How to Read Dante in the 21st Century

Dante-hellJoseph Luzzi at The American Scholar:

Part of the problem lies in the difficulty that Dante poses for English translation. He wrote in an intensely idiomatic, rhyme-rich Tuscan with a surging terza rima meter that gives the poem its galloping energy—a unique rhythm that’s difficult to reproduce in rhyme-poor English separated from Dante’s local vernacular by centuries. The content of Dante’s writing presents an even bigger problem. Unlike the other author he supposedly shared the world with, Shakespeare, Dante was self-consciously scholarly and intellectual, filling his verses with allusions to ancient, biblical, and contemporary medieval writing, and tackling a range of theological, philosophical, political, and historical issues. And then there are all those characters! From Inferno 1 to Paradiso 33, scores of different literary personae—some real, some invented, some famous, some obscure—take the stage to plead their case or expound on their joy before the autobiographical character Dante as he journeys from hell to heaven. So in order to “get” Dante, a translator has to be both a poet and a scholar, attuned to the poet’s vertiginous literary experimentalism as well as his superhuman grasp of cultural and intellectual history. This is why one of the few truly successful English translations comes from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a professor of Italian at Harvard and an acclaimed poet. He produced one of the first complete, and in many respects still the best, English translations ofThe Divine Comedy in 1867. It did not hurt that Longfellow had also experienced the kind of traumatic loss—the death of his young wife after her dress caught fire—that brought him closer to the melancholy spirit of Dante’s writing, shaped by the lacerating exile from his beloved Florence in 1302. Longfellow succeeded in capturing the original brilliance of Dante’s lines with a close, sometimes awkwardly literal translation that allows the Tuscan to shine through the English, as though this “foreign” veneer were merely a protective layer added over the still-visible source. The critic Walter Benjamin wrote that a great translation calls our attention to a work’s original language even when we don’t speak that foreign tongue. Such extreme faithfulness can make the language of the translation feel unnatural—as though the source were shaping the translation into its own alien image. Longfellow’s English indeed comes across as Italianate: in surrendering to the letter and spirit of Dante’s Tuscan, he loses the quirks and perks of his mother tongue.

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