Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Favorite translations of Dante

I'd be interested to know if anyone out there has a favorite translation of Dante--meaning mainly the Commedia ("Divine Comedy")--and why it's your favorite.

My favorite is the one by John Ciardi, mainly because I know it well. It seems to me clear, contemporary sounding, and fast paced (meaning it doesn't get bogged down in sounding eloquent). And it seems (from what I can tell) reasonably accurate.

Ciardi attempts to capture the feel of Dante's terza rima by rhyming the first and third lines of every group of three lines (these three-line stanzas are called "tercets"). For you lit majors, that means axa bxb cxc dxd--with "x" referring to the middle line of each stanza, which does NOT rhyme with other lines. Dante, by contrast, rhymes the middle line of every tercet with the outer lines of the following tercet, thus: aba bcb cdc ded efe.

As Dante buffs will know, the Commedia is made up of three large "canticles" (cantiche): the Inferno, the Purgatorio, and the Paradiso. Each canticle is made up of 33 cantos (except that the Inferno has an extra introductory canto for a total of 34). The entire Commedia thus has 100 cantos (which, being 10 times 10 [3 times 3, plus 1], is a cool number alluding to the Trinity, whose superlative three-ness [3 squared] plus perfect unity [1] Dante associates with the number 10). Got that?

Ciardi ends each canto with a rhyming couplet, which Dante does NOT do. Dante ends a canto by rhyming the middle line of the second to last stanza with one more solitary line at the end, thus--aba bcb cdc d--whereas Ciardi ends a canto aba bcb cdc dd.

Maybe at some point we can compare specific passages in different translations.


older singer said...

I think the original is the best. I can't really imagine reading it translation.

Garry Wilmore said...

Now this is MY kind of post, dealing as it does with a topic very close to my own heart! So I will weigh in with considerable enthusiasm.

First, I basically agree with Margaret. I have not read the entire Comedy in Italian, but have read all of Inferno and most of Purgatorio in the original language. In addition, I have read scattered cantos of Paradiso in Italian as well, most notably XI (about Francis of Assisi), and the one in which Peter quizzes Dante about the meaning of faith. (I think that one is XXIV, but I don't recall for sure.)I don't care for Pinsky's, and I regard the prose translations -- all of them -- as an abomination.

But if one must resort to a translation -- which I do, from time to time -- my favorite is Mandelbaum's, followed by Ciardi's. I like both, but I think Mandelbaum's flows just a little better.

I have several Dante-related posts in my own blog, by the way. One in particular appears in my archives for March of 2006, although it may have been 2005; in any event, I know I posted it toward the end of March in one of those years. In it I muse about how Dante would have loved baseball. (This was just prior to Opening Day.) Also, in my May '05 archive, I have a recipe for Tuscan bean and rice soup, which you and Margaret, and perhaps Kaila as well, might want to try. Woven through the recipe are more of my Dante-related musings, along with a lengthy quote from one of my favorite books, _Dante in Love_, by Harriet Rubin. (Which, incidentally, I recently reread for about the fourth time.)

Bruce Young said...

First of all, it looks as if "older singer" and I will be reading Dante together in Italian--but we may have to learn Italian first.

I'll be posting a passage in various translations and also, Garry, with your permission, a link to your Tuscan bean and rice soup recipe.

Look on my main page for all of that.

Bruce Young said...

I forgot to say, Garry, that I don't have the Mandelbaum translation. I guess I'd better get it. I have Ciardi, of course. Also, I have an unsatisfactory blank verse translation by Lawrence Grant White, a translation of the Inferno by John D. Sinclair, and a pretty good translation of the whole Commedia (trying roughly to replicate the rhyme scheme) by Laurence Binyon. I've also heard of somebody named Singleton but don't have that translation.

Garry Wilmore said...

I have a third translation at home, but I can't recall offhand the names of the three translators. One of them is Wicksteed, and I'll try to supply the names of the others after I go home. This version is rendered in a very dense, archaic style, and I would not recommend it to anyone who is just beginning to explore Dante. However, once that person is no longer a novice, this translation does offer some beautiful passages.

Garry Wilmore said...

BTW, I need to mention the Hollander translation as well. This is the result of a collaboration between noted Dante scholar Robert Hollander and his wife Jean, who is a fine poet in her own right. The Hollander Paradiso is scheduled for publication later this year, which will complete their edition of the entire Comedy, which started with publication of Inferno about seven years ago. I have found their translation to be excellent, in addition to which each canto is lavishly footnoted.

Garry Wilmore said...

This might interest you. It's a picture I took last summer and posted to Flickr, dedicating it to a young student in Iran with whom I have developed a unique and interesting friendship. It does have a connection with Dante, as you will discover when you read the description and comments which accompany the image itself.

To look at the image, click here.