Millenium, which she seemed to view as a personal enchiridion.  The essays were written in 1985, the year Calvino died.

Here’s one passage I marked with pencil from the essay called “Lightness,” as he recalled his beginnings as a writer:

“Maybe was I only then becoming aware of the weight, the inertia, the opacity of the world – qualities that stick to writing from the start, unless one finds some way of evading them.

“At certain moments I felt that the entire world was turning into stone: a slow petrification, more or less advanced depending on people and places but one that spared no aspect of life. It was as if no one could escape the inexorable stare of Medusa. The only hero able to cut off Medusa’s head is Perseus, who flies on winged sandals…”

Joseph Luzzi calls the Italian author a “self-styled moralist” in a recent Times Literary Supplement article here – how does that lightness weigh against fascist Italy, then? Calvino’s newly translated Into the War, a trilogy of autobiographical works, takes a very heavy subject – war – and views it through the ambiguous and non-commital gaze of an adolescent, watching from the sidelines.

The beginning of the first story, “Into the War”, evokes Clausewitz’s famous depiction of the “fog of war”, a realm permeated by uncertainty and requiring – yet rarely finding – unusual powers of discernment: “The 10th June 1940 was a cloudy day. It was a time in our lives when we weren’t interested in anything . … We knew that Mussolini was to speak in the afternoon, but it was not clear whether we would be going to war or not”. … Mussolini makes only a brief cameo in “Into the War”, when he speeds past the narrator in an open-top car, on his way to inspect the troops. The only person who seems to be enjoying himself, Mussolini appears as a child playing a very dangerous game; less sanguine, the distracted Calvino can only comment, “the car was going fast; [Mussolini] had disappeared. I had barely seen him”.

Calvino described lyrical autobiography as enemy terrain.  He had reservations about memoir and autobiography, once confessing to a reviewer, “Once you start on the road to autobiography, where do you stop?”