The Mystery of Translation

Tate, London
William Blake: Dante and Virgil Approaching the Angel Who Guards the Entrance of Purgatory, 1824–1827

Around 1990 Daniel Halpern wrote to invite me to contribute to a translation project that he was beginning to assemble, asking a number of contemporary poets to translate two cantos each of Dante’s Inferno. I told him that I had said for years that there were degrees in the impossibility of translating poetry, and that Dante, the real, unique life of Dante’s Commedia, could not be conjured into English. Dan did not take that for an answer, but said, “Take a while to consider.” Then he baited the hook by saying, “If you did decide to do it, which cantos would you choose?”

As I pondered Dan’s question, I thought of a passage in the twenty-sixth canto of the Inferno, which I had read, in translation, when I was eighteen, and which had seized me then and led me into the rest of Dante, and to the Temple Classics volumes I carried, for years, in my pockets. It was Odysseus’ speech, his reply to Virgil out of the flame he shared with Diomedes, drifting in the dark void. Virgil had asked him where he had gone to die, after his return to Ithaca, and the voice said that nothing, not his love for his wife or for his son or for his kingdom, his native place, could keep him in Ithaca, and that he had assembled a crew of his old comrades-in-arms and set out to sail farther, exploring parts of the world that were still unknown to them. They had voyaged as far as the western end of the Mediterranean, and “those pillars,” he said, “which Hercules had set up as landmarks” warning humans to go no farther.

There, the voice said, he had turned to his crew and made the speech that had mesmerized me when I first heard it in translation. The words, in Dante’s Italian, began: “Io e i compagni eravam vecchi e tardi.” In the Temple Classics edition, the John Aitken Carlyle translation read: “I and my companions were old and tardy,” and from the beginning I wondered about that “tardy.” While I was still a student I read the John D. Sinclair translation (1939) in which the word is translated as “slow.” I was dubious about that word too. “Slow” and “tardy” were literal renderings, but it seemed to me that they missed a point of Odysseus’ (and so of Dante’s) speech. In the Charles S. Singleton translation (1970), a masterful work of scholarly research, again the word was “slow.”

Each time I had read the translations I had taken my doubts away with me; I had done no more than that, since I did not intend to try to make a translation of my own. But this time I paused to consider how I might translate…

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