Translating Dante’s Terza Rima: Second Post

Translating Dante’s Terza Rima: Second Post

I need to add a little to previous post on translating the Divine Comedy. Many readers will think that I’ve been unnecessarily harsh on Clive James, {1} who, with the help of his wife, a distinguished authority on Dante studies, has tried to give us something more than the usual smoothly-polished narrative. That may be true. Indeed he says:

(Dante is the greatest exemplar in literary history of the principle advanced by Vernon Watkins, and much approved of by Philip Larkin, that good poetry doesn’t just rhyme at the end of the lines, it rhymes all along the line.) Especially in modern times, translators into English have tended to think that if this interior intensity can be duplicated, the grand structure of the terzina, or some equivalent rhymed framework, can be left out. And so it can, often with impressive results, each passage transmuted into very compressed English prose. But that approach can never transmit the full intensity of “The Divine Comedy”, which is notable for its overall onward drive as much as for its local density of language.

I think that’s an argument for the lines being proper verse rather than compressed prose, that they indeed use assonance, alliteration, cadences, phonetic patterning and all the skills that his own version singularly lacks. But, passing over many questionable statements – e.g. Much as he worshipped Virgil, Dante was better at  a reinforcing it (balance of tempo and texture) than his master: which is probably the journalist’s vivid generalisation, though unwise and unnecessary here – James does say:

You have to look within. The Italian 11-syllable line feels a bit like our standard English iambic pentameter and therefore tends to mislead you into thinking  that the terzina, the recurring unit of three lines, has a rocking regularity.  But Dante isn’t thinking of regularity in the first instance any more than he is thinking of rhyme, which is too easy in Italian to be thought a technical challenge: in fact for an Italian poet it’s not rhyming that’s hard.

A few points. The comparative lack of English rhyme words is not necessarily a handicap. As Dryden remarked, rhyme constrains and guides the poet’s imagination. Verse practitioners live in a vast echo chamber of words, phrases and lines, and there is little that they can’t or won’t pour out on occasion. Rhyme helps to keep that exuberance in check. Rhyme is also the ‘wild card’, the joker, linking words that have no logical connection. It practiced hands, rhyme adds a semantic thickening, therefore, and sometimes a note of spontaneity, however hard the writing was in fact.

But James is right, of course, in saying that Italian verse is not English. It doesn’t look or sound the same: {2}

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
  mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
  che’ la diritta via era smarrita.

Ahi quanto a dir qual era e` cosa dura
  esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
  che nel pensier rinova la paura!

Tant’e` amara che poco e` piu` morte;
  ma per trattar del ben ch’i’ vi trovai,
  diro` de l’altre cose ch’i’ v’ho scorte.

Io non so ben ridir com’i’ v’intrai,
  tant’era pien di sonno a quel punto
  che la verace via abbandonai.

Different rules of scansion apply, {3} and even the non-Italian speaker can pick out the assonance and varied pacing in:

 Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita

The lift to and break after ritrovai in:

  mi ritrovai per una selva oscura

And the repeating ‘itta’ which closes the stanza in:

che’ la diritta via era smarrita.

But the real points at issue are:

1. How much of this texture can and should be brought over in an English translation?

2. Is the English pentameter too ample (i.e. loose) for the concise Italian text?

The second is easier to answer. There is little hope of translating closely in tetrameters rhymed aba bcb, etc. because the line is too short to make the word rearrangements necessary. But if we take last post’s unrhymed version:

In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself within a shadowed wood
in which the straight way through was wholly lost.

How hard it is to say what I retain
of that fierce forest, savage, stern and rough.
The mere remembering of it wakens fear,

and speaks of bitterness as unto death.
But also of great goodnesses I found
and will relate in other things I saw.

I do not rightly know how there emerged
such apparitions, or my slumber came
to make me err and leave the narrow path.

And compress this to tetrameters, we get:

Mid through the journey of our life
I woke within a threatening wood,
the straight way there both dark and lost.

How hard  to say what I retain
of that fierce forest, stern and rough.
To think of it now brings on fear,

and bitterness as unto death.
But I will speak of good as well
and of the things I also saw.

I do not know what brought me there,
or how some slumber came to make
me err and leave the narrow way.

Much better, I’d have thought, and in three respects. First, it cuts out the padding, all the earlier words that were not pulling their weight. Secondly, it’s closer to the original verse texture of the Italian. Thirdly, and most important, it imparts a forward-driving energy to the story. There are many beauties in Dante’s work but he doesn’t usually let them get in the way of the narrative.

Now the first question: what can we do to carry over verse features of the original? In one sense very little: we cannot duplicate Dante’s individual felicities because the words in English aren’t the same, and indeed are read by different rules. But we can make or find equivalent felicies in the English verse, remembering a. that we’re working within the English tradition of verse appreciation, and b. the effects should reinforce what Dante is really saying – when it’s time to immerse ourselves in the many centuries of Dante scholarship. We’d want to know, for example, whether the dark wood stood for human ignorance, or simple absence of God, whether the straight way had the usual Biblical meaning, and if ‘bitterness as unto death’ was an intimation of our mortality. But, leaving those aside (probably to be adjusted as our understanding of the poem grew in the translation process) for the moment, we could at least add a few improvements.

When past the mid point of our life
I woke within a threatening wood,
the straight way through it lost in dark.

How hard  to say what I retain
of that fierce forest, wild and rough.
The mere remembering brings on fear

and bitterness foreshadowing death,
but I will speak of good as well
and of the other things I saw.

I do not know what brought me there,
or if some slumber came to make
me err and leave the narrow path,

And add a few more stanzas: the form is easy to write:

but at the foot of higher ground,
just where the valley petered out
that once with terror pierced my heart,

I saw the overlooking slopes
were lit with rays from that great sun
that guides us on our joyful path.

My fear was then a little stilled,
and in the waters of my heart
the life returned from that hard night

as one who is exhausted, turns
to see the perils of the deep sea waves
from safety of the blissful shore.

In this my thoughts, though fleeting on,
were backward veering to the gate
that guards our course beyond the grave.

My body, in indifferent shape,
toiled on and up that bare ascent,
though feet held steady with the weight.

Not far from where the slope grew steep,
I saw a Leopard, lean and swift,
its body showing mottled spots.

At my approach it did not move
but only glowered and threatened me,
that many times I turned on back.

It’s not terza rima: the feminine line endings and aba bcb rhyme schemes are missing. But it does have energy and sinewy strength, and would make translation of the Divine Comedy’s 14,000 odd lines a manageable task.

In conclusion, the previous post was something of a red herring. I gave three translation versions, and none proved to be what was needed. I apologize for the excursion, but it was the journey my own researches took. As the exercise may demonstrate, it’s often wiser to simply try and see – which makes a lot of theorizing in poetry rather suspect, particularly if the theorists lack the poet’s gifts and sensibilites.

A last point: why have tetrameters not been adopted before if they are so much more suited to the task, and quick to write? For two reasons, I suspect. Because tetrameters are traditionally used for lyric compositions in English, and generally rhymed abab: Dante’s work is very different. Secondly, they are rather ‘plain’, without the richer patterning possible with the pentameter. That’s perhaps why Dorothy L. Sayers undertook her long labour of love, even if the result was radically unlike the original.

To summarize, though it’s possible to write an acceptable terza rima translation of the Divine Comedy (which I add below to illustrate), we shouldn’t get too hung up on one aspect only of the verse: the content is more important than the outward form. The pentamic terza rima strays from the simple sense of the original:

The mid-part of our life already crossed
I found myself within a wood that bore
no path, the straight way into darkness lost.

How hard to speak of it. The forest wore
an aspect so severe and threatening
that mere remembering brings fear once more,

with premonition of death’s bitter sting.
But there was goodness too, and I shall tell
of sights encountered there in everything.

I know not where I found myself, nor well
remember when such sleep had fallen, nor
how erring from the narrow path befell,

but looked, and from the mountain foot then saw
just where the valley ended that had filled
my heart with so much dread, the shoulder wore

a mantling with the evening light, which spilled
its rays above, alive with that bright sun
which guides us readily, where we have willed

to be. At this my lake of fear begun
to be less troubled, and I felt depart
the terror that had so much overrun

my piteous state the previous night. My heart
grew lighter, thankful, like as one from waves
who still looks back to where those dangers start.

So was my mind, and as a fugitive behaves,
turned back to look again on that last gate
that closes off our lives beyond their graves.

My body, being rested from its wearied state,
at last resumed its upward toiling course,
my footsteps steady under mounting weight -

when, just where gradient rose, with added force,
I saw a Leopard waiting, lean and fast,
with spots dark tufted over, fierce and coarse.

At my approach it did not move, but cast
its menaces. Though many times I tried
avoiding it, always I turned back at last.


1. Clive James on Translating Dante. The Telegraph. July, 2013.

2. La Divina Commedia di Dante Alighieri. Gutenberg.

3. Translating Leopardi I.

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