Completed: Paradiso

Dante Alighieri
Allen Mendelbaum, Translator
Bantam Classic, 1984

As does the bird, among beloved branches,
when, through the night that hides things from us, she
has rested near the nest of her sweet fledglings
and, on an open branch, anticipates
the time when she can see their longed-for faces
and find the food with which to feed them—chore
that pleases her, however hard her labors—
as she awaits the sun with arm affection,
steadfastly watching for the dawn to break:
so did my lady stand, erect, intent,
turned toward that part of heaven under which
the sun is given to less haste; so that,
as I saw her in longing and suspense,
I grew to be as one who, while he wants
what is not his, is satisfied with hope.
(Canto XXIII, 1-15)

I think my first thought on finishing Paradiso was one of excited relief. More so than either of the proceeding canticles, Paradiso is difficult, necessitating  frequent referencing of the endnotes, which in itself makes the reading slow-going. Richard of Caravana de recuerdos characterized it as “abstruse” which I find a particularly apt descriptor. It is not merely that there is less action and much more dialogue—primarily Dante’s theological viewpoints as expressed through his characters—but that the discussions often refer to texts or Medieval-era debates that, while perhaps commonly understood in the early 1300’s, are less familiar today. After flipping to the endnotes for the 100th or so time and seeing St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica referenced (typically for comparison or as Dante’s starting point), I began to feel that reading Paradiso could serve as a summary for the former. I certainly cannot imagine attempting Paradiso without any concept of the framework of the Christian belief system.

Looking back over the entirety of Divine Comedy, I am struck by what an incredible accomplishment it is. Dante’s biggest sin may have been his pride (as he acknowledged in Purgatorio)—and there is more than one instance where I marked my text noting evidence of his ego—but he was certainly not wrong in his belief that he was creating something worth reading. Over the course of three poems, he successfully created three distinct “worlds” or regions. There is no doubting that his Inferno is as different from his Paradiso as night is from day, and Purgatorio, a point between (although, saving Dante none might journey there from Inferno) is different yet again. He has created an epic journey—both for his pilgrim (Dante the character) and for his reader. There is an unbelievable integration of a diverse body of sources—classical, religious, philosophical. According to the end notes in my edition, the nine-line simile beginning Canto XXIII (above) makes over twelve references to other works!* And he manages to do all this while maintaining hendecasyllable meter and a terza rima rhyming pattern. Paradiso does see many declarations of his own inadequacy to tell of what he sees in Heaven (albeit, drawn in such a way to draw focus to the fact that he’s attempting this anyway—see the bit about ego), but at the same time his similes, his metaphors, his allusions all strive to give the reader a glimpse of what such a place much be like, and in such a measured manner to indicate a continuing journey upwards through the ever more wondrous levels of heaven. As mentioned previously, it is not always easy to read—allegory is clearly more important here than in Inferno or Purgatorio—but the measured accomplishment of it is incredible. I actually found myself in suspense wondering how he could possible portray the last sphere of Heaven, culminating in his vision of God.

Here force failed my high fantasy;  but my
desire and will were moved already—like
a wheel revolving uniformly—by
the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.
(Canto XXX 142-145)

I am glad I chose to undertake this trio of books. I don’t know that I would have finished the last had it not been for Richard’s read-along, but I don’t regret the time spent. It feels an accomplishment to have simply completed the entirety, but it also feels rewarding for the treasures found within the books. In some ways I still feel like I have Dante’s words spinning inside my head. It is so satisfying to have that continued presence of a masterpiece. This, I think, is why we read the classics.

* “In addition to identifying the matrix of the simile in Lactantius’ De Ave Phoenice (On the Phoenix), 39-42, Daniele Mattalia cites not less than six references to Virgil’s Georgics, five to the Aeneid, and one to Statius’ Achilleid.” (p 387, Bantam Classics Edition)

Completed: Purgatorio

Dante Alighieri
Allen Mendelbaum, Translator
Bantam Classic, 1984

‘But if you still persist
in letting your mind fix on earthly things,
then even from true light you gather darkness.
That Good, ineffable and infinite,
which is above, directs Itself toward love
as light directs itself to polished bodies.
Where ardor is, that Good gives of Itself,
and where more love is, there that Good confers
a greater measure of eternal worth.
And when there are more souls above who love,
there’s more to love well there, and they love more,
and, mirror-like, each soul reflects the other.’
Canto XV, 64-75

In some ways I definitely struggled more with Purgatorio more than I did with Inferno. The story wasn’t as compelling to me—apparently it is more exciting to read about the inventive and  grotesque punishments of Hell than the singing and repentance of Purgatory! Actually, I think for me, part of the problem lay in the fact that Purgatorio is more philosophical/theological than is Inferno. There is still the journey, still the meeting of new people (as in Inferno, mostly recent contemporaries of Dante—only now they are more likely to be friends or those he admires than those he wishes to punish), but there are also numerous instances of lectures on philosophical or theological topics. Thankfully, my edition had a decent set of end notes, or I’m not sure I would have followed the entirety of the discussion. Canto XXV’s discussion of the “generation of souls,” for example, was particularly obscure to the modern reader: our understanding of the physiology of the body is vastly different today than it was 700 years ago.

One new element I noticed, especially in the latter half of the canticle, was Dante’s frequent declaration that he needed to elevate his language:

“Reader, you can see clearly how I lift
my matter; do not wonder, therefore, if
I have to call on more art to sustain it.”
Canto IX, 70-72.

As the sights and wonders of Purgatorio become ever more grand and beautiful, culminating in Dante’s view of the unveiled Beatrice, he professed the necessity of a higher language, a more poetic and symbolic view. This is only Purgatory; I cannot begin to imagine how Dante will address the wonders of the Heavenly spheres.

This is however, still Dante. He remains full of condemnation against his homeland, both Florence and the wider Italian countryside, and continues to provide criticism of the Catholic Church, although much of it seems in a spirit of correction rather than condemnation. In some ways I found this fascinating to read. If I understand him correctly, Dante was in favor of a separation of church and state, desiring the Church to deal with spiritual matters alone, and leaving the political matters to the state—preferentially, an Emperor. Seeing this snapshot of one of the theological views and ideas at the turn of the 13th century was quite interesting.

One other aspect I found intriguing, was Dante’s acknowledgement of his sinful nature, specifically his pride. Inferno showed no end of his ego, yet in Purgatorio, he admits,

“I fear much more the punishment below;
my soul is anxious, in suspense; already
I feel the heavy weights of the first terrace.”
(Where the prideful are corrected, Canto XIII, 136-138)

With all his attempts to “elevate” his prose, however, I’m not sure he’s left his ego yet behind.

I don’t feel the pressing desire to read the next canticle as I did at the end of the Inferno, but I do have a bit of curiosity as to where Dante could lead next. If he has difficulty describing the beauty of Beatrice, how will he extol the glories of Paradisio? And of course, there’s the pressing question, how does a mortal move up the ethereal levels of the heavenly spheres?

I completed this as part 2 of Richard’s Dante Readalong.

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.

Completed: Inferno

Dante Alighieri
Allen Mandelbaum, Translator
Bantam Classic, 1980

Finishing Inferno, I have the feeling of completing something quite satisfying. I say this not for the feeling of success (or relief) that may come with finishing a challenging read, but because of the story itself—despite the endless references to people, places, and events better known to Dante’s contemporaries than to 21st century readers, it still manages to engage, to draw in, especially in the closing cantos. It also leaves a slight dangling end—Dante leaving Hell and about to enter Purgatory—and I suddenly find myself with a stronger desire to read the middle book of the trio than I heretofore have had—the “what happens next?” effect.

As I was reading this past week, one thought that kept running through my mind was how grounded in time and place Inferno is. Most of the sinners Dante encounters as he journeys through the circles of Hell are his (recent) contemporaries, although some are from the writings of Virgil and Ovid, among others. The historical events mentioned are similarly mostly contemporary to Dante. Doubtless his 14th century readers would have understood who and what these people were without needing quite as much reliance on end notes as I. I began to wonder just why it is that we still read The Divine Comedy—it seems to belong to Late Medieval/Early Renaissance Florence more than to today. And yet, who these people and what these events were, in reality, are ultimately only tangential to the story Dante is telling: that of his descent through Hell. Although I faithfully flipped to each end note as I met a new character I did not recognize—not out of a sense of obligation, but because I couldn’t seem to help myself—it is not their names or their personal earthly histories that I remember, but the punishments for their sins. Whatever else Dante may have been as a writer, he was certainly very inventive, and I am not sure I will forget some of his imagery easily.

Although I am not a reader who often really notices the great passages, the words themselves, it was Dante’s words—and imagery—that drew me in here. Usually, I find myself so engaged with the story, that I fail to notice the structure of it. Reading an epic poem like this, however, sometimes redirects my thoughts, as what is being said is not always straightforward, but requires a slow reading and rereading. I particularly enjoyed the following:

As many as the fireflies the peasant
(while resting on a hillside in the season
when he who lights the world least hides his face),
just when the fly gives way to the mosquito,
sees glimmering below, down in the valley,
there where perhaps he gathers grapes and tills—
so many were the flames that glittered in
the eighth abyss; I made this out as soon
as I had come to where one sees the bottom.
Even as he who was avenged by bears
saw, as it left, Elijah’s chariot—
its horses rearing, rising right to heaven—
when he could not keep track of it except
by watching one lone flame in its ascent,
just like a little cloud that climbs on high:
so, through the gullet of that ditch, each flame
must make its way; no flame displays its prey,
though every flame has carried off a sinner.

(Canto XXVI, 25-42)

Although perhaps not one of the more memorable passages of the poem, I love this extended simile, the drawing out of the words as Dante takes his time letting us know that there are a lot of sinners in this circle.

Nor was Dante limited to his poetic devices. The stories, the punishments, the histories could, at times be quite compelling even without the poetic form. (I admit, however, that in some of the earlier circles, I was not as interested in the sinners or their penalties, as at times it seemed more that Dante was revenging himself upon his enemies than writing the greatest Italian epic.) Certainly, the tale of Ugolino in Canto XXXIII is gut-wrenching, and so powerful, it almost takes away some from the final horrors of Judecca. (Granted, Ugolino has the powers of speech still, while these final sinners do not.)

I was also intrigued by the way Dante combined the mythologies of Classical Antiquity with Christian traditions. Not only are some of the sinners he encounters figures from these stories, but some of the structure of Hell seems based upon these old stories as well. It is Charon, from the Aeneid, who transports Dante and his guide Virgil across the Acheron. The rivers in Dante’s Hell—Acheron, Styx, Phlegethon, and Cocytus—all make appearances in the Aeneid as well. I find it interesting that in this way Dante seemingly legitimizes these ancient stories. Doubtless his clear adulation of Virgil comes into play here, but I wonder if it also prefigures the rising interest in the Classics of the coming Renaissance.

I read Inferno both as part of Richard’s readalong, and also for my own Personal Great Books challenge. This was certainly a “great” book to begin my search for an answer to what makes a book great—in my musings over it, it is not hard for me to agree that it is indeed one of the classics, and deserves to still be read. Better yet, after 34 cantos of Dante, I really want to read Virgil’s Aeneid now.