Nel mezzo del cammin...

Monday, 7/27/20 at 8:23 PM
1   Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
2   mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
3   ché la diritta via era smarrita.

4   Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
5   esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
6   che nel pensier rinova la paura!

7   Tant’ è amara che poco è più morte;
8   ma per trattar del ben ch’i’ vi trovai,
9   dirò de l’altre cose ch’i’ v’ho scorte.

10   Io non so ben ridir com’ i’ v’intrai,
11   tant’ era pien di sonno a quel punto
12   che la verace via abbandonai.

13   Ma poi ch’i’ fui al piè d’un colle giunto,
14   là dove terminava quella valle
15   che m’avea di paura il cor compunto,

16   guardai in alto, e vidi le sue spalle
17   vestite già de’ raggi del pianeta
18   che mena dritto altrui per ogne calle.

Today I am quite glad to read the opening lines of Dante’s Inferno, after having compared various translations of the first couple of tercets. It seems clear to me that the better ones, i.e. the ones I personally prefer, are written in a simpler style, are as clear as the original, which I can slowly comprehend by way of my reading ability in Spanish. Right now, Hollander’s translation seems best.

DanteLongfellowCiardiMusaHollanderMandelbaumMaria Micó
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vitaMidway upon the journey of our lifeMidway in our life’s journey, I went astrayMidway along the journey of our lifeMidway in the journey of our lifeWhen I had journeyed half our life’s way,A mitad del camino de la vida,
mi ritrovai per una selva oscuraI found myself within a forest dark,from the straight road and woke to find myselfI woke to find myself in a dark wood,I came to myself in a dark wood,I found myself within a shadowed forest,me hallé perdido en una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.For the straightforward pathway had been lost.alone in a dark wood. How shall I sayfor I had wandered off from the straight path.for the straight way was lost.for I had lost the path that does not stray.porque me extravié del buen camino.
Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa duraAh me! how hard a thing it is to saywhat wood that was! I never saw so drear,How hard it is to tell what it was like,Ah, how hard it is to tellAh, it is hard to speak of what it wasEs tan difícil relatar cómo era
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forteWhat was this forest savage, rough, and stern,so rank, so arduous a wilderness!this wood of wilderness, savage and stubbornthe nature of that wood, savage, dense and harsh—that savage forest, dense and difficult,esta selva salvaje, áspera y ardua,
che nel pensier rinova la paura!Which in the very thought renews the fear.Its very memory gives a shape to fear.(the thought of it brings back all my old fears),the very thought of it renews my fear!which even in recall renews my fear:que al recordarlo vuelvo a sentir miedo.

Dante (1320); Longfellow (1867); Ciardi (1954); Musa (1984); Hollander (2012); Mandelbaum (1982); Maria Micó (2018)

I have a hard time sympathizing with Mandelbaum’s translation, it’s the least faithful. The third line’s negation is especially strange, “the path that does not stray.” The poem reads okay on its own, but I think translations should generally be read and evaluated as translations, meaning as para-texts which exist in close relation to the original.

I don’t know why Maria Micó leaves out the “nostra.” That word seems particularly important. Or why “perdido” gets added in the second line. The “buen” makes sense, for metrical purposes. I am noting the translation of “forte” into “ardua.” It could just be “fuerte,” no? It’s interesting to see what English words got picked in its place: “stern”, “rank”, “stubborn”, “dense.” Not so easy.

I find many of Ciardi’s decisions curious, so it draws my attention:

  • astray / from the straight road
  • woke…/wood.
  • Why “alone”?
  • Why “rank”?
  • Why “memory”?
  • Why “gives a shape to fear”?

Turns out that “rank” has a germanic root—and its primary definition is “strong and vigorous” (OED), though for me the first connotation was one of a bad smell. It’s not bad, better than “stern” and “stubborn” to my eyes, and more semantically aligned with “dense” if you look at the etymology. Moreover, it’s a word pertaining to ships.1

The enjambment between the third and fourth lines, which I initially questioned, is a consequence of his decision to render the beginning as “Midway in our life’s journey,"—more idiomatic to English, and thus a daring and good modification I would say. But is it worth the subsequent modifications? Not sure, but I like Ciardi’s composition overall. The stuttering rhymes between “astray” and “straight”, “woke” and “wood” are actually features of a searching tone, which I like. It’s a sneaky way of incorporating the end rhyme in the Italian without rendering clunky English. Maybe the primary issue with rhyme in English is that it needn’t be line-final.

Longfellow and Musa do well with the original, but are overshadowed by Hollander. There’s a bit of a battle between Longfellow, Musa, and Hollander in terms of the preposition, “upon”/“along”/“in”. I prefer “in”; “upon” has a nice ring to it but is also the most strange. I prefer translations which render an exclamation point or two; not sure what the point of the parenthetical is for Musa. I don’t like the addition of “woke” either. Longfellow’s “forest dark” and “forest savage” sounds obviously unidiomatic, but has its charm. Sometimes it’s good to draw the reader’s attention to the artifice of translation. I would rank Longfellow’s above Musa’s.

Finally, I am a bit curious about Hollander’s choice of “came” instead of “found”.

That’s all for now.

Edit: I just got two other translations from the library!

Ciaran Carson does some things with rhyme—

Halfway through the story of my life  
I came to in a gloomy wood, because  
I'd wandered off the path, away from the light.

It's hard to put words to what that wood was;  
I shudder even now to think of it,  
so wild and rough and tortured were its ways;  

and death might well be its confederate  
in bitterness; yet all the good I owe  
to it, and what else I saw there, I'll relate.

How I got into it, I still don't know,  
for I was well upon my way to sleep  
before I ever left the straight and narrow.

Pinsky also adheres more closely to terza rima

Midway on our life's journey, I found myself  
In dark woods, the right road lost. To tell  
About those woods is hard–so tangled and rough  

And savage that thinking of it now, I feel  
The old fear stirring: death is hardly more bitter.  
And yet, to treat the good I found there as well  

I'll tell what I saw, though how I came to enter  
I cannot well say, being so full of sleep  
Whatever moment it was I began to blunder  

Off the true path. But when I came to stop  
Bellow a hill that marked one end of the valley  
That had pierced my heart with terror

Carson’s is a bit odd, for instance—

so was the lake of fear in me subdued
a little, that had festered like a cyst (19-20)

In Dante’s words,
Allor fu la pura un poco queta
che nel lago del cor m’era durata

(Nothing about cysts here.)

Tired limbs somewhat relieved, onwards I pressed
across the wasteland, one foot firmly set
below the other in iambic stress. (27-30)

Poi ch’èi posato un poco il corpo lasso,
ripresi via per la piaggia diserta,
sì che ‘l piè fermo sempre era ‘l più basso.

“So that the firm foot was always the one below”

I do find this enjoyable to read, however it strays. The introduction has some fine images:

The deeper I got into the Inferno, the more I walked. Hunting for a rhyme, trying to construe a turn of phrase, I'd leave the desk and take to the road, lines ravelling and unravelling in my mind. Usually, I'd head for the old Belfast Waterworks, a few hundred yards away from where I live. The north end of the Waterworks happens to lie on one of Belfast's sectarian fault lines. [...] As I write, I can hear the ratchety interference in the distance; and, not for the first time, I imagine being airborne in the helicopter, like Dante's riding on the flying monster Geryon, looking down into the darkness of that place in Hell called Maleboge. 'Rings of ditches, moats, trenches, fosses/military barriers on every side': I see a map of North Belfast, its no-go zones and tattered flags, the blackened side-streets, cul-de-sacs and bits of wasteland stitched together by dividing walls and fences. For all the blank abandoned spaces it feels claustrophobic, cramped and medieval. Not as beautiful as Florence, perhaps, but then Florence is 'the most damned of Italian cities, wherein there is place neither to sit, stand, or walk,' according to Ezra Pound. And we see again the vendetta-stricken courtyards and surveillance towers of Dante's birthplace, where everyone is watching everyone, and there is little room for manoeuvre.

Will make a new post when I get through more.
Meanwhile, I recommend Columbia’s Digital Dante site for easy side-by-side reading.

  1. And therefore wood, wooden beams, and the forests from which wood is sourced. Here’s the OED etymology: “Cognate with Middle Dutch ranc thin, slender, lank (Dutch rank ), Middle Low German rank slim, slender, (of a ship) heeling, listing ( > German rank slim, slender (17th cent.)), Old Icelandic rakkr straight, slender, upright, courageous, bold, Swedish rank tall and slender, unsteady, Old Danish, Danish rank erect, upright, slender, proud, fearless, independent, (of a ship) inclined to heel, list, or capsize; probably ultimately < a variant (with nasal infix) of the Indo-European base of right adj. An ablaut variant of the same base is probably shown by rink n.1” (OED, “rank, adj. and adv.") ↩︎

Tags: dante inferno translation