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Default Dante: Purgatorio XXVI

I wrote out some maundering thoughts on translating Dante at the end, to detail where and what I'm coming from, and why I make some of the weird choices I do.

Purgatorio XXVI

It is around 4 or 5 o'clock in the afternoon, and the sun is on its way down in the west on Dante's right hand side. Dante, Virgil and Statius are walking south along the flaming edge of the seventh rung of Purgatory where penitents are serving time for sexual excess. A group of souls watches Dante and wonders why he casts a shadow over the flames. At one soul's request, the poet explains that he is still alive. Another group of souls, the homosexual penitents, joins the first, and the shade of the Bolognese poet Guido Guinizelli explains the nature of their sins. Dante expresses admiration for Guinizelli, and then — as author — pays the Occitan poet Arnaut Daniel the highest of possible compliments, allowing him to close out the Canto with lines of arrestingly simple verse in Lyric Occitan.

 While we went on in single file about
the edge, over and over my dear guide
told me "Take care, I'll point the perils out."
 My shoulder felt the sun strike from the right,
its rays already turning the west sky
from azure to a countenance of white.
 My shadow thrown as shade across the high
flames made the burning red a deeper ruddy,
and I saw several shades as they went by
 take notice. As they looked they began to study
and discuss me. One of them I could hear
said "he appears to be a solid body"
 Then some of them came up to me, as near
as possible, remaining careful to
stay well within the bounds of burning there
 "You there who walk behind those other two,
(not out of sloth maybe, but reverence) I
who burn in fire and thirst want words with you.

 Then some of them came near to me, as near
as possible, while always making sure
to stay within the bounds of burning there
 "You there who let those other two go first,
(not out of sloth perhaps, but reverence) I
have a question! I who burn in fire and thirst.

 And it is not just me who needs your reply.
These others are all thirstier for it
than Ethiopes for cold drink beneath hot sky.
 Tell us: how do you cast a shadow yet,
raise ramparts against sunlight with your skin?
It's like death never snatched you in his net."

 These words from one of them. I would have been
explaining things already. But the flare
of something else surprised my eyes just then:
 down the middle of that flamey thoroughfare
came other people facing these. Forgetting
what I had meant to say, I stood to stare,
 as I saw shades rushing from each side, meeting
to kiss each other's cheek, not lingering
but satisfied with a momentary greeting.
 Ants in their black ranks do this kind of thing:
each nuzzling at the other as if to seek
news of their recent luck and traveling.
 When each had kissed the other's friendly cheek,
before departing that phantasmagora
each shade tried to outscream the other's shriek...
 The newcomers howled "Sodom and Gamorrah"
The rest: "Pasiphaë enters the cow
to let the bullcalf rut her lust and bore her."

 Then as two flocks of cranes divide and go,
one south to Africa, one to the Riphean Height,
these shying from the sun, those fleeing snow,
 these two groups parted. One left, one went right
to us. Then went back in tears and chagrin
to crying out the mantra of their blight;
 and those who'd come my way drew close again,
the shades that first entreated me, their eyes
as eager for my story as they had been.
 Now having seen their wish presented twice,
I made to answer: "oh souls sure to gain,
whenever it comes, your peace in Paradise,
 my limbs of human life did not remain,
age-ripe or green, back there. They did not die.
They are on me here, complete with bone and brain.
 I go through here to stop being blind. On high
there is a lady who has won me grace
to bear across your world my mortal I.
 But please — so that you may more quickly taste
what you want most of all, and heaven set
you in its loving shelter and great embrace,
 tell me, and I will make a place for it
in what I write: who are you, and who's that faction
of people that just now ran opposite?"

 With no less than a mountain man's reaction
when he comes red-necked to a metropolis
and stares in a speechless downtowned stupefaction,
 the shades seemed flabbergasted hearing this.
But when their shock was laid under control
and blunted (as, in great hearts, it soon is)
 the shade spoke who'd addressed me first of all:
"Blessed are you who from our shores ship keen
experience back, to die a better soul.
 That other group committed the obscene
same sex-act for which Caesar won the shame
in victory of being called a Queen.
 so they leave crying out 'Sodom' and blame
themselves aloud as you heard. The contrite
self-loathing that they feel sustains the flame.
 Our sins were rather more hermaphrodite
but since, in disregard of man's law, we
like beasts just acted on our appetite,
 when we go by them we scream shameheartedly
the name of her who in the mockbeast's slime
got on all fours for bestiality.
 Now you know all about our guilt and crime:
if you want our names, I don't know all of them,
and even if I did, there isn't time.
 I'll rid you of your want for mine: I am
Guido Guinizelli, brought here at once
because I repented well before time came."

 While King Lycurgus grieved berserk, twin sons
discovered their lost mother and made him see.
So was I moved (though I couldn't match their response)
 hearing him name his name: father to me
and of my betters who gave the world the dear
and graceful rhymes of love and courtoisie.
 Thoughtstruck, I seemed to have no tongue or ear
as we walked on. I simply stared, then stood
a while as flames kept me from coming near.
 When I had stared my fill, more than I should,
I offered, in such terms as win good faith,
to serve him in whatever way I could.
 He said: "The things that I just heard you say
will leave in my memory such clear residue
as Lethe can't blur out or wash away.
 But if the words you swore just now are true
then tell me why your speech and your look declare
the kind of love I think I see in you."

 I said: "It is your verses, graceful and clear
which shall, so long as modern style is sung,
render the very ink that penned them dear"

 "Brother" he said, pointing out one among
the shades ahead "that soul you see there rose
as the best of craftsmen in the mother tongue.
 He excels all who wrote in verse or prose
of love and loss, though idiots for their part
will still prefer that rhymer from Limoges.
 Such men turn more to talk than truth and heart,
following familiar fames, set in their praise
with no regard to reasoning or art.
 Thus with Guittone whom they used to raise
above all others, with cry on cry galore,
though truth prevails with most of them these days.
 Now if almighty privilege affords
you entry to that cloister where the master
and abbot of the college is Our Lord,
 then say on my behalf a Paternoster
or as much of one as we need, who can't be
led to temptation, but delivered faster."

 And then, as if to yield his place with me
to someone else, he vanished in the flame
as a fish toward the bottom of the sea.
 I drew ahead a bit beside the same
shade he'd shown me, and said my heart and ear
would set a place of honor for his name.
 He answered in the language I hold dear:
"Tan m'abellis vostre cortes deman,
qu'ieu no me puesc ni voill a vos cobrir
 Ieu sui Arnaut, que plor e vau cantan;
cossiros vei la passada folor,
e vei jauzen lo joi qu'esper, denan.
 Ara vos prec, per aquella valor
que vos guida al som de l'escalai
sovenha vos a temps de ma dolor!"

Then he was hidden in flames that purify.

Notes on Lines 140-147:
Dante has Arnaut Daniel speak in (slightly Italianized) Old Occitan as a nod to his lyric predecessor. It is the only extended passage of a language other than Italian in the Commedia. (And even the Latin passages are mostly quotations.) There is no other language — not even Northern French — in which a quotation in Occitan would have precisely this effect. What to do in translation?
Most translators, such as Longfellow and Clive James, have rendered Arnaut's speech into the same kind of English as the rest of the Commedia. Some have kept the speech in Occitan. Others have found more creative solutions. Dorothy L. Sayers has him speak pastiche Scots. John Ciardi has him speak mock-Spenserian English.
In my English version, one possibility that occurred to me was to have Arnaut Daniel address Dante in Occitanized Italian, as a nod to the Romance lyric tradition. But I couldn't come up with anything worth reading. Ultimately I decided to leave the passage in Old Occitan and simply alter it slightly for rhyme's sake. In both cases I altered items (the infinitive cobrire and the form escalina) which were Italianisms probably justified by rhyme considerations to begin with. (Cobrire has a palpably Italianate infinitive. The actual Occitan form is cobrir, which I "reinstate" here. Escalina appears to be a coinage original to Dante. The form escalai is a coinage original to me. The actual Occitan word is escala) Here is a verse translation that can also be read in its place:

Your courtly question is so gladdening
that I cannot, will not, stay hidden here.
I am Arnaut who go in tears and sing
in pain I see the folly of my prime
and rejoice seeing the joy that time will bring.
I beg you by the power that helps you climb
to the summit of that flight of stairs on high:
remember how I suffer in good time.


Mentre che sì per l'orlo, uno innanzi altro,
ce n'andavamo, e spesso il buon maestro
diceami: «Guarda: giovi ch'io ti scaltro»;
feriami il sole in su l'omero destro,
che già, raggiando, tutto l'occidente
mutava in bianco aspetto di cilestro;
e io facea con l'ombra più rovente
parer la fiamma; e pur a tanto indizio
vidi molt' ombre, andando, poner mente.
Questa fu la cagion che diede inizio
loro a parlar di me; e cominciarsi
a dir: «Colui non par corpo fittizio»;
poi verso me, quanto potëan farsi,
certi si fero, sempre con riguardo
di non uscir dove non fosser arsi.
«O tu che vai, non per esser più tardo,
ma forse reverente, a li altri dopo,
rispondi a me che 'n sete e 'n foco ardo.
Né solo a me la tua risposta è uopo;
ché tutti questi n'hanno maggior sete
che d'acqua fredda Indo o Etïopo.
Dinne com' è che fai di te parete
al sol, pur come tu non fossi ancora
di morte intrato dentro da la rete».
Sì mi parlava un d'essi; e io mi fora
già manifesto, s'io non fossi atteso
ad altra novità ch'apparve allora;
ché per lo mezzo del cammino acceso
venne gente col viso incontro a questa,
la qual mi fece a rimirar sospeso.
Lì veggio d'ogne parte farsi presta
ciascun' ombra e basciarsi una con una
sanza restar, contente a brieve festa;
così per entro loro schiera bruna
s'ammusa l'una con l'altra formica,
forse a spïar lor via e lor fortuna.
Tosto che parton l'accoglienza amica,
prima che 'l primo passo lì trascorra,
sopragridar ciascuna s'affatica:
la nova gente: «Soddoma e Gomorra»;
e l'altra: «Ne la vacca entra Pasife,
perché 'l torello a sua lussuria corra».
Poi, come grue ch'a le montagne Rife
volasser parte, e parte inver' l'arene,
queste del gel, quelle del sole schife,
l'una gente sen va, l'altra sen vene;
e tornan, lagrimando, a' primi canti
e al gridar che più lor si convene;
e raccostansi a me, come davanti,
essi medesmi che m'avean pregato,
attenti ad ascoltar ne' lor sembianti.
Io, che due volte avea visto lor grato,
incominciai: «O anime sicure
d'aver, quando che sia, di pace stato,
non son rimase acerbe né mature
le membra mie di là, ma son qui meco
col sangue suo e con le sue giunture.
Quinci sù vo per non esser più cieco;
donna è di sopra che m'acquista grazia,
per che 'l mortal per vostro mondo reco.
Ma se la vostra maggior voglia sazia
tosto divegna, sì che 'l ciel v'alberghi
ch'è pien d'amore e più ampio si spazia,
ditemi, acciò ch'ancor carte ne verghi,
chi siete voi, e chi è quella turba
che se ne va di retro a' vostri terghi».
Non altrimenti stupido si turba
lo montanaro, e rimirando ammuta,
quando rozzo e salvatico s'inurba,
che ciascun' ombra fece in sua paruta;
ma poi che furon di stupore scarche,
lo qual ne li alti cuor tosto s'attuta,
«Beato te, che de le nostre marche»,
ricominciò colei che pria m'inchiese,
«per morir meglio, esperïenza imbarche!
La gente che non vien con noi, offese
di ciò per che già Cesar, trïunfando,
"Regina" contra sé chiamar s'intese:
però si parton "Soddoma" gridando,
rimproverando a sé com' hai udito,
e aiutan l'arsura vergognando.
Nostro peccato fu ermafrodito;
ma perché non servammo umana legge,
seguendo come bestie l'appetito,
in obbrobrio di noi, per noi si legge,
quando partinci, il nome di colei
che s'imbestiò ne le 'mbestiate schegge.
Or sai nostri atti e di che fummo rei:
se forse a nome vuo' saper chi semo,
tempo non è di dire, e non saprei.
Farotti ben di me volere scemo:
son Guido Guinizzelli, e già mi purgo
per ben dolermi prima ch'a lo stremo».
Quali ne la tristizia di Ligurgo
si fer due figli a riveder la madre,
tal mi fec' io, ma non a tanto insurgo,
quand' io odo nomar sé stesso il padre
mio e de li altri miei miglior che mai
rime d'amore usar dolci e leggiadre;
e sanza udire e dir pensoso andai
lunga fïata rimirando lui,
né, per lo foco, in là più m'appressai.
Poi che di riguardar pasciuto fui,
tutto m'offersi pronto al suo servigio
con l'affermar che fa credere altrui.
Ed elli a me: «Tu lasci tal vestigio,
per quel ch'i' odo, in me, e tanto chiaro,
che Letè nol può tòrre né far bigio.
Ma se le tue parole or ver giuraro,
dimmi che è cagion per che dimostri
nel dire e nel guardar d'avermi caro».
E io a lui: «Li dolci detti vostri,
che, quanto durerà l'uso moderno,
faranno cari ancora i loro incostri».
«O frate», disse, «questi ch'io ti cerno
col dito», e additò un spirto innanzi,
«fu miglior fabbro del parlar materno.
Versi d'amore e prose di romanzi
soverchiò tutti; e lascia dir li stolti
che quel di Lemosì credon ch'avanzi.
A voce più ch'al ver drizzan li volti,
e così ferman sua oppinïone
prima ch'arte o ragion per lor s'ascolti.
Così fer molti antichi di Guittone,
di grido in grido pur lui dando pregio,
fin che l'ha vinto il ver con più persone.
Or se tu hai sì ampio privilegio,
che licito ti sia l'andare al chiostro
nel quale è Cristo abate del collegio,
falli per me un dir d'un paternostro,
quanto bisogna a noi di questo mondo,
dove poter peccar non è più nostro».
Poi, forse per dar luogo altrui secondo
che presso avea, disparve per lo foco,
come per l'acqua il pesce andando al fondo.
Io mi fei al mostrato innanzi un poco,
e dissi ch'al suo nome il mio disire
apparecchiava grazïoso loco.
El cominciò liberamente a dire:
«Tan m'abellis vostre cortes deman,
qu'ieu no me puesc ni voill a vos cobrire.
Ieu sui Arnaut, que plor e vau cantan;
consiros vei la passada folor,
e vei jausen lo joi qu'esper, denan.
Ara vos prec, per aquella valor
que vos guida al som de l'escalina,
sovenha vos a temps de ma dolor!».
Poi s'ascose nel foco che li affina.

Crib (very slightly modified from Durling's prose version):

While thus, one before the other, we walked along the edge, and often my good master said to me: "Look out; profit from my alerting you,"
the sun was striking me on the right shoulder, for already its rays were changing all the west from blue to white,
and with my shadow I was making the flame seem ruddier; and even to so small an indication I saw many shades pay heed as they walked.
This was the cause that led to their speaking of me, and they began by saying to each other: "That one does not look like a factitious body."
Then some approached me as closely as they could, always taking care not to come out where they would not be burned.
"O you who are walking behind the others, not because you are slower, but perhaps reverent, answer me, who am burning in thirst and fire.
Nor do I alone need your reply, for all these have greater thirst for it than ever Indian or Ethiopes for cold water.
Tell us how it is that you make a wall of yourself to the sun, as if you had not yet entered the net of death."
So one of them was saying to me, and I would already have made myself known, if I had not attended to another novelty that appeared then:
for down the center of the burning path came people facing toward these, and they made me suspend my reply so as to gaze.
There on both sides I see each soul make haste, and each one kiss another, without stopping, contented with brief welcomes:
so in their dark ranks the ants nuzzle each other, perhaps to spy out their path and their luck.
As soon as they break off their friendly greetings, before they take the first step to depart, each labors to outshout the other,
the newcomers: "Sodom and Gomorrha!" and the others: "Into the cow goes Pasiphae, so that the young bull will run to her lust."
Then, like cranes, who might fly, some toward the Riphaean mountains, some toward the sands, these avoiding frost, those the sun:
so one group goes off, the other conies along; and they return, weeping, to their first songs and the cry that most befits them;
and the same ones who had begged me came back to me as before, eager to listen, by their looks.
I, who twice had seen what would please them, began: "O souls sure to enjoy, whenever it may be, the state of peace,
my limbs have not remained back there either green or ripe, but are here with me with their blood and with their joints.
I am going up through here so as to be blind no longer; there is a lady above who gains me grace, and so I bring my mortal (part) through your world.
But so may your greatest desire soon be satisfied, so that the heaven may shelter you that is full of love and encloses the most ample space,
tell me, that I may rule paper for it still: who are you and who are that throng going off behind your
Not otherwise is the mountain peasant awed-out and troubled, falling silent as he gazes, when, crude and rustic, he cities himself:
than each soul then appeared; but when their amazement had been laid aside, for it is quickly blunted in high hearts:
"Blessed are you, who from these border lands of ours," began the shade who had inquired of me previously, "are taking on a cargo of experience, so as to die better!
Those who are not coming with us committed the offense for which Caesar, in his triumph, once heard himself reproached as 'Queen':
therefore they depart crying, 'Sodom,' blaming themselves as you have heard, and they help the burning by feeling shame.
Our sin was hermaphrodite; but because we did not keep human law, following our appetite like beasts,
in our own reproach we read out, when we part, the name of her who embeasted herself within the beastly planks.
Now you know our deeds and what our sin was: if perhaps you wish to know who we are by name, there is not time to tell, and I could not.
I will rid you of your (ignorance?) of me: I am Guido Guinizelli, and now I purge myself here because I repented well, before the last."
Such as in Lycurgus' grief the two sons became, seeing their mother again: so did I become— though I do not rise so high—
when I hear our father name himself, the father of me and of the others, my betters, who ever used sweet and graceful rhymes of love,
and without hearing or speaking I walked full of thought, gazing at him a long time, but because of the fire I approached no closer.
When I had fed myself with gazing, I offered myself all eager to serve him, with the kind of affirmation that gains belief.
And he to me: "You are leaving such a trace in me because of what I hear, and so clear a one, that Lethe cannot take it away or make it fade.
But if your words swore truly just now, tell me the reason why you show by your speech and your gaze that you hold me dear."
And I to him: "Your sweet poems, which, as long as modern usage lasts, will make precious their very ink."
"O my brother," he said, "he I point out to you with my finger," and he indicated a spirit further on, "was a better fashioner of his mother tongue.
All verses of love and romances in prose he surpassed, no matter what the fools say who think that the one from near Limoges is better.
They turn their faces more to reputation than to the truth, and thus they fix their opinion before listening to art or reason.
Thus of old many did with Guittone, still praising him in cry after cry, until the truth overcame him in the judgments of more people.
Now if you have such ample privilege that you are permitted to go to the cloister where Christ is abbot of the college,
say a Paternoster to him for me, as much of one as we in this world need, where the power to sin is no longer ours."
Then, perhaps to make room for another who was near him, he disappeared into the fire like a fish into the water when it goes to the bottom.
I went forward a little to the one he had pointed out, and said that my desire was preparing a gracious place for his name
He began freely to say: "So pleasing to me is your courteous request, that I cannot nor will not hide myself from you.
I am Arnaut, who weep and go singing; with chagrin I view my past folly, and rejoicing I see ahead the joy I hope for.
Now I beg you, by the Power that guides you to the summit of the stairway, remember my suffering at the appropriate time!"
Then he hid himself in the fire that refines.

Some Scatterthoughts:

As a medievalist with an interest in the development of vernacular and lyric poetic traditions in the mediterranean, Dante is a touchstone for me. In some ways he marks a benchmark in a process that had long been unfolding to various degrees throughout the medieval Mediterranean. Unlike a lot of other languages I've studied, Italian is one I have not had a great deal of reason or opportunity to actually speak. It's a reading-language for me. I come to Dante, in many ways, as an Occitanist. I have worked a lot with Occitan lyric texts. I read Occitan better than I do Italian. And, in Occitan at least, I can make small talk.
I've read a lot of Italian though, and I have read the Commedia with joy. Sometimes all the commentaries I needed to have available at once in reading the Commedia caused the number of open tabs in my browser to skyrocket like an 11-year-old's insulin on Halloween night. I never really thought I'd bother translating Dante. Why Dante? The closest thing to a reason is that all the other translations of Dante dissatisfied me for one reason or another. Many seem like they are often translating some other poet than the Dante I have read. All translating Dante the Giant of Italian Poetry. Dante the canon-round is forbidden from being weird or eccentric. He is required to be a patriarch of a literary "vernacular" language. He must not sound too un-canonical. He must be in keeping — one way or another — with prevailing tastes in the target language when it comes to diction and style. This all I found understandable, but kind of silly. If there is one thing Dante isn't interested in, it is conforming to others' expectations of how to do things.

So what if I try a translation in which I do not take literary English as I find it? I knew I didn't want to do the Inferno. Seriously, everybody does the Inferno.

Anyway, there I was, nel mezzo del camin della mia giornata, trying to take my mind off of things I had to do. For spits and tickles, I sat down and tried my hand at the opening of the Purgatorio. Then I found myself translating more. Before I realized it, I had translated half the cussèd canto. Onward to canto's end. Eventually I did more, and did another of the Paradiso. I now have draft translations of one canto from the Paradiso and three from the Purgatorio in my files. Okay and I ended up doing canto 1 of the Inferno, too. Colpa è di chi m'ha destinato al foco.

The Commedia has been translated into English a ton. A metric f***ton, in fact. Sometimes even a metrical f***ton. There are at least 60 different English translations of it, and that is just the complete translations of all three books. Those who have produced complete English translations of at least one of the books (most often the Inferno) number well over a hundred. Those who have translated a complete canto into English may be as impossible to count as the cocaine flakes on Berlusconi's pancakes. In fact, the Commedia has been translated more into English than into any other language. I am not quite sure why this is.

Dante used the techniques of versification he inherited, including scrambled syntax and deletion of word-final vowels (a tactic probably adopted by imitation of Occitan verse where post-tonic vowels are much rarer.) His prosody can occasionally be "rude" by later standards, and he on very rare occasions plays loose with lines. He is not always polished or refined in the manner of a Petrarch. When the occasion calls for it, he is just as capable of delivering a versified Italian version of the Lord's Prayer as he is of using words like "shit" (Inf. XVIII). Although he has been condemned to eternal worship in the deepest circle of the Italian canon, his style was actually considered borderline barbarous by some later poets, not least because he veered between "high" and "low" at will. The translator should feel free to follow Dante in this, I think.

A reputation as a pioneer of unaffected and plainspoken vernacularity has been pasted onto Dante like a feelgood bumper sticker slapped onto the backside of an embalmed corpse. To be sure, it makes him an appealing figure in an era when poetry (especially English-language poetry) is subjected to much corporal punishment if it tries to put on airs. This reputation might have struck Dante himself as bizarre and maybe a little insulting. Especially when applied to the Commedia, where the language — apart from being Latinized to the gills — gets progressively odder as you go along. His being "revolutionary in writing in the contemporary vernacular" has repeatedly been seized on in ways that make people strive for contemporaneity and readability and plainspokenness every which way.

The relative recentness of Italian poetry compared to that of Occitan and Northern French has been often (mis)understood as a case in which Italians were late to cultivate their vernacular. Italians who composed in Occitan (such as Sordello) have tended to be treated as imitators operating in a foreign language. What has generally not been appreciated is the recency — well-demonstrated in a series of articles by Roger Wright, but still debated — of the very notion that the different Romance varieties were even separate languages at all. Until some point in the 13th century, one ought perhaps not to refer to "Old French" or "Old Spanish" or the like. Before then, these seem to have been conceived of by speakers as distinctive varieties of (something like) a single language. This is the only way to make satisfactory sense of a number of issues, such as what Raimbaut de Vaqueiras' thought he was doing with his descort, and the nature of his use of Genoese Romance in his tenso. It is only in the 13th century, when different forms of written Romance became associated with specific kingdoms and territorial holdings, that we have clear evidence that these were experienced as different languages. Before that time, Romance speakers from all over the Romanophone world routinely (though not without exception) referred to their vernacular as "Lengua Romana" or Romans/Romanzo/Romanz/Romance/Etc. wherever they were.

Our sense of how Dante was writing in "his own language" rather than Occitan must be tempered by the fact that the perception of Occitan as a foreign language at all (rather than simply the most appropriate type of Romance for lyric composition) was probably no more than two or three generations old in the Italian peninsula. The point here, is that while Dante's use of vernacular is highly original, it is also far more a product of his time than has traditionally been understood.

Dante was not unusual in using vernacular for high poetry. Courtly poetry in Romance vernacular had existed in the Italian peninsula for a little over a generation, and in Occitania and France for over two centuries. Nor was he the first to treat philosophical themes in Romance vernacular verse. The existence of the Occitan Boecis demonstrates that attempts to bridge the gulf between learned and "popular" culture by linguistic means were not unprecedented in the Romance world. (The antiquity of the Boecis, and its fragmentary nature, suggests that many more such attempts probably existed, and circulated, than have survived.) Dante was however unusual in treating a classically-informed theological work of this kind in vernacular, when such a genre practically cried out for Latin. Few others in his day would have thought to have Virgil speak Romance, (though, again, the Boecis has Boethius do just that). To some degree, the language of the Commedia — with its Latinized semantics and sometimes deliberately obfuscatory syntax — could be called an "experimental" register. Which by definition is not normal speech.

He also did unusual things not just with the vernacular, but to it.

While the Commedia uses lots of pared down, colloquial language and (in the Inferno) occasionally obscenity, it is hard for me to take it for the "natural" language of anybody's speech, even at the level of vocabulary.

In some parts, particularly the Paradiso, Dante seems to be straining to make the language unhuman. He coins a great many words (somewhere between two and five hundred, depending on how you count) of which a number caught on and survive today. When an Italian reads the Commedia today, they may not notice all the neologisms, because they have since been adopted into normative Italian. A great example is the verb inurbarsi "to enter a city, to get citied", which took on a life of its own in Italian and today has developed the semantically extended sense of "to become refined, to lose one's rustic manners." Other famous Dantean coinages include trasumanare "to go beyond the human, to transhumanate" and contrapasso "an ironic punishment which fits the sin, a counterpass, a contrapoise" (or as I would translate it: a splayback.) The Commedia contains many even odder coinages like inluiarsi "to go into him, to be inhimmed" and intuarsi "to go into you, to inyouate, to be inyoued." The mountain of Purgatory "dis-lakes itself" (si dislaga) and "dis-evils" (dismala) those who climb it. Pasiphae, when she climbs into the mock-cow in a fit of godwrought lust, sins by "embeasting herself" (imbestiarsi). In Hell, Virgil refuses to "pulchrify" (appulcrare) beggars, and a simoniac pope speaks of another who goes "simonizing" (simoneggiare). There are even greek-inspired neologisms such as teodia (theody) from "theos" (god) apparently patterned off of salmodia (psalmody.) The proportion of neologisms in the Paradiso is at least twice that of the other two books. As Dante slowly enheavens himself, language itself grows unworlded to express hereafterthoughts. Dante also uses existing words in esoteric or otherwise odd ways

With Dante, it seems to me an English translator should be willing to avail themself not only of all the English that exists, but also of some English that doesn't exist.

Another point of order is to respect the terza rima and do it in a way that adds to the poem rather than subtracting from it. When it comes to translating Dante, there is a long, labored and ludicrous tradition of insisting that terza rima is impossible (or prohibitively difficult) to pull off in English. One finds the same excuse offered up by English translators of other rhyming poets, even when translating French rhymed couplets, where — as Pope or Dryden will show — this is actually pretty easy to do in English. Even when English verse is translated into Italian, rhymes are very often not duplicated. The real reason is that the translator just doesn't want to bother with rhyme.
The idea that English is uniquely rhyme-poor is true only in the sense that it has fewer rhymes which would satisfy Italian or French (or Chinese or Persian) definitions of "true" rhyme. It is true that Italian contains many more rhyming words than English, but this simply means that repeated rhymes may be more acceptable in English than for Dante's Italian. English inflectional morphemes very rarely can produce rhymes the way they can in Italian or Russian. In English such morphemes don't carry stress, and so inflectional rhymes are possible only when secondary stress falls on -ing or -es (e.g. rhymes like Dante's intrai/abandonai/trovai where the rhyme depends on identical verb inflection would be on par with entering/abandoning/harrowing.) Still, even traditional poetic English permits itself various approximate rhymes.

Nobody who has so much as glanced at Spenser's Faerie Queene or Byron's Don Juan can be forgiven for maintaining the idea that English doesn't have the rhymestock to handle terza rima in a long epic. In these works, the stanza requires either three or four lines to have the same rhyme sound.

One of the problems, I think, with replicating Dantean terza rima has not to do with the difficulty of finding rhymes, but with the way English speakers react to them. Dante often uses "stunt rhymes" which call attention to themselves by their sheer ingenuity. In Modern English, this kind of thing is traditionally restricted to comic verse as in William Cole's

On my boat on lake Cayuga
I have a horn that goes Ay-ooogah...


The once was a Bishop of Birmingham
Who rogered young boys while confirming 'em.
To comply with his wont
They'd bend over the font
As he pumped his episcopal sperm in 'em.

Dante on the other hand uses stunt rhymes seemingly as a virtuosic display. As a way to entertain or maintain your interest. Many of his neologisms are rhyme-words that must have been for that purpose. I see no reason not to follow Dante, and break with English tradition, on that. Thus I rhyme e.g. Gamorrah/Bore her/Phantamagora and make no bones about it. It's not normal to do that kind of thing in serious verse in English (well, not since the 16th century). But that seems a silly reason to avoid it.

In the Commedia, Dante also often uses Latinate forms, or words that in his own day were quite archaic, in order to supply the rhyme. He may use a word like schife at line-end in ways that make it unclear whether he means the verb schifare "loathe, abhore" or simply a rhyme-wrenched form of schivare "to flee."

The anonymous author of one of the earliest surviving commentaries on the Commedia, one of the very few commentators who, apparently, may have known Dante personally, relates:

Io scrittore udii dire a Dante, che mai rima nol trasse a dire altro che quello ch'avea in suo proponimento; ma ch'elli molte e spesse volte facea li vocaboli dire nelle sue rime altro che quello, ch'erano appo gli altri dicitori usati di sprimere
(I heard Dante say that the need to find a rhyme never forced him to say anything other than what he had intended to say, but that he often made the words in rhyme position say different things than what other poets used them to express.)

If sufficient latitude is allowed with rhyme, and if the translator is willing to make the kind of effort which Dante deserves in any case, terza rima is quite doable. If Dante occasionally reached a bit in Italian for rhymes, why shouldn't English reach more often and farther?

Once in a long while, Dante allows himself glaringly imperfect rhymes, some by "Sicilian" precedent and some by sheer license, which later generations found unacceptable. In the Commedia, -olto rhymes with -orto, -esse with -isse, -omo with -umo etc. Dante's versification also generally allows for imperfect rhymes between open and closed o and e.

I use imperfect rhymes of various types — many orders of magnitude more than Dante did by any definition — and make no bones about it. I use rhymes drawn from different accents of English (The rhotic and the non-rhotic, those with a merged pen/pin vowel and those without.) I also play loose with English versification. Unbending iambs are neither necessary nor desirable in a poem like this in modern English for a modern audience. The regularity of rhyme allows for a little loosening of the pentameter anyway. I take the iambic pulse as a base. My goal is to have each line either scannable as a (perhaps loose) pentameter, or, failing that, contain five identifiable beats.

Last edited by AZ Foreman; 12-21-2018 at 06:09 AM.
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Unread 12-20-2018, 12:18 PM
Aaron Poochigian Aaron Poochigian is offline
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AZ, this is a valiant effort, but I am still looking for the translation that persuades me Dantean terza rima can be done well in English.

Apart from metrical issues, a number of the rhymes don't work. For example, "sure" between "near" and "there" to rhyme with "first" and "thirst" creates an aural muddle. And "phantasmagora"? to rhyme with "Gamorrah" to rhyme, somewhat comically, with "bore her."

I have studied Old Occitan and can read what leave in the original at the end--I still think you need to find some kind of English to translate it into.

I have read your justifications for your choices but the proof is in the pudding--the translation is unsatisfying to me as a rendition of "Dante."



Last edited by Aaron Poochigian; 12-20-2018 at 12:25 PM.
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Unread 12-21-2018, 01:00 AM
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AZ Foreman AZ Foreman is offline
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Thanks for this. It's useful. Ultimately if this stuff works for nobody but me, I'll have to try something else.

I can see why "sure" would be a hiccup. For Many Americans, this is a homophone for "shore", whereas in my accent it has the same r-colored vowel as "sir." I will have to rethink that rhyme. Some of the other rhymes are fine in one accent or other ("chagrin/again/been" and "skin/been/then" are full rhymes in most Southern US accents.) Others depend on various kinds of imperfection. I suppose I'm not bothered by stuff like cow/go/snow, for the same reason Shelley wasn't bothered by thou/blow/low. I do use assonance too, which may be jarring.

As for phantasmagora/gamorrah/bore her, my aim with "bore her" is rather to be obscene. Perhaps "and bends over to let the bullcalf gore her" would make the point more grotesquely, though I worried that kind of thing would dip into "Inferno" territory too much. I realize using rhymes that call attention to themselves in a way usually only found in comic verse comes at a cost. Maybe the cost is too high. Phantasmagora is a word that I coined independently, though I'm not the first one to coin it. A search on google books reveals that quite a few people have done so. As a coinage based on Greek φάντασμα and ἀγορά to suggest an assembly of insubstantial shades, and summoning up associations of "phantasmagoria" it just seemed appropriate to describe what was actually going on in the text, even if not justified by Dante's actual words. It seemed to me like (vaguely) the kind of thing Dante might do, and does indeed do elsewhere. But maybe this isn't an appropriate place for it.

Last edited by AZ Foreman; 12-21-2018 at 04:45 AM.
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Unread 12-21-2018, 03:26 AM
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AZ Foreman AZ Foreman is offline
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I have studied Old Occitan and can read what leave in the original at the end--I still think you need to find some kind of English to translate it into.
Apart from the ModEng verse translation I give as an alternate, the other thing that comes to mind is to use an English contemporary with the Commedia:

I drew ahead a bit beside that same
shade he'd shown me, and said my heart would lay
a grateful place of honor for his name,
and of his own free will he turned to say:
"Me pleseth so yowr courteys requeringe
that I ne can nor wol behiden me.
I am Arnault who sorwe and whilom singe.
I soorè see my past follious houre,
And joying see my bidden joys cominge
Anow I preye of yow by that valoure
which gydeth to the steirès cop yowr wey:
Remembre yow bytime of my doloure"
Then he was hidden in fires that purify.

(For me and wey, the approximate rhymes with say and purify rest on Middle English pronunciation.)

Using 14th century English to translate an Italianate Occitan passage, put in the mouth of a 12th century Troubadour, in a 14th century poem would not at all be akin to what Dante was doing. There were still poets in Occitania who composed in this lyric register of Occitan in Dante's time, and it is not archaic in any sense. It's untrue to Dante's relation to troubadours and their language.

But maybe it works better than just an Occitan insertion.

Last edited by AZ Foreman; 12-21-2018 at 07:00 PM.
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Unread 12-21-2018, 04:47 AM
John Isbell John Isbell is offline
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My favorite English terza rima rendition of the Commedia is that of Geoffrey Bickersteth, who I believe made it his life's work. It used to be available for a fiver in bilingual edition (out of print now). He put the Arnault Daniel passage into Chaucerian English. I think it's clear the language needs to be alien but related, as Middle English makes it. It's true that Occitan was alive in 1300, so perhaps something like broad Scots might do better. Standard Modern English would to my mind miss the point.

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Unread 12-21-2018, 09:49 AM
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Julie Steiner Julie Steiner is offline
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I'm still pondering various points. Haven't made up my mind yet about the handling of the pseudo-Occitan.

[Edited to add these quick afterthoughts: I definitely think you should tone down the tell-don't-show bit in the intro about how "arrestingly simple" the Lyric Occitan that Dante placed in Arnaut Daniel's mouth; otherwise, you invite readers to judge whether your own attempt clears the "arrestingly simple" bar. Also, I think you can't have it both ways--if you imply to the English reader that you're leaving Dante's original untouched in that section, it seems unfair to touch up its rhymes. That's doing a disservice to those who want to try to look up what the words mean.]

Two small things that I think need fixing are the spelling of Gamorrah (which should be Gomorrah) and the inclusion of a note clarifying the Lycurgus/twins/mother bit. I've a vague notion that Dante is referring to the ancestors of the parallel lines of Spartan kings, but otherwise I'm lost there.

Last edited by Julie Steiner; 12-21-2018 at 10:37 AM.
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