Giants in Dwarfs’ Jackets

Paradiso: The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, Book 3 commentary by

a new verse translation with introduction and Allen Mandelbaum
University of California Press, 307 pp., $29.95

Translation becomes interesting once it transcends what is now taken to be its primary function, that of providing those who don’t have the original with a substitute text. This remains and has always been an essential service, a difficult but relatively humble one. Translation shows its paces when it is addressed to those who already have the original and want not a substitute but an alternative text, one that draws its guiding impulse from the original while taking on a partially independent, critically hazardous life of its own. The liberties this involves are in order only with a work in the public domain, a classic; with contemporary writing we normally want as straight a rendering as we can get.

Translation of this sort, standing beside rather than standing in for its original, has a more than literary importance. It tells us something about the state of our culture: how far we can respond intellectually and emotionally to the great works of our tradition, old and new. Are whole ranges of experience becoming almost inaccessible or already out of reach? We learn something too about the state of the language. Is there room in today’s diminished speech for the larger utterance, the lexical daring, the sheer outrageousness, of the major classic? It is like trying to put a mad giant in a dwarf’s straitjacket, as Christopher Middleton has observed.

And the alternative translation serves another purpose. By making a work from the past present again and giving it not necessarily a contemporary but a living voice, it asserts that the classic texts belong in the world, not in the library, and are not the exclusive property of scholars in the several “fields.” They are addressed to all those who read literature for pleasure rather than study it for professional reasons. With a classic that still arouses genuine interest, there is often a marked divergence between the faces it presents to the learned and the lay. Dante provides as good an example as any. For there are now two Dantes. There is the Dante who the English poet and translator Charles Sisson claims is, with Catullus, “the best possible master for the writer of verse in our century,” the Dante considered by a good many literary people (on grounds that perhaps bear looking into) the best poet who ever lived. This is the Dante of Eliot’s famous essay and Pound’s lifelong devotion, the poet who supremely realized the Imagist call for “direct presentation of ‘the thing,’ ” and used no word not contributing to the presentation.

There is also—very little touched by what goes on in the literary world—the Dante of the academy, the Dante whose world view has been uncovered in our time and has provided so rich a vein for scholarly exploration and exegesis. Consult the extensive bibliographies to Professor Singleton’s three volumes of commentary on the Divine Comedy and you will not find the names of Eliot or, needless to say, of Pound. What light can they throw…

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