In my shout-out to Graywolf press yesterday I neglected to mention their well-received edition of Dante, translated by the accomplished poet Mary Jo Bang. Writing in The New York Review of Books, Robert Pogue Harrison makes a strong case for Bang’s translation over the recent Clive James version. It does sound better. But frankly I’m not sure either is the way I would really wish to read Dante. So what do I want?
First of all, any English-only reader of Dante should read a side-by-side version with the Italian. I have minimal Italian, but it’s really not necessary to have any Italian at all. Just jump in and read a few lines or a stanza – you’ll understand enough. The sound of the words are so vivid and beautiful, they will make you want to know what’s happening. That’s where the English comes in.
Reading the Italian (when you can’t understand it) is a bit hard, but it’s fun. Think of it as a good exercise for your brain, like a crossword puzzle. Then treat yourself to the English version, which will be simple and make you appreciate the ease with which you can comprehend the meaning.
Here’s the problem, though: anyone else’s verse will pale in comparison to Dante’s. And in fact, even the best efforts to render his words in verse – or in prose – are still kind of a slog. If you’re like me, you don’t love reading words out of order or forced into some kind of strange pattern to fit the poet’s need to rhyme.
Here’s the original:
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.
Here’s the famous Longfellow translation:
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Forest dark? Straightforward pathway? Here’s Clive James:
At the mid-point of the path through life, I found
Myself lost in a wood so dark, the way
Ahead was blotted out….
Blotted out? Mid-point of the path through life? Here’s Mary Jo Bang:
Stopped mid-motion in the middle
Of what we call our life, I looked up and saw no sky—
Only a dense cage of leaf, tree, and twig. I was lost.
Stopped mid-motion in the middle? I’m already taking my medicine from reading the Italian. What I want from the English is the sugar. Like this:
I had just turned forty when I found myself walking through the woods – I don’t know why. I had been walking for a while when I realized I couldn’t even see the path anymore. It was dark and I was completely lost.
Simple! Easy! Then back to the Italian for more. It might not do justice to Dante, but it doesn’t try to compete with him either.
Is this sustainable? Hmm. I’ll test my method on another famous scene and let you know.