11/26 Daily What: Which Dante translation is the best one?

This is probably the Italian-scholarship question I get asked most often by people who are not Italian scholars. Well, actually, these days I also get asked a lot whether Ann Goldstein’s translations of Elena Ferrante are any good (they are). I think that when people ask about Dante’s Divina Commedia in English, they think I will have a straightforward answer ready for them, or at the very least a top three. What they get instead is more like “you have no idea what you’re asking, and I can’t WAIT to tell you!”

Here's the thing - it's really easy as a language geek to have bad things to say about translations. It's absurdly easy. I haven't read Ann Goldstein much, but I have certainly read passages and thought, well that's not how would do it. Seriously, though, who cares? Her translations are all New York Times bestsellers and I an a former academic who has a blog. I'm in a lucky position with my level of Italian and the extent to which I have studied it where I could spend all day poking holes in others' translations; a translation has to make constant, tiny (and sometimes less-tiny) choices, and I can identify the places where the translator chose X but I would on the other hand have excellent reasons for choosing Y and I know I am in the right. My reasons are the one that are important to me. When it comes to a text that has been translated multiple times, you’re seeing several different translators who are privileging different things and making different choices. The question isn’t so much “which is the best translation?” but rather “which translation should I read?”

Getting back to Dante - there are enough translations out there that I think translators should do something else with their time unless they have something really significant to say or to so with their translation that hasn't been said or done before. It's a high bar, and it should be, because how many more translations of Dante do we need? (this is why it is so hard to write a dissertation on Dante - the expectations are super high, the field is huge, your bibliography has to be massive and comprehensive or you will piss somebody off, and the chance that whatever you have to say is of little novelty or use is greater than you would like to think).

So why are you reading Dante? What do you want to get out of it? Are you seeking an experience? Is that experience more intellectual or more emotional? Do you need to know that what you are reading is as close as possible to the original in a direct-translation sense? Or are you a geek when it comes to poetic structure and do you get a kick out of reading a poem and saying, "wow, look what this chain of rhymes is doing, look at the stressed syllables in this tercet and see how they come together to tell me something really cool!"?

Your answer to that question is going to inform how you feel about the big question with Dante translations: does your translation need to rhyme like the original Commedia rhymes? I don't disagree with people who say that the structure of the Commedia is coequal with its content and therefore a translation that doesn’t also render the poetic structure is incomplete. Dante would have said so and serious scholars of Dante absolutely say so. But translating into English with structural integrity and pretty poetic language and accuracy? That’s hard, man. You are welcome to care about structural perfection in your translation, but know that not everyone does (even Italians reading it in the original), and the reason we have so many translations is because everyone who translates the text has different opinions about which choices are the important ones. I actually frequently recommend an English-Italian facing edition (Allen Mandelbaum’s translation is one I like for this reason) to people who are geeks and aren't in a hurry: looking at the Italian words alongside the English ones and getting a chance to at least see and touch the original while still reading a not-too-thorny translation will raise questions for you as you read. Some of those questions will absolutely be worth looking for answers to. If you want an intellectual journey, a facing edition is a good companion, and frankly better in my opinion than a strained English edition with rhyming tercets.

Something else to keep in mind is that Dante is hard to read, no matter what language you speak and what edition you read. That’s why scholars have had things to say about it and passages to argue to the death about for centuries. In college and even in graduate school, professors often tended to assign a translation that they didn't necessarily like (Robert Hollander, in my case) provided that it had a good critical apparatus, meaning useful and well-chosen footnotes. Literary criticism: another essential tool in reading difficult texts that quibbling over translation choices kind of misses the point of. Again, even readers of the original take liberal advantage of footnotes, because having access to different interpretations of a given passage is really illuminating. Also on that note, I find that reading about Dante (the good stuff at least) can be almost as edifying and fulfilling as reading the actual Dante. There's a book by Teodolinda Barolini called The Undivine Comedy that I think is superb, and in fact I might have decided to face the world and be a Dante scholar after all had I encountered it in grad school.

I'll just say one more thing: what I love about the Commedia is its active participation in the common idiom of Italian culture - you go to Porta Sole in Perugia (it's a lookout from which you can see the whole valley below, including Assisi) and you read verses 43-51 of Paradiso 11, in which Dante describes the birth of St Francis in this place (“nacque al mondo un sole” - there was born to the world a sun). Any translation will tell you the literal meaning of this passage, and there is nothing like actually standing in that spot and reading the words on the wall and thinking "oh, yeah, Dante was here, he was talking about this place right here." The knowledge of certain parts of the poem is a given, and people quote it as if it were a universal constant. I think that is so fucking cool. I want a translator who is really concerned with this ephemeral quality and cares about how to convey it in English.

Having said all that, I remember really liking a translation I read parts of in college, by Mark Musa. Not sure who published it or whether it's in print, but I remember doing an exercise in my Dante seminar with several translations where we assessed exactly these types of choices, and I thought this guy nailed it. But that’s just, like, my opinion, man.