The most daunting task for the Dante reader is selecting a good translation.
I used to despair of translations. For years I read English poetry or poetry in the original of the few languages I’d studied, because I saw no point in reading unreliable translations. Stripped of its language, poetry is often reduced to a crude outline. And translators play fast and loose with the texts. Not that I blame them: turning an inflected language into syntactically rigid English is nearly impossible.
But I left school long ago, and at last it dawned on me I didn’t need to play by scholarly rules. I was unlikely to read THE DIVINE COMEDY if not in translation.
So I’m bending the rules, and it’s a pleasure.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I admire Mandelbaum’s translation of the INFERNO. Now I’ve begun Dorothy Sayers’s introduction to her 1955 translation of PURGATORY. She writes so beautifully and is so brilliant that I wish I had a copy of her INFERNO as well.
Although I read and admired Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries years ago, I’d been led to understand that her Dante translation and scholarship were out of date. The best writers never go out of date, though.
Her translations have been reissued in attractive new Penguins, and if they live up to her introductions, they’re well worth the price.
Here’s part of her fascinating opening paragraph:
“Of the three books of the COMMEDIA, the PURGATORIO is, for English readers, the least known, the least quoted--and the most beloved. It forms, as it were, a test case. Persons who pontificate about Dante without making mention of his Purgatory may reasonably be suspected of knowing him only at second hand, or of having at most skimmed through the circles of his Hell in the hope of finding something to be shocked at. Let no one, therefore, get away with a condemnation--or for that matter a eulogy--of Dante on the mere strength of broiled Popes, disembowelled Schismatics, grotesque Demons, Count Ugolino, Francesca da Rimini, and the Voyage of Ulysses, even if backed up by an erotic mysticism borrowed from the Pre-Raphaelites, and the line ‘His will is our peace,’ recollected from somebody’s sermon. Press him, rather, for an intelligent opinion on the Ship of Souls and Peter’s Gate; on Buonconte, Sapia, and Arnaut Daniel, on the Prayer of the Proud, the theology of Free Judgement, Dante’s three Dreams, the Sacred Forest, and the symbolism of the Beatrician Pageant. If he cannot satisfy the examiners on these points, let him be to you as a heathen man and a publican....”