Yesterday I gave my advice for how to enjoy Dante and proposed a new translation. Today I put myself to the test, to see whether my approach to translating Dante is superior to the recent (highly accomplished) verse of Clive James and Mary Jo Bang.
Before we get to that, let me emphasize again the importance of reading the Italian first, even if you don’t understand what you’re reading. My approach assumes you get your fill of versification by reading the Italian for sound. Then you get caught up on the story by quickly breezing through the English.
Look, if you’re not interested in the Italian at all – if all you want to do is experience a long, Dante-like poem in English – you should probably choose the Bang translation or one of the others that attempt to give you both the meaning and the flavor of Dante’s poetry. But if you’re reading in Italian first (as I think you must! come on, it’s Dante!) then go for the easiest English you can.
I took a shot at the opening yesterday. Today I put myself to the test with the famous Paolo and Francesca scene. First, the Dante:
Noi leggiavamo un giorno per diletto
di Lancialotto come amor lo strinse;
soli eravamo e sanza alcun sospetto.
Per più fïate li occhi ci sospinse
quella lettura, e scolorocci il viso;
ma solo un punto fu quel che ci vinse.
Quando leggemmo il disïato riso
esser basciato da cotanto amante,
questi, che mai da me non fia diviso,
la bocca mi basciò tutto tremante.
Galeotto fu ’l libro e chi lo scrisse:
quel giorno più non vi leggemmo avante».
Simply gorgeous. Now what on earth does it mean? Here’s a standard Longfellow version:
One day we reading were for our delight
Of Launcelot, how Love did him enthral.
Alone we were and without any fear.
Full many a time our eyes together drew
That reading, and drove the colour from our faces;
But one point only was it that o’ercame us.
When as we read of the much-longed-for smile
Being by such a noble lover kissed,
This one, who ne’er from me shall be divided,
Kissed me upon the mouth all palpitating.
Galeotto was the book and he who wrote it.
That day no farther did we read therein.”
We reading were? How love did him enthral? Upon the mouth all palpitating? No farther did we read therein? That’s as annoying as reading a language you don’t understand. Maybe more so. Now here’s Clive James:
Reading together one day for delight
Of Lancelot, caught up in love’s sweet snare,
We were alone, with no thought of what might
Occur to us, although we stopped to stare
Sometimes at what we read, and even paled.
But then the moment came we turned a page
And all our powers of resistance failed:
When we read of that great knight in a rage
To kiss the smile he so desired, Paolo,
This one so quiet now, made my mouth still—
Which, loosened by those words, had trembled so—
With his mouth. And right then we lost the will—
For love can will will’s loss, as well you know—
To read on. But let that man take a bow
Who wrote the book we called our Galahad,
The reason nothing can divide us now.
Okay, better, but even so – if you’re reading Dante in the Italian first (as you should be), then why force yourself to puzzle through phrases like “Although we stopped to stare / Sometimes at what we read, and even paled.” Who talks like that?
Let’s try Mary Jo Bang:
One day, to amuse ourselves, we were reading
The tales of love-struck Lancelot; we were all alone,
And naively unaware of what could happen.
More than once, while reading, we looked up
And saw the other looking back. We’d blush, then pale,
Then look down again. Until a moment did us in.
We were reading about the longed-for kiss
The great lover gives his Guinevere, when that one
From whom I’ll now never be parted,
Trembling, kissed my lips.
That author and his book played the part
Of Gallehault. We read no more that day.
Better! But still a bit of work. Dante in Italian (for a non-speaker) is work enough. I want something quick and easily understood so I can get back to the Italian. How about this:
One day we were reading stories of King Arthur to each other, one of those things we did so we could flirt while pretending we were doing something productive. We managed to hold off until Lancelot finally got his chance to kiss Guinevere. At that point we stared into each other’s eyes, our lips trembling. And then we kissed, and the book fell to the ground, and – ahem – we read no more that day. So here we are now, united forever, living happily ever after, you could say – except we’re in HELL, paying for our SINS.
There we go! Then back to the Italian for the verse. With respect to the many wonderful poets who have tried, you just can’t out-Dante Dante. And since you can’t, you should think of your reader. I don’t really care to see whether Clive James can pull off a particular end rhyme. I’m reading Dante! I want to read Dante, not Clive James.
Translators and publishers, please get started. I’ll stock a pile of your books in my dream bookstore.