Dante RAL · Reading

Musings on Translation

I’ve read translated books before. Novels. Epic poems. Short stories (not many). A play or two. I’ve read some works in original languages (mostly for high school Spanish). Yet I never really sat and thought about what it means to translate a work.

When you’re beginning a new language, although it may seem difficult or overwhelming at first, there’s also a certain element that seems straightforward: for each word in your native tongue there seems to be a corresponding word in the language you’re learning. Red = rojo = rosso (English-Spanish-Italian). To run = correr = correre. Then things begin to get a little more difficult. Is it conocer or saber, conoscere or sapere (to know)? I only have English, Spanish, and Italian to go by, but I have little doubt that these sorts of linguistic occurrences are present in all languages. Sometimes a language may not even have a word equivalent to the one you’re trying to translate.

This is to say nothing of the social/cultural/political context of translations. I recently read a fascinating discussion over the “best” way to translate (or even whether to translate) the Arabic phrase insha’allah. (The comments are as interesting, perhaps more so, than the original article.) The article points out that what the West might expect insha’allah to mean, is not necessarily the context in which it is understood among native Arabic speakers.

And so, as I began reading Inferno, with the Italian facing the English translation, I really began thinking about the difficulties of translation for the first time. When I picked up the book, I decided to read the first canto in Italian before moving on to the rest. I knew my Italian wasn’t good enough to read the entire thing, especially in a limited time-frame, but I wanted to get a taste for Dante’s original words, the flow of his language. (I took one year of Italian in college, and although I spent a semester in Florence, Italy—Dante’s old stomping grounds!—as part of a semester-abroad program through the architecture school, the only class I had in Italian was…Italian.)

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarritia.
Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
esta selva selvaggio e aspra e forte
che nel pensier rinova la paura!
Tant’ è amara che poco è più morte;
ma per trattar del ben ch’i’ vi trovai,
dirò de l’altre cose ch’i’ v’ho scorte.
[Canto I, 1-9]

I discovered three things by reading the Italian: terza rima, Dante’s use of hendecasyllable meter, and that it sure would be difficult to translate this into another language, especially a non-Romance language. As the translation I read (Mandelbaum) did not rhyme the triplets, I would have had no other way of learning about terza rima had I confined myself solely to this translation and not read the introduction or any commentary. The meter, by contrast, was less surprising, as Mandelbaum did use a consistent pentameter. Then of course, there’s the language. Even after the first canto, I was occasionally curious, reading over a particularly pleasing passage, how much of the lyricism of the words came from the translator and how many from Dante. I was gratified to discover that Dante was the source.

As I read Canto I, my one meager year of Italian ensured a constant referencing of my battered Italian-English dictionary. Even at that, I didn’t wish to spend the entirety of my time “translating,” so I did my best to simply let the words wash over me, to get a feel for the meaning, rather than a literal word-by-word translation. This was sufficient to showcase the difficulty of translation, period. Dante’s terza rima and meter alone would be difficult to convert from such a flowing, lyrical language into a more abrupt one. (Almost all words in contemporary Italian end in a vowel, and apparently so in Dante’s day as well, which sounds lend to a more lyrical flow than the harder consonant sounds ending most English words.) This is to say nothing of the imagery, metaphor, allusion, etc., of the poetry, which may be difficult to convey in a different language or culture. Looking at all these difficulties, I begin feel that a translator needs to be a poet, or have a poetic command of language in order to translate such a work well.

Dante rhymed his Inferno well, and in a more complex manner than the English translations I have seen. Every line-end rhymes with either the line two before or two after, sometimes both. That is, the sequence would be ABA,BCB,CDC,DED, etc. In contrast, the snippets of rhyming English translations I have seen only rhyme the first and third lines of each triplet, and do not attempt to include the middle line in the rhyme scheme (ABA,CDC,EFE, etc.). There may be translations out there which are faithful to Dante’s pattern; I simply haven’t seen them. (Yet.) I would be curious to see such a translation, as it seems to me it would be unbelievably difficult to force an English translation to such contortions. This of course, reflects the difficulty of translating rhyme, magnified. In some of the translations I have seen, the efforts to maintain end rhyme seem to sometimes muddy the meaning, necessitating more re-reading than might be necessary with a more straightforward translation.

Focusing one’s attentions on rhythm or meter rather than rhyme also creates its own difficulties. Despite my preference for the English side of the page, every once in a while I could not help but glance at the original, and I occasionally found that, in order to maintain meter or to compensate for shorter English words, Mandelbaum had added a word or repeated a phrase or name not repeated in the Italian. Sometimes I could see that the phrases or words were reordered, and didn’t necessarily appear in the same line number as in the Italian. All this rearrangement to maintain rhythm, just as with rhyme, sometimes meant a slightly more complex rendering than might strictly be necessary, if only the words and not the patterns were focused on.

Considering all these difficulties, all the decisions a translator must make, not merely over just which word to chose, but how to phrase a line, how to make it flow just so, how to match the rhythm and meaning and feel of the original, how to communicate the context of Dante’s day into the translator’s, I am inclined to admire those who translate well. Of course, how much better would it be if I could read more works in the original rather than as translations! Certainly, it seems, based on my limited Italian, that the original of Dante would be that much more sublime than English can ever possibly demonstrate.


2 thoughts on “Musings on Translation

  1. Good points all, Amanda! I wish people talked about translation matters more on their blogs. For my part, I can tell you that it’s a lot tougher than I expected to translate even little snippets of a fave author in Spanish into something resembling readable English. Things that make perfect sense in your head don’t always come out that way when you try and make something available for someone else to read. And even though I’m a big proponent of reading literature in a foreign language when/if you can (for some of the reasons you mention above), it certainly does require an investment of time if you want to make the most of it. Hope I’m not coming off preachy–but I was just trying to work up my nerve to try Calvino in Italian earlier today in the library…and was chickening out precisely because of the time factor! Hmm.

    1. I think I know what you mean about the difficulty translating something that makes sense in your head. When I read that one canto from Inferno in Italian, it took a lot more work if I tried to “translate” the entire thing into reasonable English, than if I just read it (I did look up the main words I didn’t know/recall) and let the sense of meaning “flow.”

      Until I started reading Inferno, I hadn’t really thought much about the issue of translation, but now that I have, I’m beginning to think that the number one reason to study another language is to be able to read books original to that language! Time, though–I definitely agree that that is an issue. Good luck with Calvino should you decide to read him in Italian.

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