Thursday, 12 April 2012

Translating Dante's La Commedia Divina

Especially with poetry translating, proficiency in the target language is more important than proficiency in the original language. Indeed, you'll find translations being done by poets with no knowledge of the foreign language. In such situations poets

  • Get help from native speakers
  • Work solely by reading other translations and using their imagination. Christopher Logue, who's written acclaimed translations of Homer, worked in this way.

The 2 exercises below can be used at workshops - give half the group one exercise and the other group the other, then compare results.

Exercise 1

Here's the Commedia's first tercet, perhaps the most recited lines in western literature.

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

Write a translation. Here are some notes to help you

  • Form: Dante uses hendecasyllabic meter based on the magic number three, which represents the Trinity, and multiples of three. The rhyme scheme (ABA BCB CDC, etc.) is Dante's own invention
  • Sound: "-vai" is pronounced "-vah ee", and "ché" is pronounced "ke" but otherwise the Italian pronunciation is much like the English.
  • Meaning: It was written centuries before Italy and Italian existed, but although the meaning of some words has shifted, all the words are in a modern Italian dictionary. Here's a gloss
    • Nel mezzo ... in the middle
    • del cammin ... of the path (commonly used figuratively)
    • di nostra vita ... of our life
    • mi ritrovai ... I found myself
    • per una selva oscura ... in a dark wood
    • ché la diritta via ... for the direct/straight way
    • era smarrita. ... was lost

Exercise 2

Here are some translations of the Commedia's first tercet, perhaps the most recited lines in western literature. Produce your own translation based in these.

In the middle of the road of my life
I awoke in the dark wood
where the true way was wholly lost
(???)

In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself astray in a dark wood
where the straight road had been lost sight of.
(Seamus Heaney)

In the middle of my journey through life,
a dark wood overcame me
for I had lost my way.
(???)

In the middle of our life's walk
I found myself in a dark wood
for the straight road was lost
(???)

In the middle of the journey of our life
I came to myself within a dark wood
where the straight way was lost.

(John D. Sinclair)

At the midpoint of the journey's life
I found myself lost in a dark forest
with no straight path I could see anywhere.
(M.L. Rosenthal)

At midpoint of the journey of our life
I woke to find me astray in a dark wood,
perplexed by paths with the straight way at strife.
(Geoffrey L. Bickersteth)

Midway life's journey I was made aware
That I had strayed into a dark forest,
And the right path appeared not anywhere.
(Laurence Binyon)

Midway on our life's journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost.

(Robert Pinsky)

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
(Henry Longfellow)

Midway upon the road of our life
I found myself within a dark wood
for the right way had been missed.
(Charles Eliot Norton)

Midway through the journey of our life, I found
myself in a dark wood, for I had strayed
from the straight pathway to this tangled ground.
(Palma)

Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.
(Hollander)

Midway in our life's journey, I went astray
from the straight road and woke to find myself
alone in a dark wood.
(Joan Ciardi)

Midway in the journey of our life
I found myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.
(Charles Singleton)

Midway along the journey of our life
I woke to find myself in some dark woods,
for I had wandered off from the straight path.
(Mark Musa)

Midway in the course of our life
I found myself within a dark wood,
where the right way was lost.
(Rev. H.F. Tozer)

Midway in human life's allotted span,
I found myself in a dark wood,
where the straight path I sought in vain.
(Ronald Bottrall)

In the midway of this our mortal life,
I found me in a gloomy wood, astray
Gone from the path direct
(Henry F. Cary, Mario Praz)

Upon the journey of our life midway
I came unto myself in a dark wood,
For the straight path I had gone astray.
(Jefferson B. Fletcher)

In the midst of my journey through this life of ours,
I was in a dark forest,
because I had lost the right road.
(Allan Gilbert)

One night, when half my life behind me lay,
I wandered from the straight lost path afar.
Through the great dark was no releasing way
(Wright)

When I had journeyed half of our life's way,
I found myself within a shadowed forest,
for I had lost the path that does not stray.
(Allen Mandelbaum)

Halfway along the journey of our life,
Having strayed from the right path and lost it,
I awoke to find myself in a dark wood.
(Harriet Rubin)

Halfway through the story of my life
I came to in a gloomy wood, because
I'd wandered off the path, away from the light
(Ciaran Carson)

Halfway through our trek in life
I found myself in this dark wood,
miles away from the right road.

(Steve Ellis)

Halfway through the journey we are living
I found myself deep in a darkened forest,
For I had lost all trace of the straight path.
(James Finn Cotter)

Halfway along the path of this existence
I found that I was in a gloomy wood,
My right way being blotted by the distance.
(Louis How)

Halfway along the road we have to go,
I found myself obscured in a great forest,
Bewildered, and I knew I had lost the way
(Sisson, Oxford World Classics)

Halfway upon the road of our life,
I came to myself amid a dark wood
where the straight path was confused.
(Arthur J. Butler)

Once, halfway through the journey of our life
I found myself inside a shadowy wood,
because the proper road had disappeared.
(Sean O'Brien)

Half-way upon the journey of our life
I roused to find myself within a forest
In darkness, for the straight way had been lost.
(Henry Johnson)

About halfway through the course of my pathetic life,
I woke up and found myself in a stupor in some dark place
(Birk and Sanders)

Halfway through a bad trip
I found myself in this stinking car park,
Underground, miles from Amirillo.
(Philip Terry)

Just halfway through this journey of our life
I reawoke to find myself inside
a dark wood, way off course, the right road lost.
(Tom Phillips)

See Also

4 comments:

  1. Half life through,
    in a dark wood,
    without a way ahead.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Ok, granted that proficiency in the target language is the main thing, but a translator should still have some inkling of the original language. To wit, "nel mezzo" means "in the midst," not halfway, or midway, or anything else; "ritrovarsi" means to find oneself, period. A good many of these translators should have (had) their poetic licenses revoked.

    ReplyDelete
  3. agree w doomsday. why strive to be original in a translation? esp when the original original was so perfect.
    and i'd appreciate a correction of my translation into Italian of "nextlife", for i had the domain nextlife.com (no longer).
    TIA

    ReplyDelete
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