Thursday, March 15, 2007

Comparing translations of a passage from The Purgatorio

For those interested in translations of Dante, I thought I'd try out a passage: the last 19 lines of canto 27 of the Purgatorio. To avoid using up lots of space here, though, I've created a document you can reach by clicking on this link: or, if you prefer,

Here you'll find the Italian plus a couple of English translations. Take a look and tell me what you think. And if you have another translation you'd like us to look at, post it as a comment.


Factotum said...

Finally--I've been wondering where to find Dante translations. Welcome to the blogging world Dr. Young!

Garry Wilmore said...

I'll comment later about the translations, and perhaps add one or two of my own favorites. But for the present, I think it was Shelley who remarked that Virgil's departure from the Divine Comedy was the saddest episode in all of the world's great literature, and I'm inclined to agree with him. It's sort of like Moses suffering and enduring so much for all those years, making it all the way to Mt. Nebo and the Jordan River, and then not being allowed to enter the Promised Land.

Bruce Young said...

Also interesting that Virgil is speechless and in awe when confronted with Beatrice (as I remember)--allegorically the inadequacy of human intellect in the face of divine revelation.

One reason I picked the passage I did is that I love the endowing of Dante with divine trust and a kind of independence (he is now his own king and priest). Also, it's the end of a canto, so we can see how different translations handle that.

older singer said...

Half way through the tripping trip of life,
I rambled into a huge forest of Redwoods
And seeing no straight paths, I knew I was in California.

“Oh woah,” I moaned, and found I couldn’t say a thing
Because I knew that song about “You can never leave.”
So I was scared like totally out of my mind.

Seriously, I wanted to either die or hurl;
But I’ll still have a positive mental attitude
And describe those arrogant too-tall trees

older singer said...


That's the modern English version, discovered on a Santa Barbara beach. Author unknown, but obviously influenced by Longfellow.

Garry Wilmore said...

I don't see the Comedy parodied very often, but that was a good effort by someone who obviously was familiar with it.

Bruce Young said...

I've just discovered an Italian version--but I don't know if this is the original, since it doesn't seem to follow the rhyme scheme exactly. Maybe Garry can help work on this:

Nel mezzo del viaggio di scatenamento di vita,
_ Ho vagato en una foresta enorme dei Redwoods
_ e di non vedere percorsi diritti, Ho saputo che ero nella California.
“Woah dell'OH,„ Ho gemuto, e trovato non potrei dire una cosa
_ Poiché ho saputo che la canzone circa “voi può non andare mai.„
_ Così sono stato spaventato come completamente dalla mia mente.
Seriamente, Ho desiderato al dado o lancio;
_ Ma tranquillo avrò un atteggiamento mentale positivo
_ e descrivo quegli alberi troppo-alti arroganti.

Bruce Young said...

Another parody of sorts, though with no humorous intent, was by T. S. Eliot in Little Gidding, in a section about running into a "familiar compound ghost" (sort of based on Yeats). The section has no rhyme scheme, but gives the effect of tercets by alternating stressed and unstressed endings, for instance:

In the uncertain hour before the morning
_ Near the ending of interminable night
_ At the recurrent end of the unending
After the dark dove with the flickering tongue
_ Had passed below the horizon of his homing
_ While the dead leaves still rattled on like tin
. . .

Using "S" for strong or accented line ending and "W" for weak or unaccented line ending, the scheme is WSW SWS etc., comparable to Dante's rhyme scheme aba bcb etc.

Garry Wilmore said...

As promised, I'm adding my own two bits to this discussion by adding Mandelbaum's version:

"When all the staircase lay beneath us and
we'd reached the highest step, then Virgil set
his eyes insistently on me and said:

"My son, you've seen the temporary fire
and the eternal fire; you have reached
the place past which my powers cannot see.

"I've brought you here through intellect and art;
from now on, let your pleasure be your guide;
you're past the steep and past the narrow paths.

"Look at the sun that shines upon your brow;
look at the grasses, flowers, and the shrubs
born here, spontaneously, of the earth.

"Among them, you can rest or walk until
the coming of the glad and lovely eyes --
those eyes that, weeping, sent me to your side.

"Await no further word or sign from me:
your will is free, erect, and whole -- to act
against that will would be to err: therefore

"I crown and miter you over yourself."

Garry Wilmore said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bruce Young said...

Thanks, Garry. I like Mandelbaum's translation. Though I miss the rhymes, it appears he's very accurate, and his tercets capture some of the feel of Dante's.

In comparison, I'd say Binyon is my least favorite so far, even though he's pretty accurate and tries to follow Dante's entire rhyme scheme. But his language is archaic, and he's forced into partial rhymes that make his whole attempt at rhyming somewhat futile.

I really like Ciardi, who rhymes well (though only rhyming the outer lines of each tercet). But he appears to be the least accurate of the bunch, adding various poetic touches (extra adjectives, etc.) and making other changes (interpretive or simply to make the poetry work) that slightly misrepresent the original.

Next time you visit, Garry, do you think you could correct the Italian version of Dante's visit to California (above)?

Garry Wilmore said...

I'll come back to that parody a bit later, but for the moment, suffice it to say that it isn't good Italian, which I'm sure the author knew when he penned the lines. It's almost a word-for-word, literal translation, and it obviously makes no effort to duplicate Dante's terza rima.

But moving right along to the main subject at hand, here's the Hollander version of that passage from Purgatorio, canto XXVII:

"When the stairs had all run past beneath us
and we were on the topmost step,
Virgil fixed his eyes on me

"and said: 'The temporal fire and the eternal
you have seen, my son, and now come to a place
in which, unaided, I can see no farther.

"'I have brought you here with intellect and skill.
From now on take your pleasure as your guide.
You are free of the steep way, free of the narrow.

"'Look at the sun shining before you,
look at the fresh grasses, flowers, and trees
which here the earth produces of itself.

"'You may sit down or move among these
until the fair eyes come, rejoicing,
which weeping bid me come to you.

"'No longer wait for word or sign from me.
Your will is free, upright, and sound.
Not to act as it chooses is unworthy:
over yourself I crown and miter you."

I don't know how familiar you are with this translation, but the Hollanders, Robert and Jean, are a husband-wife team. He teaches at Princeton, and she is an accomplished poet in her own right. Their Comedy translation will be complete in August, when Paradiso is scheduled for publication, and I recommend purchasing the entire set. The original Italian faces its English translation on the opposite page, so one can follow both very easily. Also, the footnotes are both lavish and informative.

Bruce Young said...

Very nice. From this brief passage, I think I may like the Hollander translation even a little better than Mandelbaum's, though they're both good.

Bruce Young said...

Apparently there are a goodly number of other English translations of Dante. Another that comes highly recommended is by Mark Musa. My friend Madison Sowell, a professor of Italian, a Dantist, and currently head of BYU's Honors Program, has written reviews of Musa's translations of the Purgatorio and Paradiso. Try these links; if they don't work, let me know--I'll see if I can make the reviews available: