The one I'll let take me through hell

{ Tuesday, June 17, 2008 }

Today's lesson is: when you want to read poetry in translation, don't read the version by the best translator. Read the version by the best poet.

I started reading The Inferno this week. Now, I've had a beautiful Italian copy for years and had been slogging through it a verse at a time, intermittently. Finally I decided I just wanted to read the thing, my intellectual machismo be hanged, and picked up two translations from the library to read side by side with the original.

Go get it: the Ciaran Carson version is the best thing out there. (I know there are quibblers over that first verse. See me after class. We can discuss.) His is the only one that has the punch, the street familiarity, the muscular rhythms and short words of the original.

Here's Carson, from the unforgettable and goosebumpey Canto 13:

"It's like this. When the suicidal spirit
rips itself away from the roots of its body,
Minos hurls it to the seventh pit."
And on the same lines here's Robert Pinsky:
"When the fierce soul has quit the fleshly case
It tore itself from, Minos sends it down
To the seventh depth. It falls to this wooded place--"

You get the idea. Carson's is the only Dante that sounds like a real person talking. His has personality -- you know when his Dante is afraid or curious or overwhelmed or full of himself. Everyone else's Dante sounds like a velvet-clad courtier carrying a chore of words like a heavy amber necklace on a pillow. And I say, what's the point?

What's the point of Ye Olde Tyme language and improbable constructions? To reiterate that Dante's Italian is archaic? To hang onto the terza rima rhyme scheme, even at the cost of making sense? What's the point of a completely elegant translation that smothers the story?

Because let me tell you. This is a page turner. I am in Canto 18 ("There is a neighborhood in Hell, called Malebolge...") and cannot wait to see who is being tormented how and why and what they have to say about it.

So seriously. Whether or not you ever imagined yourself reading this book, go get the Ciaran Carson translation. If you don't I am just going to have to read the whole thing to you. It's that much fun. Don't believe me?
"Just then, a demon beat him with his lash.
'Away, you greasy pimp, away,' he cried,
'you'll get no women here to sell for cash!'"

Just go get it please.


Burning Prairie said...

Oh, I don't know, I like the Pinsky version, spoke to a certain dark space in my soul. Anyway, thanks for dropping by, glad you enjoyed my post!

ann pai said...

Dark space? I've been too hasty! Dark space. OK. Those are words to hook me. Now you've got me reading the Pinsky after I finish the Carson... and at least it's double-text... can you recommend a translation of the Purgatorio?

Burning Prairie said...

You might try this one Pinsky even recommends it. But I need to be honest here, Dante was never my favorite, I was comparing the examples you pulled out. When it comes to translations of any kind, Italian poets, dreary Russians, Bibles, what have you, I don't care for the translators who try to make these florid originals "fit in" with today's manner of speaking and writing. We still read Milton and Shakespeare in all their original glory. And I would hate to think what Jackie Collins would do with, say, Edith Wharton if given the chance. Hew as close to the original flavor as possible, always, and you can't go wrong.

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