Margaret Fuller, Critic: Writings from the New-York Tribune, 1844-1846

By Judith Mattson Bean; Joel Myerson | Go to book overview

Italy

Translating Dante is indeed a labor of love. It is one in which even a moderate degree of success is impossible. No great poet can be well translated. The form of his thought is inseparable from his thought. The births of his genius are perfect beings; body and soul are in such perfect harmony, that you cannot at all alter one, without veiling the other. The variation in cadence and modulation, even where the words are exactly rendered, takes, not only from the form of the thought, but from the thought itself, its most delicate charm.— Translations come to us as a message to the lover from the lady of his love, through the lips of a confidant or menial—we are obliged to imagine what was most vital in the original utterance.

These difficulties, always insuperable, are accumulated a hundred fold in the case of Dante, both by the extraordinary depth and subtlety of his thought and his no less extraordinary power of concentrating its expression, till every verse is like a blade of thoroughly tempered steel. You might as well attempt to translate a glance of fire from the human eye into any other language—even music cannot do that.

We think, then, that the use of Cary's translation or any other can never be to diffuse a knowledge of Dante. This is not in its nature diffusible; he is one of those to whom others must draw near; he cannot be brought to them. He has no superficial charm to cheat the reader into a belief that he knows him, without entrance into the same sphere.

These translations can be of use only to the translators, as a means of deliberate study of the original, or to others who are studying the original and wish to compare their own version of doubtful passages with that of an older disciple, highly qualified, both by devotion and mental development, for the study.

We must say a few words as to the pedantic folly with which this study has been prosecuted in this country, and, we believe, in England. Not only the tragedies of Alfieri and the Faust of Goethe but the Divine Comedy of

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