With multiple translations come disagreements—different scholarly notes, interpretations, and even titles. But often what allows a translation itself to become a great work of literature can be determined by something as subtle as the phrasing of a single idea.
Lord Byron, the notorious English poet who died in 1824, at the age of thirty-six, toyed around with his own translation of a passage from the Inferno. The passage is in canto 5, in which Dante enters hell past Minos, and meets the carnal sinners. He comes across Francesca da Rimini, who was killed with her love, Paolo, after the two had an affair. Francesca, like many other characters in the Inferno, identifies herself first by some obscure trait—in her case, the river near which she was born. She tells Dante that she could not resist Paolo because love itself can sway the heart of a beloved. Indeed it is one of the most beautifully agonizing passages in the Inferno, and probably one of the most difficult to translate. After all, Byron picked it for a reason. In a way, Byron even presented readers with a sort of litmus test for determining the quality of a translation; in the way a translator engages such a passage, a reader can observe not only the translator’s precision, but his or her skill as a poet. Here is Byron’s:
The Land where I was born sits by the seas,
Upon that shore to which the Po descends,
With all his followers in search of peace.
Love, which the gentle heart soon apprehends,
Seized him for the fair person which was ta’en
From me, and me even yet the mode offends.
Love, who to none beloved to love again
Remits, seized me with wish to please, so strong,
That, as thou seest, yet, yet it doth remain.
Love to one death conducted us along.
Byron was clearly more interested in preserving the rhyme of Dante than he was in providing a clear translation that presents the text in English as lucidly as it was written in Italian. Nevertheless, and no surprise here, Byron is showing off.
Here is the Hollanders’ translation:
On that shore where the river Po
with all its tributaries slows
to peaceful flow, there I was born.
Love, quick to kindle in the gentle heart,
seized this man with the fair form taken from me.
The way of it afflicts me still.
Love, which absolves no one beloved from loving,
seized me so strongly with his charm that,
as you see, it has not left me yet.
Love brought us to one death.
The Hollanders succeed where Byron fails; Byron’s tireless dedication to the preservation of Dante’s rhyme stifles his translation. The Hollanders nail the cadence of epic poetry and, in comparison, make Byron sound a bit like Burns. “Love, quick to kindle in the gentle heart” is more lyrical and even more refined than Byron’s “Love, which the gentle heart soon apprehends.” Byron’s true skill is demonstrated in his translation of the line “Love, who to none beloved to love again / Remits.”
A few others to consider:
My Birthplace is a city that lies
Where the Po finds peace with all its followers.
Love, which in the gentle heart is quickly born,
Seized him for my fair body—which, in a fierce
Manner that still torments my soul, was torn
Untimely away from me. Love, which absolves
None who are loved from loving, made my heart Burn
With joy so strong that as you see it cleaves
Still to him, here. Love gave us both one death.
Sitteth the city, wherein I was born,
Upon the sea-shore where the Po descends
To rest in peace with all his retinue.
Love, that on gentle heart doth swiftly seize,
Seized this man for the person beautiful
That was ta’en from me, and still the mode offends me.
Love, that exempts no one beloved from loving,
Seized me with pleasure of this man so strongly,
That, as thou seest, it doth not yet desert me;
Love has conducted us unto one death;
Durling and Martinez:
The city where I was born sits beside the
Shore where the Po descends to have peace with its
Love, Which is swiftly kindled in the noble heart,
Seized this one for the lovely person that was taken
from me; and the manner still injures me.
Love, which pardons no one loved from loving in
Return, seized me for his beauty so strongly that, as
You see, it still does not abandon me.
Love led us on to one death.
Pinsky loses a lot of the lyricism of Dante’s poem, and doesn’t exactly charm the reader with phrases as cheesy as “made my heart burn with joy.” Durling and Martinez can feel clumsy at times, but is ingenious at others, using the phrase “swiftly kindled in the noble heart,” which has a lot more grace than many of the other translations.
In Byron’s translation, the following fact is obscured, but Byron, the Hollanders, Longfellow, and Durling and Martinez, as Dante did, begin each stanza with the word love so that the sensation of reading the word itself begins to feel relentless, as though the tragedy is redoubled with every repetition, or as though each time Francesca speaks the world she is at once slowly further unshrouding her notion of love and reimagining love just a bit, so that ultimately love absolves her of the infidelity. The best translations here remember that though Francesca is speaking, love commands these ten lines.
But would this review of canto 5’s famous lines, spoken by one of Dante’s most famous characters, be complete if I didn’t disclose the fact that, frustrated in a Chicago winter during my freshman year and during my first year of studying Italian, I tried to translate canto 5?
The land where I was born sits
by the seashore where dismounts the Po
to have peace with his followers.
Love, which is abducted by the gracious heart
took him from the beautiful person
which was taken from me, and in a manner that still hurts me.
Love which forgives no love from the beloved,
took him into my favor so strongly,
which, as you see, still does not abandon me.
Love brought us to a single death.
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