Snappy translation of Dante drives Helen Vendler crazy
Can we conceive of Beatrice 'snapping' like a shrew?
Helen Vendler on Dante in English ed. Eric Griffiths and Matthew Reynolds
‘Dante in English’ is an anthology of English translations of passages from Dante (most of them from the Commedia ); it also includes poetry in English by authors who have been influenced by Dante. The authors and translators range from Chaucer and other English writers to non-British poets such as Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott and W.S. Merwin. Attempts at rendering Dante into English spring from various theories of translation and ‘imitation’, all of which seem to be on display here. Use terza rima, don’t use terza rima; use rhyme, don’t use rhyme; use pentameter, don’t use pentameter; use archaic language, don’t use archaic language; render the poem exactly, render the poem freely. In the end, the translator’s mode matters less than his or her poetic powers, which may manifest themselves in an empathy with Dante’s style and emotions, and in the handling of rhythm, forms of sonority and verbal intensity.
As a medieval Catholic writer, Dante was foreign to post-Reformation English taste, not only in England but in the United States. Longfellow’s 1867 translation of the Commedia revived Dante in America; T.S. Eliot’s polemical espousing of Dante’s austere sense of the world (more congenial to him than Shakespeare’s) set the Commedia squarely in the modern poetic mind as a text to be studied. There are poetic possibilities in Dante -- the high drama of religious judgment, the seductive terza rima, the historical portrayals of sin, the prolonged purgatorial path to Christian salvation, the radiance of Paradise -- that are not common in native English poetry, and Eliot (like Milton, Shelley and Keats before him) profited from them. Reading Milton’s Protestant epic alongside Dante’s pre-Reformation one, one can see how much of Dante’s vivid and thronged world -- personal, allegorical and historical -- is absent from Milton. Each of the translations and poems here attempted to find a place for Dante in the English tradition.
The volume has a peculiar hundred-page introduction, written by Eric Griffiths, who (the volume tells us) ‘learned Italian in the house of a parish priest not far from Ferrara’. Griffiths has read Dante in Italian, then, and has been able to take the full measure of the poet’s greatness in the original (beside which all translations pale depressingly). And he offers his introduction not merely as a preface to the appended individual passages but as a general account of Dante’s work.
Although the introduction is broken up into parts (‘Pity and History’, ‘Dante’s Double Tongue’, ‘How the Story Is Told’, ‘The World of the Story’ and ‘Returning and Telling’), there is throughout the piece an overlapping of method and manner, so that the parts seem less independent than their titles suggest. (An outline of Dante’s life is provided separately in a short essay by Matthew Reynolds, Griffiths’s co-editor.) A reader will come away from Griffiths’s piece having heard a good deal about Dante’s works and the world from which they issued. But the manner of the introduction is so peculiar that its information is less salient than its expression. Did you know that Dante is so ‘besotted . . . with the verb rispondere in all its forms . . . that the poem reads at times like a string of ìI said to him I saidîs’? Did you know that ‘the mystic senses of the Scriptures were the cocaine of some clerics’? Were you aware that the Vulgate ‘had itself been when it was composed an exercise in dumbing-down such as the Commedia in part aims to be’? Does your recollection of the Paradiso portray Dante ‘mute and about to weep before Beatrice and the encircling blessed, harrowed with embarrassment, like a man who convivially declares ìMy shout!î and then finds he has forgotten his wallet’? Remembering the entrance to the infernal city, would you say that ‘having made the tricky entrance into the city of Dis, Virgil rests -- to take the weightlessness off his feet a while’? Would you, in commenting on the hideous episode in which Ugolino and his sons are starved to death in an ‘orribile torre’, remark that ‘a tower is a Mr Big’? Can we infer that Dante’s use of the word tencione makes ‘the spectacle of the proud’ seem a ‘game like one of those ìhow many elephants are hidden in this picture?î teasers’? And when we hear Virgil say to Dante ‘Che pense?’, would you render it as ‘What’s on your mind?’ Still less, when Beatrice, after cataloguing Dante’s transgressions in the Purgatorio , asks him ‘Che pense?’, would you say: ‘She waits only a moment before snapping ìChe pense?î’ Can we conceive of Beatrice ‘snapping’ like a shrew? And when remarking on the paradox of time passing in the eternity of Hell, would we feel that ‘it could rightly be said: ìIf you’re passing through it, it ain’t hellî’?
There is desperation behind such a manner -- the terror that nobody will pay any attention to Dante unless he is jazzed up in contemporary slang. It’s a desperation that anyone teaching or writing about poetry is tempted to feel, so great is the gap between the ordinary discourse of our culture and the specialised discourses of poetry. But frenzied updating is not the solution; poetry can take care of itself, and there are other, and better, ways of drawing readers to Dante (some of them evident in Griffiths’s introduction: remarks, for instance, on the strength of Dante’s myth-making, his sense of dramatic occasion, his linguistic variety).
But I feel a deeper falsity to Dante and his mentality in certain observations by Griffiths about both the poem and the world from which it issued. Some of them stem from a wish to bring Dante into contemporary intellectual trendiness, some from a patronising attitude towards religion and its accoutrements. Trendiness: ‘The Commedia has some title to be considered the first masterpiece by a postcolonial writer, for most Europeans were once Roman subjects’; and ‘some readers may find it helpful to compare the ìnow you see it, now you don’tî oscillations of the poem with Derrida’s employment of concepts sous rature ‘; and ‘the Commedia is a foray into self-consciously ìvirtual realityî.’ On religion: after the invention of printing, ‘it became easier to feel that you had ìfinishedî the Bible as you might finish an Agatha Christie, and correspondingly easier to think of the sacred writings as like a . . . spiritual ìmiracle dietî with a defined set of unambiguous recommendations and vetoes.’ Such a dismissal of medieval spirituality is one way of patronising Dante’s world. Noting an abbot’s account of people hauling stone to Chartres, in which it is said that they made their way forward in silence or with confessions of guilt or with prayer, Griffiths jokes: ‘I feel sure that someone from time to time must also have said, ìLeft a little,î or ìKeep your end up, can’t you?î’ According to Griffiths, even heresies -- those powerful counter-arguments against received theological positions -- ‘often sound like those more or less parodic smatterings of information which are a regular by-product of imperfect rapport between teacher and pupil’.
These are hardly attitudes that will induce readers to take Dante and his times as seriously as their own. Such dismissiveness is not appealing; but there are graver mistakes. Griffiths, after quoting Pound as saying that ‘men’s inner selves stand visibly before the eyes of Dante’s intellect,’ snaps back: ‘They do not. Dante has eyes of flesh throughout the poem . . . nor does he see ìinner selvesî, whatever or wherever such Russian dolls are, but individuals and their stretches of time.’ Pound means that Dante’s poem is an intellectual construct in which people -- whose sins of treachery, lust and so on were often not visible to others in life -- can in Hell (or Purgatory) no longer conceal their inner, sinful, selves. To Griffiths’s jibe dismissing ‘inner selves’ we can say that Dante certainly believed in such things. In the Convivio , Dante describes a divided inner self with the conflict reflected in his looks: ‘sÏ che ‘l cuore, cio’ lo mio dentro, triema, e lo mio di fuori lo dimostra in alcuna nuova sembianza’; ‘[this thought hath such lordly power] that my heart (that is, my inner man ) trembles, and my outward man shows it by taking on a new semblance.’ (The italics are mine; the translation is Katharine Hillard’s 1889 version.) The people whom Dante encounters are seen with their inner selves on view. This truth -- of the inner self concealed in life and revealed in the afterlife -- is in fact assumed by Griffiths himself when he says of one group that they ‘are not the sexy- to-excess of Dante’s fifth canto but sleazebags, financial wizards and frauds’. By definition, frauds are not known to be such from their ‘outer selves’; only when their ‘inner selves’ are all that is left to them can they be seen and named as the sinners they are.
Like Erich Auerbach (whose Dante: Poet of the Secular World was published in 1929 in German, in 1961 in English), Griffiths presents a Dante intensely reproducing -- historically, psychologically and symbolically -- the world in which he lived. He parts company with the critics who emphasise the ideological systems (theological, astronomical, philosophical) on which Dante drew, and dwells less than they do on the literary genres (the pilgrimage, the heavenly vision, the epic, the drama) that Dante renewed. He prefers to spend time on Dante’s repetition of words. Some of these repetitions -- the stelle with which each canto ends, for example -- have always been noticed (Griffiths’s way of putting this is to say that ‘Dante had stars in his ears’). But Griffiths wants to notice more such links, and is at pains to track word-repetitions (of punto ,volto ,acqua etc). He repeats the assertion that each of these makes an ‘arch’ through the Commedia , enchaining (to change the metaphor) one section to another. Whether consciously made or unconsciously appearing, such links are interesting in any long poem; but they take up more space in Griffiths’s essay than any other class of linguistic observations. Perhaps because the anthology is one of translations, an emphasis on the importance of Dante’s repetitions (impossible to reproduce in translation) is in order. But in view of the absence of an adequate treatment of the theology and psychology of Dante’s poem, the attention to such ‘arches’ seems excessive.
Griffiths tries, in a rather leaden way, to satirise churches and moralists. Speaking of the many ways in which churches were used in Dante’s time, Griffiths -- as ever, trying for the contemporary note -- remarks:
Even today, if you walk round an old but still serving church, you may light on a rich jumble: the statue of a saint whose cult has subsided, lacking an arm; a pile of cyclostyled pastoral letters; plasticene oxen, asses and cribs; the various wherewithal of flower-arrangers; in my experience, there is also often (usually behind the altar along with inexplicable quantities of papier-m‚chÈ) a mineral-water bottle containing a virulently green liquid.
This, like the pervasive slang, is meant to be entertaining, but is it? And does such a digression help in understanding the Christianity of Dante? In a more philosophical vein, Griffiths’s diction hauls itself away from the colloquial and into pure academic superciliousness: ‘Now as then, a rounded vision of the world we live in is painful to maintain when glimpsed at all; such stereoscopy seems arduous and remote, sometimes a sheer figment, like what was known as the ìbeatific visionî (they are perhaps one and the same).’ Can one really tell Dante’s modern readers that all they need to do to experience the beatific vision is to maintain ‘a rounded vision of the world’? And is it illuminating to say that ‘ìhellî is another name for ìirreparabilityî, as if God might say to you, as your fellow creatures no doubt have done: ìYou’ve gone too far this timeî’? Writing lines for God, unless you are George Herbert, is a dubious business.
And when we turn to the translations, what do we find? That there have been a surprising number of translations of the whole Commedia , and that many of them are in terza rima (about which Griffiths has a rewarding, if not original, set of comments, emphasising the counter-flows of its forward motion and its backward glances); that dreariness sets in very quickly in the hands of a stolid translator; that it is difficult to capture in English Dante’s many planes of discourse (ably described by his Italian commentators) without sounding rather absurd; that idiom ages very rapidly (one century’s modernity is another century’s archaism); that heroic couplets are the worst form in which to cast Dante’s lines; that some translators think up extraordinary means (Dante does well in the metre of Marvell’s ‘Horatian Ode’); that the Spenserian stanza, with its pronounced spreading close after each nine lines, is death to the current of terza rima; that Shelley’s mastery of the form in the unfinished ‘Triumph of Life’ is a miracle; that the dilution of Dantean terseness (Felicia Hemans wrote ‘a 41-fold expansion’ of the story of La Pia) is always an error; that updating Dante’s circumstance (as Leigh Hunt does in what Griffiths refers to as his ‘Disneyfication’ of Francesca da Rimini) becomes parodic; and many other such trouvailles. It is fun (at least for anyone interested in Dante and in verse form) to see how the poet has been ‘channelled’ (as Griffiths might say) over the centuries.
Most of the translations, needless to say, are of passages in the Inferno , which occupies forty translators, more or less; the Purgatorio has only twenty, and the Paradiso ten. The Vita Nova has six, the Rime five, the Convivio one. The beautiful gravity of Chaucer (which comes as a balm after the strained ‘vivacity’ of Griffiths’s introduction) falls on the ear like music:
Thow Mayde and Mooder, doghter of thy Sone,
Thow welle of mercy, sinful soules cure,
In whom that God for bountee chees to wone,
Thow humble, and heigh over every creature,
Thow nobledest so ferforth our nature,
That no desdeyn the Makere hadde of kynde
His Sone in blood and flesh to clothe and wynde.
(Prologue of the ‘Second Nun’s Tale’)
Chaucer’s rime royal ( ababbcc ) has enough linkage within it to take on some of the savour of the sound-repetitions of terza rima, as he, like Dante, rhymes ‘creature’ and ‘nature’:
Vergine madre, figlia del tuo figlio,
umile e alta pi˘ che creatura,
termine fisso d’etterno consiglio,
tu se’ colei che l’umana natura
nobilitasti sÏ, che’l suo fattore
non disdegnÚ di farsi sua fattura.
And if one wants a sample of Dante’s harsher powers, one can go to the translations of the Ugolino episode by Seamus Heaney and others -- including Chaucer, Jonathan Richardson, Thomas Gray, Frederick Howard and Thomas Medwin (with help from Shelley). (The editors err in saying irritably that Heaney ‘foists a ìmelonî into the starved count’s mouth’. In fact, it is Tydeus who feeds on Menalippus’ head ‘as if it were some spattered carnal melon’ -- an incident cited by Dante in a simile.)
Dante’s lyrics are more resistant to translation than the Commedia . Even Dante Gabriel Rossetti, to whom Italian was native, and to whom Dante was dear (as can be seen in his paintings of episodes in Dante’s story), writes in a diction that now seems overly archaic. The oblique influence of Dante, however, works successfully in Rossetti’s own ‘The Blessed Damozel’, as it does in Yeats’s ‘Cuchulain Comforted’, Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding’ or Heaney’s ‘Station Island’. Transfusion works better, in many instances, than translation.
I have been critical -- in ways that may seem humourless and pedantic to Griffiths -- of the attitudes displayed and the diction resorted to in the introduction. It is acutely disappointing to see a new presentation of Dante that seems, at least to me, so false to the spirit of the author.* However, I need to thank Griffiths and Reynolds for pointing out that Wallace Stevens’s poem ‘The Hand as a Being’ may be referring to Paradiso 1, perhaps via ‘The Blessed Damozel’. That seems right to me. And I’m grateful for their inclusion of ‘In the year of my youth’, a poem by Auden left unfinished (and unpublished in his lifetime). Though it is a pastiche of Dantean effects, it suggests, as the editors say, that Auden read Dante more intensely than we had known.
In the end, a reader unfamiliar with Dante would be provoked agreeably by these translations to a further curiosity about the Commedia and its reverberations in English letters. Though there are books on Dante’s influence in England, the abstraction ‘influence’ takes on its true complexity when we see it generating so many English compositions in so many different forms over the last six hundred years.
BY THE WAY, how old is Helen Vendler? I read this lady about poetry when I was in my teens. If she was a grownup then, she should've been dead by now. Long may she live.