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Critical Review by John Ahern
SOURCE: A review of The Inferno of Dante, in The New York Times Book Review, January 1, 1995, pp. 3, 21.
Ahern is an American educator and noted Dante scholar. In the following favorable review of The Inferno of Dante, he discusses the difficulties of rendering into English Dante's "vulgar eloquence" and his polyphony of narrative voices.
Ralph Waldo Emerson recommended Dante's Commedia as the textbook to teach the young the art of writing well: "Dante knew how to throw the weight of his body into each act…. I find him full of the nobil volgare eloquenza; that he knows 'God damn,' and can be rowdy if he please, and he does please." Neither Emerson nor his young admirer Walt Whitman gave us a rowdy American "Comedy." Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's translation appeared in 1865, a decade after Leaves of Grass. As a professor of Romance languages and the author of Evangeline, Longfellow seemed an ideal translator, but as one critic quipped, he had translated the Comedy into the English dictionary, not the English language. His inert rendering never engaged the living American language. Since then, on both sides of the Atlantic, more than a hundred Englishings of the Comedy have appeared, but none has achieved rowdiness or vulgar eloquence.
Dante wrote his epic not in Latin but in ordinary language (Italian) in which, he archly observed, "even little women communicate." The offended cultural elite griped that illiterates croaked out the Comedy on the crossroads and sang it in taverns. When blacksmiths and donkey drivers sang it at work, they butchered it. After tradesmen requested public explanation of the hard parts, the city of Florence hired Giovanni Boccaccio, who gave up the task at Canto 19 under attack from alarmed literati. Great poems should not be opened up to the masses, they said.
An entire society speaks in the Comedy, in endless regional, city and class accents: haughty Ghibelline warlords from Florence, suave Bolognese pimps, testy Roman popes, mild abducted nuns, oversexed Lombard noblewomen—each with an utterly personal voice. Dante's people stutter, sob, moan, whine, whisper, cajole, screech, ramble and mumble. They talk baby talk, gibberish and Old Provençal. They also execute breath-taking rhetorical performances. The total effect is symphonic. A translator's impossible task is to reinvent all those unique voices. Some translations sound like Mahler transcribed for the piano—not a note is lost, but if you don't know the original, the transcription leaves you clueless. Some American long poems offer an analogous polyphony: Leaves of Grass, Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology, Ezra Pound's Cantos, William Carlos Williams's Paterson.
Robert Pinsky brings superb credentials to The Inferno of Dante, his new translation of the first part of the "Comedy." A premier citizen of "American Poetry and American Life" (to borrow one of his titles), he has participated in and chronicled "American poetry's argument with itself." His America is a "many-voiced place" where "dreamy aspiration and saving vulgarity mix," as he observed in Poetry and the World (1988). He also collaborated in translating Czeslaw Milosz's notebooks. His skill and power as a poet inform every line of this splendid translation. He shapes sinewy lines whose edges you can actually hear. This is true verse, not the typographical arrangement of poetic prose. Rejecting both blank verse and a clanging triple rhyme that would have reproduced the scheme of the original, he translates into an effective half-strength terza rima. Unlike some translators, he does not match every Italian line with a line in English. Without missing a jot or a title, he makes cantos as much as 20 lines shorter than the originals and so attains a truly Dantean velocity. Epic similes come out clean, not clunky. The following passage from Canto 3 gives his basic music and thrust:
Teeth chattering in their skulls,
They called curses on the seed, the place, the hour
Of their own begetting and their birth. With wails
And tears they gathered on the evil shore
That waits for all who don't fear God. There demon
Charon beckons them, with his eyes of fire;
Crowded in a herd, they obey if he should summon,
And he strikes at any laggards with his oar.
As leaves in quick succession sail down in autumn
Until the bough beholds its entire store
Fallen to the earth, so Adam's evil seed
Swoop from the bank when each is called, as sure
As a trained falcon, to cross to the other side
Of the dark water; and before one throng can land
On the far shore, on this side new souls crowd.
Mr. Pinsky opts for savvy paraphrase, not obtuse literalness, occasionally sneaking in a quick footnote. Even so, at times Dante's concision is lost. For example, "I believed that he believed that I believed" comes out as "I believe my guide believed that in my belief…." At times, one wishes his version a bit rowdier. But if "Ovid … let him be still" seems too polite, "Shut up, Ovid!" as a possible alternative is undoubtedly too rowdy.
Very rarely, he undertranslates. At hell's bottom on a glassy lake of ice a traitor whose head is frozen looking downward into the ice asks Dante (literally translated), "Why do you reflect [or mirror] yourself so much in us?" The literal meaning is clear: unable to look at each other, the two must scrutinize each other's reflection. But the rude query also obliquely conveys unwelcome self-knowledge. Starting at the traitors' reflections, Dante sees a mirror image of himself. Since he kicks one traitor (accidentally?) in the face and double-crosses another, he is, in fact, a traitor. Mr. Pinsky's free but accurate rendering—"Why stare at us so long?"—loses the crucial idea that the traitors' lake is a reflection of Dante himself.
But given the distinction of Mr. Pinsky's achievement, this is nit-picking. From the beginning his translation propels us through a gripping narrative whose drama is always in sharp focus and whose characters speak in distinctive voices. There is far less padding and translationese than in most competitors. If he does not quite attain Dante's full symphonic range, no one has come closer.
Substantial, useful notes by Nicole Pinsky, a daughter of Mr. Pinsky, provide some of "the literary and historical information Dante's original audience might have had" but are not intended as an interpretive guide. She draws on commentaries in English translations of Dante from Longfellow to Allen Mandelbaum but not—surprisingly—the many excellent 20th-century commentaries in Italian. At times, one wishes for greater detail. It is good to be told that Galeotto is the name of the messenger between Lancelot and Guinevere and that the French version of his name became a synonym for "pander," but we also need to know that "Galeotto" is the actual title of the book that Paolo and Francesca were reading before committing adultery.
Readers seeking interpretive guidance will welcome the excellent introduction and micro-commentaries to a half-dozen or so cantos by a leading Dante scholar, John Freccero; they distill a lifetime of scholarship and reflection on Dante. Robert Pinsky himself provides another half-dozen interpretive notes, including a bravura excursus on the horror of human-to-animal and animal-to-human metamorphoses for Canto 25. The artist Michael Mazur provides extensive black-and-white illustrations as well as observations about maps of Dante's hell and his own aerial view of hell in a note to Canto 11.
This section contains 1,200 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)