Sunday, February 1, 2009

in which Cerberus is icky, times three

I have to say, I envy Fiona her Hollander translation (although the name Hollander now reminds me of Roy Den Hollander -- I'm sorry, Robert and Jean Hollander, it's not your fault). I have the John Ciardi translation (mine is the 1977 Norton edition), and I can't say it's doing a whole lot for me. I would have preferred the Palma or the Mandelbaum -- I've mentioned that I enjoyed Mandelbaum's Aeneid -- but we're very limited in which editions we can obtain, since we really can't afford to buy all the books that we're reading, and -- this is sure to shock you -- the DC public library doesn't have a fantastic selection. (At least we still have a number of libraries. I'm looking at you, Philadelphia.)

Leigh recommended the Palma. I'm dying to read it. Meanwhile, here's a sample of what Fiona is reading compared to what I am reading. Let's look at Canto VI of the Inferno, describing Circle Three, the Gluttons.

Here's Hollander, which Fiona has:

With my returning senses that had failed
before the piteous state of those two in-laws,
which had confounded me with grief,

new torments and new souls in torment
I see about me, wherever I may move,
or turn, or set my gaze.

I am in the third circle, of eternal,
hateful rain, cold and leaden,
changeless in its monotony.

Heavy hailstones, filthy water, and snow
pour down through gloomy air.
The ground it falls on reeks.

Cerberus, fierce and monstrous beast,
barks from three gullets like a dog
over the people underneath that muck.

His eyes are red, his beard a greasy black,
his belly swollen. With his taloned hands
he claws the spirits, flays and quarters them.

The rain makes them howl like dogs.
The unholy wretches often turn their bodies,
making of one side a shield for the other.

When Cerberus--that great worm--noticed us,
he opened up his jaws and showed his fangs.
There was no part of him he held in check.

But then my leader opened up his hands,
picked up some earth, and with full fists
tossed soil into the ravenous gullets.

Here, just for the sake of comparison, are the same lines from Mandelbaum (via Google Books, which doesn't have a preview of Palma, sadly):

Upon my mind's reviving--it had closed
on hearing the lament of those two kindred,
since sorrow had confounded me completely--

I see new sufferings, new sufferers
surrounding me on every side, wherever
I move about or turn or set my eyes.

I am in the third circle, filled with cold,
unending, heavy, and accurséd rain;
its measure and its kind are never changed.

Gross hailstones, water gray with filth, and snow
come streaking down across the shadowed air;
the earth, as it receives that shower, stinks.

Over the souls of those submerged beneath
that mess, is an outlandish, vicious beast,
his three throats barking, doglike: Cerberus.

His eyes are bloodred; greasy, black, his beard;
his belly bulges, and his hands are claws;
his talons tear and flay and rend the shades.

That downpour makes the sinners howl like dogs;
they use one of their sides to screen--
those miserable wretches turn and turn.

When Cerberus, the great worm, noticed us,
he opened wide his mouths, showed us his fangs;
there was no part of him that did not twitch.

My guide opened his hands to their full span,
plucked up some earth, and with his fists filled full
he hurled it straight into those famished jaws.

And then here's what I'm reading, the Ciardi translation:

My senses had reeled from me out of pity
for the sorrow of those kinsmen and lost lovers.
Now they return, and waking gradually,

I see new torments and new souls in pain
about me everywhere. Wherever I turn
away from grief I turn to grief again.

I am in the Third Circle of the torments.
Here to all time with neither pause nor change
the frozen rain of Hellen descends in torrents.

Huge hailstones, dirty water, and black snow
pour from the dismal air to putrefy
the putrid slush that waits for them below.

Here monstrous Cerberus, the ravening beast,
howls through his triple throats like a mad dog
over the spirits sunk in that foul paste.

His eyes are red, his beard is greased with phlegm,
his belly is swollen, and his hands are claws
to rip the wretches and flay and mangle them.

And they, too, howl like dogs in the freezing storm,
turning and turning from it as if they thought
one naked side could keep the other warm.

When Cerberus discovered us in that swill
his dragon-jaws yawed wide, his lips drew back
in a grin of fangs. No limb of him was still.

My Guide bent down and seized in either fist
a clod of the stinking dirt that festered there
and flung them down the gullet of the beast.

Look. I appreciate why translators want to maintain something of the rhythm or the rhyme of the original. But when one -- as Ciardi does -- tries so hard to keep exactly to the rhyme (of something, let's remember, written in a different language), I think that the sacrifice in terms of diction, descriptive power, and original meaning is just too great. Not that I know which of these translations sticks most closely to Dante's Tuscan. But I think in terms of the power of its language, the impact upon the reader, Ciardi's translation is at too great a disadvantage. It comes across as flatter, less immediate than the other two. I don't know. I'd rather read good poetry than rhyming poetry, particularly when it's a translation.

(I'm all for stylistic rigor in the right place. The right place is Coleridge.)

If translations are really your thing, here's a cool thing on Amazon where some random guy gives a succinct description of a number of different translations.

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