poem index

Video: Dante and the Problem of Translation


March 10, 2010


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From an April 7, 2008 interview on Bigthink.com. To watch Pinsky discuss overrated vs. underrated poets and read aloud his own poem "The City Dark," please see the full interview at Big Think.


The Inferno...that translation was a hypnotic kind of writing. It was so much fun as well as agony to try to solve an English equivalent of the structure, and there is the exhiliration of knowing that I might miss something.

I had something going for me that no one had ever done. Most of the translations that I know, indeed, all of the translations I know—the ones I admire, the ones I thought were not so good—were kind of slow. Dante moves along, The Commedia is very rapid in Italian. The terza rima is like a supercharger. It lets you move from an opus film to a narrative to a conversation to philosophy to a lyric very quickly. And by translating his sentences rather than his lines and by using rhymes that were rhymes for English, like rhyming 'for,' 'war,' and 'car'—not 'for,' 'door,' whore' and familiar rhymes—making it 'hammer,' 'summer,' and 'glimmer'—not 'hammer' and 'glamour' and 'slammer'—it became very involved.

I had the technical means. Working on that translation, I was thinking about Dante's profound insights and the greatness of the poem in some part of my mind, but consciously and mostly I was thinking about the equipment. If you put a hinge here and pull over the thread there, this part will come up, and there can be a little rubber bumper there. It was like building a ship in a bottle or having a wonderful knitting pattern or sewing pattern or designing a guard where you are calculating the shade, where the wall will be, and the heights of the different things. It was the best puzzle. It was the best challenge of technique I had ever encountered. Plus it was exactly like writing. Only I didn't have to think about what to say next.

How can you convey meaning?

'Translate,' as I have said before, is a misnomer. You can't translate from Italian to English or Japanese to Swedish. 'Translate' means 'transliterate,' means 'to carry it across.' You can't carry a meaning across. The word in Italian is the word in Italian. An English word is a different word. Pan is not bread. We are pointing the same to the same reality. The words are different. They are rhymed with different things; they come with different roots. The better word is the old word. People should use 'Englishing.' I did an 'Englishing' of the Inferno, and when you English it you try to be as faithful as possible to the literal meaning, and you try to devise an equivalent for the form.

Who did the best Englishing of Dante?

The most beautiful translation of the Commedia is by Longfellow, who is a great master of sound and who was by profession a professor of Italian. He had lectured on Dante so often that probably in the course of his lectures and reading, he had translated a lot of the poem without even intending too.

He translates it into blank verse. It's very useful as a trot those scholars go with—some cruxes differently from the way Longfellow does. It's beautiful. You eat any ten or twelve or fifteen, twenty lines of it; it's gorgeous. It's hard to read a lot of it, particularly for an American reader. It's Miltonic blank verse that he uses, so the word order enables him to follow the Italian word order quite well, line for line, but it does not flow in an idiomatic way for a modern American reader. It's very beautiful. It's a good thing to read to remind yourself of the beauty of the poem, and I admire it and respect it very much.