Friday, June 3, 2011

Una selva oscura

This morning I paid the princely sum of $10 for this new book:

I was halfway to the bookshop counter, wallet at the ready, very possibly with Casey's recent lovely post about Dante in the back of my mind and thinking $10 was a really good deal for one of the great classics of literature, even if I did have to read it in unsatisfactory translation (for I've never seen a translation of the opening three lines that seemed to me exactly right, and I don't even speak or read Italian, but I know what I like), when I idly opened it at random to check the print size and found to my great joy that what I was about to pay a pittance for was a parallel text, with Dante's exquisite, lucid, singing Italian -- late-medieval vernacular Italian and therefore linguistically at two removes from me, and yet somehow available to instinctive reading -- opposite the translation.

Five years of excellent teaching and intermittent hard slog at Adelaide Girls' High back in the mists of time has left me with the ability to nut out a little bit of German and quite a lot of French if it is put in front of me, but such Italian as has sunk in, ie almost none (though I still remember the Italian for the first phrase I ever consciously learned: Posso provarlo? 'May I try this on?') has done so by accident and through some sort of process of osmosis.

But it strikes me, not for the first time, that this verse is so beautiful one could teach oneself Italian simply by studying a page of this book a day. A dark wood, in which one has lost one's way: can you think of a better metaphor for middle age?

...Françoise sat down beside me with a volume of Dante and construed a few lines of the 'Inferno' to begin showing me how the language worked. 'Per mi si va tra la perduta gente' - 'Through me you go among the lost people'. A line that crushed the heart, but in the middle you could say 'tra la'. It was music.
– Clive James, Falling Towards England

The opening lines likewise crush the heart -- 'In the middle of this life we live, I realised that I was in a dark wood, and the path was lost.' Or words to that effect. Also words to crush the heart, but look at the paper (or whatever it is) that they were written on.

Cross-posted at Read, Think, Write


Legal Eagle said...

Oh beautiful post. That is all.

TimT said...

I'd probably understand the bits where Dante talks about 'staccato' this and 'pizzicato' that and 'presto prestissimo', (thanks to a decade of classical music training.) But apart from that he might as well have been writing in double Dutch.

I saw that first picture and thought 'it must be Rackham!' And indeed it was. I like Rackham. Great post. :)

Fyodor said...

Outstanding. Poetry always seems to translate especially badly relative to prose, particularly epic prose which relies so much upon archaic context. It's like rediscovering a text when you read it again in the original language and metre.

You can't go wrong with Dante - an imagination of genius. It's largely because of him that Italian is largely evolved from Tuscan dialect. Unlike most other national languages, the prestige dialect of "Italian" was literary - not commercial or political - in origin. Dante's linguistic impact arguably surpassed that of any other writer bar Shakespeare.

Marshall Stacks said...

Bravo Penguini bello. Molto grande value per $10.

Lost in a dark wood indeed, as Clive James reported unwell recently.
emails with Hitchens must be poignant.

Mitzi G Burger said...

Posso leggerlo?

Casey said...

When you get to Canto V, watch how Francesca slightly changes the story of Lancelot and Guinevere.

persiflage said...

I think with Dante you need to use a number of translations, as they each add to the understanding.I like Dorothy L Sayers' translation too - she sticks to the terza rima, no mean feat.
My Italian class is slowly wending its way through l'Inferno. We use this edition. I did not know it can come out in the cheap edition.
Those opening lines never lose their impact, and never fail to make us share the anguish of the selva oscura and the via smarrita.

Casey said...

Hi Persiflage, I have Dorothy Sayers' edition, however I don't think it translates too well into terza rima in English, in my opinion. Mark Musa's is really easy to understand. What I found best was the three together, - the orignal Italian, Musa's and Sayers. Who translated yours Pav?

Emily said...

I studied Italian for four years because I knew from experience that translations from one language to another lose so much.
Even equipped with the language it was still difficult to grasp what the meaning might have been when reading poetry. I have a number of books of poetry which have an English translation (purchased at the Italian Book Shop in Carlton, Vic) which I read through, assisted by my faithful companion "Oxford Paravia - Italian Dictionary" (expensive at $120.00 at the time but well worth the investment). Even so, I always came away with a sense of frustration that with parallel texts there were gaps in my understanding that couldn't be filled.
I'm going off to buy a copy of the book you have written about and look forward to a Sunday reading which will be both pleasurable and frustrating.

skepticlawyer said...

The Dorothy L Sayers translation is excellent and accurate (I speak Italian), but terza rima inevitably sounds a bit 'jingly' in English, no matter how skilled the translation. Part of the problem is that 'showing off' in English poetry, with its few natural rhymes, involves use of our masculine endings, whereas in Latin (particularly) and Italian (to a degree) a good poet showed skill by eschewing rhyme and working with metre (all those feminine endings, you see).

Dante broke this mould, as (to a degree) did the Roman writers Apuleius and Sulpicia, but the fundamental structural differences in English poetry make this difficult to convey. Mind you, Sayers's treatment of the eighth circle (the barrators) is sublime and very funny -- just as it is in the original.

BTW, doorbitch=demoli

persiflage said...

I agree, Casey, that some of the rhymes are quite awkward and just don't sound good.
We use the parallel text edition which has evidently been brought out in the $10 edition, translated by Robin Kirkpatrick.
Re SL's explanation about the masculine endings in English - had not realised this, so thanks.
I think that of the various translations of the opening of the first Canto I like Sayers' translation the best.

Anonymous said...

You want a great "translation" (as it were) of the Inferno?

Check out Sandow Birk. 'nuff said.
And not just the filmlet he made with (I think) Paul Zaloom, but his whole original... erm, what's the word? -- "graphic novel"? ...cette phrase n'est pas bien juste -- well anyway as they say, seeing is believing.

He's doing the same thing now with another, um, epic piece of writing. I've seen some of it in its original pages and it's astounding.

Check out the Koplin-Del Rio Gallery site in Culver City (really Los Angeles) CA for more Dante-and-others artsy goodness.

-- signed, the artist formerly known as japerz

The Divorced Lady's Companion to Living in Italy said...

This is a great and true post. The best is when you can swim through another language and join the current, shedding your own language and the very need to translate. The other day my daughter sang an aria from Handel's Rinaldo,

Lascia che io pianga
La mia cruda sorte

The words are so much more of a lament in Italian than in English!