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Shall We Dante?

In response to:

Giants in Dwarfs' Jackets from the December 20, 1984 issue

To the Editors:

In D.S. Carne-Ross’s rather venomous review [NYR, December 20, 1984] of Allen Mandelbaum’s translation of Dante’s Paradiso (venomous in the approach gentle followed by the pounce deadly; venomous in pointing out many faults and skipping all virtues in the huge work), there are a number of points one would like to challenge. Given the limitations of space and study-time, I shall confine myself to one: the curious view that John Ciardi is the superior translator. It all depends, I suppose, on what lapses one can overlook and which ones make one’s blood boil.

Mr. Carne-Ross begins his comparison of the two by citing Paradiso II, 31–42 in both versions. Let me repeat them together with Dante’s text for checking:

Pareva a me che nube ne coprisse Lucida, spessa, solida e polita, Quasi adamante che lo sol ferisse.
Per entro sè l’eterna margarita Ne recepette, com’acqua recepe Raggio di luce, permanendo unita.
S’io ero corpo, e qui non si concepe Com’una dimension altra patio, Ch’esser convien se corpo in corpo repe,
Accender ne dovrìa più il disio Di veder quella Essenza in che si vede Come nostra natura e Dio s’unìo.

It seemed to me that we were covered by
a brilliant, solid, dense, and stainless cloud,
much like a diamond that the sun has struck. Into itself, the everlasting pearl
received us, just as water will accept
a ray of light and yet remain intact. If I was body (and on earth we can
not see how things material can share
one space—the case, when body enters body), then should the longing be still more inflamed
to see that Essence in which we discern
how God and human nature were made one.
(Mandelbaum) It seemed to me a cloud as luminous and dense and smoothly polished as a diamond struck by a ray of sun enveloped us.
We were received into the elements of the eternal pearl as water takes light to itself, with no change in its substance.
If I was body (nor need we in this case conceive how one dimension can bear another, which must be if two bodies fill one space)
the more should my desire burn like the sun
to see that essence in which one may see how human nature and God blend into one.

Of Mandelbaum’s lines Mr. Carne-Ross says only “a shade humdrum…here and there rather awkward.” Of Ciardi’s version he has nothing to say. But I do; and some comparisons. I note that in line 36 the intent of Dante’s permanendo unita (remaining unified) is missed entirely. The phrase has nothing to say about “substance.” The image of water unshattered by light is there to suggest the inviolability of the heaven, which foreshadows the inviolability of God as we are to see it in Canto XXXIII. If liberties are to be taken in such lines as this, they must convey their meaning. Mandelbaum conveys it. In line 37 Ciardi makes a garble of qui non si concepe (here one does not conceive). The sense is simple and essential and again Mandelbaum knows and conveys it. In line 40, where the text says disio (desire), Ciardi says “my desire.” His “like the sun” is not present in Dante: it fills out a short line. His final line appears to miss Dante’s point altogether, by ignoring the past tense and the simplicity of the verb s’unto. Here again Mandelbaum gives us Dante’s meaning with appropriate diction.

Further on in his review Carne-Ross, taking Mandelbaum to task for what indeed is an unfortunate epithet in “Pay honor to the estimable poet” (Inferno, IV, 80) wisely refrains from referring us to the same passage in Ciardi, where we would have read

Honor the Prince of Poets, the soul and glory
that went from us returns. He is here! He is here!

where both the glory and the two exclamations are the translator’s inventions. Indeed, Ciardi never hesitates to revise and embellish Dante to fill out a pentameter. The reader may want to see what he has done to three famous passages: Inferno V, 127ff (Francesca’s narrative), Purgatorio XXIV, 52–54 (Dante’s self-definition), and Purgatorio XXX, 55–57 (Beatrice’s first words).

Mr. Carne-Ross derides Mandelbaum’s metrics, but seems to swallow Ciardi’s. It is true, of course, that pentameter lords it in both translations (not difficult to see why), and that both struggle to escape, each in its own way, the terrible temptation of iambics. Mr. Carne-Ross knows as well as anyone the problems a translator must face in trying to render many-syllabled Italian in clipped English, yet he treats every slightest padding or repetition in Mandelbaum as though it were a lapse of taste, while on the other hand he tolerates Ciardi’s inexcusable and often ludicrous interpolations. He acknowledges no dignity or elegance or any felicity at all in Mandelbaum’s work. Worst of all, in the dogged consistency of his fault-finding he leaves the impression that he sets little value on those underlying, indirectly presented meanings and pressures which determine the character of Dante’s poem and the bent of Mandelbaum’s translation.

Irma Brandeis

Bard College

Annandale-on-Hudson, New York

D.S Carne-Ross replies:

Irma Brandeis’s defense of Mandelbaum, and indirectly perhaps of herself since she contributed to the chorus of unseemly praise from which I quoted (“marvelously good, and a joy to read aloud”), takes the odd form of an attack on Ciardi—as though I had lavished on his version of Dante’s poem the sort of commendation which she and others saw fit to lavish on Mandelbaum’s. I did nothing of the sort. If I had to read Dante in English I would always go to Binyon, but his translation is so far superior to Mandelbaum’s that any comparison would have been absurd, so I went instead to Ciardi’s more modest, decent performance. Not a masterpiece, but well enough written to allow one to read on without being continually distracted by the translator’s infelicities.

To complain, as Brandeis does, that Ciardi fails to render the full sense of the original here and there misses the thrust of my review, which is no great matter. What does matter is the misunderstanding about the nature of translation which her letter reveals. She is evidently one of those, all too common in the academic community, who believe that bad or at best mediocre verse is an acceptable stand-in for great poetry so long as it provides the point-for-point correspondence to the original which allows the instructor to hold forth. For that, you must go to a straight prose version, which in the case of Dante means Singleton or the Temple Classics edition. A poetic translation is always going to take its liberties, of omission, addition, substitution. It must do so to live. However fine Mandelbaum’s understanding of Dante may be (Freccero seemed rather less convinced of this), he simply does not write well enough, as I tried to show, to carry a major text. One may recall Ernest Newman’s Wagnerian tenor who understood the role of Tristan perfectly but unfortunately had very little voice.

Brandeis’s position is too far from my own to make argument fruitful. She has in mind the classroom situation where monoglot students must be conned into believing that the tawdry paperback they are studying is “really” by Dante or Sophocles or whoever, a practice that plants a lie in their souls and is calculated to deaden whatever native sense of poetry, of language, they may possess. I was writing with the general reader in mind (who may sometimes be a student), someone who cares for poetry and lacking languages must rely on translation. If he wants to read Dante, he had best go to Binyon, but since Binyon’s English is sometimes as difficult and contorted as Dante’s Italian, he may prefer Ciardi. If he is wise enough to check the translation against a good prose crib, something essential will come across.

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