To what extent should the translator of Dante’s Inferno strive to be faithful to the original? Ezra Pound distinguishes between what he calls “interpretative translation,” which is what most translators are after, and a more creative, original type of paraphrase – the translator using original mainly as an inspiration for writing his own poem. But even those who attempt an interpretive rendering differ greatly in the degree and manner of their faithfulness to the original. The question has been raised and debated: should it be the poet’s voice that is heard, or the voice of the one who is making the poet accessible in another language? This is obviously a delicate, sophisticated, and complicated problem.
Surely much depends on what it is that is being translated. A principle that might apply to a sonnet or perhaps any short poem, especially a lyrical one, would not be appropriate to a lengthy narrative with theological and encyclopedic underpinnings such as The Divine Comedy. I should say that anyone who attempts to translate this massive poem must try, with humility and flexibility, to be as faithful as possible. He should do what Jackson Matthews recommends to the guild of translators in general – “be faithful without seeming to be” – and he adds in regard to this type of faithfulness: “a translator should make a good lover.”
Perhaps it must always be the voice of Dante’s translator that we hear (if we have to hear an intervening voice at all), but he should have listened most carefully to Dante’s voice before he lets us hear his own. He should not only read and reread what he is translating, in order to know what it is about (know a whole canto thoroughly before translating a line), but he should also read Dante aloud, listening to the rhythm and movement within the lines and the movement from line to line. Consider, for example, line 63 of the famous Canto V of the Inferno (Paolo and Francesca’s canto), where Virgil points out to the Pilgrim the figure of Cleopatra among the lustful souls of Dido’s band, and characterizes her with one word that caps the line:
Poi è Cleopatràs lusuriosa
(And there is Cleopatra, who loved men’s lusting)
This epithet, epitomising the whole career of the imperial wanton, serves to remind us of the technical nature of the sin being punished in the second circle, the circle of the lustful: i lussuriosi. And in the movement of the word lus-su-ri-o-sa (Dante forces us to linger over the word this way; otherwise the verse would be a syllable short) there is an important anticipation of a movement in the second part of the canto: the dovelike movement that starts with the actual descent of Francesca and Paolo, a gentle movement that becomes the movement of the entire second half of this canto and offers such a contrast to the wild buffetings of the winds we hear in the first half, where we see the damned dashed along by the tempestuous storm. The sensitive translator must stop to question (then to understand) the rhythm of lussuriosa at this point in the canto: to sense how this diaphanous word in this melodious line stands out against the howling noises in the background. This seductive rhythm applied to Cleopatra’s sin anticipates not only the gentle movements but the seductive atmosphere of the second half of the canto, when Francesca is on stage and melting the Pilgrim’s heart. No translator I have read seems to have made any attempt to reproduce the effect intended by the line in the original: the simplicity of the first half of the line (Poi è Cleopatràs …) and the mellifluous quality of the epithet (lussuriosa) in final position, with its tapering-off effect.
Again, the translator should study Dante’s use of poetic devices such as enjambment and alliteration. This does not mean that the translator should always use such devices when Dante does and only when he does, but that he should study the effects Dante has achieved with these devices – and his economical use of them. Dante is a greater poet than any of his translators have been or are likely to be. A translator using the English iambic pentameter may even learn from Dante’s flowing lines to use better the meter he has chosen. It is true that Dante’s hendecasyllabic verse is quantitative and not accentual; still, the words of the Italian language have their own natural accent. In reading aloud Dante’s lines with their gentle stress, one can hear the implicit iambs and trochees and dactyls and anapaests. And one may learn to achieve the same effect of “implicitness” to counterbalance the natural tendency of English meters to have too insistent a stress.
Finally, there is the matter of diction. Here the translator must be absolutely faithful, choosing words and phrases that have the same tone as those of the poet. They must obviously suggest solemnity when he is solemn, lightness when he is light; they must be colloquial or formal as he is colloquial or formal. But, most of all, the diction should be simple when Dante’s is. And this is where the translators have sinned the most. There are two ways to sin against simplicity of diction: one concerns only the matter of word material and syntax – for instance the use of stilted or over-flowery language and of archaic phraseology. Most translators would not agree with me; some feel free to use any word listed in the O.E.D. after A.D. 1000: to girn, to birl, to skirr, scaling the scaur, to abye the fell arraign – to say nothing of syntactical archaisms.
A more subtle sin against the simplicity of Dante’s diction is the creation of original striking rhetorical or imagistic effects where Dante has intended none. Dante himself saves spectacular effects for very special occasions. Most of his narrative, if we make an exception of the elaborate similes, is composed in simple, straightforward style. Occasionally one finds an immediately striking effect in a line or phrase, and when this does happen, it is magnificent. Consider line 4 of Canto V (so different from line 63, quoted earlier, with its muted, inconspicuous effect):
Stavvi Minòs orribilmente e ringhia
(There stands Minòs grotesquely and he snarls)
Surely Dante meant to startle his reader with this sudden presentation (after the sober explanation of the opening three lines) of the monster-judge. The line ends with the resounding impact of the verb ringhia – it ends with a snarl that sounds like the lash of a whip (or tail). And we are made to feel the horror of Minòs by the key word in the middle of the line, the slow-moving orribilmente, which points both backward and ahead: Stavvi orribilmente, ringhia orribilmente. Grammatically, of course, the adverb modifies the opening word, the static verb, Stavvi. This construction, in which an adverb of manner modifies a verb of presence, is most unusual: Minòs was present horribly!
Usually, however, one comes to realise only at the end of several tercets that a certain effect has been achieved by the passage as a whole, one to which each single line has been quietly contributing. Dante’s effects, then, are mainly of a cumulative nature. And often there are no “effects,” only simple, factual, narrative details. In fact, sometimes Dante’s style (and not unfortunately!) is purely prosaic. An adventurous, imaginative translator is easily tempted to speed up the movement of Dante’s tranquil lines, to inject fire and colour into a passage of neutral tone. Even if he carries it off successfully, I would tend to question his goal. And when the translator fails, when he falls, great is the fall thereof.
If the translator had to choose in general between a style that strives for striking effects, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing, and one less colourful but more consistent, the choice could be merely a matter of personal taste. But when it is a question of translating a poet who himself is so economical in his use of conspicuous effects, then, I believe, it is no longer a wide-open choice. I have set as my goal simplicity and quiet, even, sober flow – except when I feel that the moment has come to let myself go, to pull out the stops: to be flamboyant or complicated instead of simple, to be noisy instead of quiet, to be rough instead of smooth – or to be deliberately mellifluous. Except for those rare occasions, I have consistently tried to find a style that does not call attention to itself. And I might add that, in translating, this requires a great deal of effort. To the extent that I have succeeded, those readers who admire the fireworks of some recent translations of the Inferno will find my own less exciting – as little exciting as Dante himself often is.
My desire to be faithful to Dante, however, has not led me to adopt his metrical scheme. I do not use terza rima, as for example, Dorothy Sayers does, or even the “dummy” terza rima of John Ciardi. My medium is rhymeless iambic pentameter, that is, blank verse. I have chosen this, first, because blank verse has been the preferred form for long narrative poetry from time of Milton on. It cannot be proved that rhyme necessarily makes verse better: Milton declared rhyme to be a barbaric device, and many modern poets resolutely avoid it. Karl Shapiro, an enthusiast for rhyme, is considering only shorter poems when he speaks of the five main qualities that rhyme gives to verse: the musical, the emphatic, the architectural, the sense of direction one feels in a well-turned stanza, and finally, the effect of the rests that come between the stanzas. Three of these qualities could apply only to stanzaic poetry, where rhyme is much more necessary in establishing structure than in a poem with the dimensions of The Divine Comedy, whose only large subdivision is the canto. Only two of the qualities of rhyme he mentions might apply to Dante’s poem: the musical and the emphatic.
But my main reason for avoiding rhyme has been the results achieved by all those who have used rhyme in translating The Divine Comedy: they have shown that the price paid was disastrously high. I believe that all those who have offered rhymed translations of Dante could have produced far better poems if they had not used rhyme. There are two reasons for the crippling effects of rhyme in translating a lengthy poem. First of all it is apparently impossible always to find perfect rhymes in English for a long stretch of lines – and if good rhyme gives a musical effect, bad rhyme is cacophonous; it is a reminder (and with some translators we are being constantly reminded) that the search for rhyme has failed. I have found at least six kinds of bad rhyme in translations of Dante: vowels that do not match, consonants that do not match, stresses that do not match, plus combinations of these. Especially when there is a pause at the end of a line or the line ends with a stressed syllable, so that the cacophonous element is put into relief, the result can be most painful. One can be more faithful to Dante (without seeming to be) by avoiding rhyme than by introducing imperfect rhyme into the rendition of his lines, whose rhymes are always acoustically perfect.
Shapiro, speaking of the power of rhyme to draw us into the movement of a poem, says that our expectation is thereby being continually raised and then satisfied; ideally, rhyme helps pull us through, and pull us in deep, as we anticipate the scheme. But, when the translator uses a mixture of perfect and imperfect rhyme – when, that is, we never know whether our expectation will be satisfied – the effect is quiet different. In every tercet the reader with a sensitive ear will always be wondering “Will he make it this time?” and may often look ahead to see the result, thus breaking the movement of the poem.
But the rhymed translation of the Inferno reveal, all of them, a second disadvantage, and a far greater one than the difficulty of matching sounds. Because of the difficulty imposed by the continuous mechanical necessity of finding rhyme, good or bad, the translator is often forced to use a diction that is aesthetically unacceptable, or even contrary to the spirit of the language (and once a translator has agreed to distort the English language for the sake of rhyme, the result could well be an increasing insensitivity to the requirements of natural diction). To be forced to think, with every line, in terms of the sound of the final stressed syllable has resulted, far too often, in lines that sound like a translation. And the first of the Capital Sins in translating is for a translation to sound like one!
For the poet creating original verse in his own language, the search for rhyme also, of course, imposes limitations, but these limitations themselves may be a help in the creative process, and the rhyme, when found, as Shapiro says, may bring an image or idea that will suggest a new line of development. At its best, rhyme leads the poet into discoveries. And since he is in the process of creation, he can afford at any moment to change the course of his poetic fluidity. But for the translator, who is faced from the beginning with an existing structure whose shape has been forever fixed, rhyme constitutes a crippling burden.
But if I feel such horror at the paralysing potentiality of rhyme when used to translate The Divine Comedy, why have I chosen to bind myself to the mechanical device of meter? Five beats in every line – no more and no less. Why not choose free verse? Free verse, I feel, is more appropriate for purely creative composition than for translation; and it is more suitable for verse deeply charged with emotion than for narrative. The irregular rhythms, the modulations, of free verse must be determined by the writer’s own moods, which will direct the ebbing and flowing of his verse. For this he needs space; as a translator such a writer would need to get as far away as possible from the original!
Moreover, the requirements of iambic pentameter can be very flexible if one is ready to avail oneself of the alternations possible. One need not limit oneself continually to the sequence: ˘ˊ/ ˘ˊ/ ˘ˊ/ ˘ˊ/ ˘ˊ/. The last foot, for example, may be given, when desired, an extra unstressed syllable (feminine ending; in Italian this is the norm):
Whĕn those/ŏffén/dĕd soúls/hăd told/their story …
For an iamb one may substitute its opposite, a troche (ˊ˘)
Iň thĕ world/this mán/wăs filled/with aŕ/rŏgańce …
(The reader sensitive to rhythm should be on the alert for such opening anapaests.)
Or the opposite of this, the dactyl (ˊ˘˘):
Ĭ said/tŏ hím,/bowing/my head/modestly …
And I have often used a substitution that some translators seem to avoid, the amphibrach (˘ˊ˘); the final foot is always an amphibrach when there is a feminine ending):
Ĭ said,/”Frăncéscă,/tȟe tór/mĕnt that/yŏu suffer …”
(Compare this with Dorothy Sayer’s and John Ciardi’s translations of the same line, in which the natural rhyme of the name Francesca is not echoed in an amphibrach foot:”[Thy dreadful fate,] Frăncés/că, mákĕs/mé weep,/ĭt só/iňspiŕs [pity]”; “Ĭ said:/’Fráncés/că what/yŏu súf/fĕr heŕr …’”)
Finally, one may let just one syllable count as a foot when the stress is very heavy:
Loṽe,/that kín/dlĕs quick/ĭn tĥe gén/tĬe/ heart …
And there may be gradation in degrees of stress. Iambic pentameter is a beautiful, flexible instrument, but only when the translator is freed from preoccupation with rhyme.
Because I am free of this tyranny I have had time to listen carefully to Dante’s voice, and though the result is far from being a miracle of perfect translation, still, I believe I can promise that my reader seldom, if ever, will wince or have his teeth set on edge by an over-ambitious attempt to force the language into the unnatural tensions almost never felt in poetry other than translations.