Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Majesty Threatened and Maintained

Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Majesty Threatened and Maintained

Article excerpt

Sandro Botticelli. The Drawings of Dante's Divine Comedy. Edited by Hein-Th. Schulze Altcappenberg. Harry N. Abrams 2000. 360 pp. $75.00

Dante Alighieri. The Divine Comedy. Translated by C.H. Sisson. Oxford University Press 1993 [first published 1980]. 741 pp. $17.95 (paper)

Dante Alighieri. Inferno. A verse translation by Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander. Doubleday 2000. 668 pp. $35-00

Dante Alighieri. Inferno. A new verse translation by Michael Palma. WW Norton & Co. 2002. 392 pp. $35.00

Dante Alighieri. The Inferno of Dante, A new verse translation by Robert Pinsky. Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1994. 451 pp. $20.00 (paper)

Dante Alighieri. Inferno. A new verse translation with notes and an introduction by Elio Zappulla. Vintage Books 1999. 330 pp. $20.00 (paper)

Dante Alighieri. Purgatorio. A new verse translation by W S. Merwin. Alfred A. Knopf 2000. 389 pp. $30.00.

Dante Alighieri. Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy: Purgatory. Italian text and verse translation and commentary by Mark Musa. Two volumes. Indiana University Press 2000. 334 pp. (text and translation) and 341 pp. (commentary) $89.95

Peter S. Hawkins and Rachel Jacoff. The Poets' Dante. Twentieth Century Responses. Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2001. 432 pp. $30.00

Robert Hollander. Dante: A Life in Works. Yale University Press 2001. 224 pp. $25.00

R.W.B. Lewis. Dante. Viking 2001. 224 pp. $19.95

Tim Parks. Hell and Back. Reflections on Writers and Writing from Dante to Rushdie. Arcade Publishing 2001. 341 pp. $25-95

The Princeton Dante Project.

Brenda Deen Schildgen. Dante and the Orient. University of Illinois Press 2002. 173 pp. $34.95

If the shade of Dante Alighieri still lingers in purgatory, purifying his irascible soul of a lifetime of anathemas, that refining fire, like other speaking flames in the Commedia, may writhe as it stammers out the latest versions of certain of his American translators. Only thus, perhaps, could the notorious arrogance of the greatest poet of Western literature be adequately humbled and made fit for beatitude: To hear his incomparable lines transmogrified into doggerel should provide the ultimate corrective to unseemly pride.

Of course, translation from any language is riddled with pitfalls; but Dante seems especially vulnerable to the ambitions of the inept. Almost six hundred years ago, his compatriot, the great Italian humanist Leonardo Bruni, warned against incompetent translation, and his words hold true today:

These are the vices of a translator: to understand badly what is to be translated, or to turn it badly; and to translate in such a fashion that the beauty and precision of the original author is rendered clumsy, confused, and ugly. The man whose ignorance of learning and literature is such that he cannot avoid all those vices, is rightfully criticized and condemned when he tries to translate. By mistaking one thing for another, he leads men into divers errors, and by making him seem ridiculous and absurd he threatens the majesty of his original author. [Translated by James Hankins]

Currently the translator who most threatens the majesty of Dante is W S. Merwin. This, for example, is how Merwin renders the opening lines of Canto XXVII of Inferno (included in the foreword to his translation of Purgatorio):

Now the flame burned straight upward and was still,

saying no more, and now from us it

went with the consent of the gentle poet

when there arrived another from behind it

that made us turn our eyes to the top of it

toward a confused noise that came out of it.

This is about as infelicitous as a translation could possibly be. Notice the ugly repetitions of "it" which end four of the lines and, even uglier, the off-rhyme with "poet" (po-it?). Notice too the grotesque gaucherie of the phrasing: "and now from us it" or "turn our eyes to the top of it. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.