Thursday, March 12, 2009

mea culpa

I think I owe John Ciardi an apology. I was all like, "Oh, terza rima, that's original. Focus on the POETRY, John Ciardi." And then I'd get all mad when he'd do that thing where he'd annotate a line by saying, "Yeah, um, this isn't actually in the Italian, but I needed to make a rhyme here, so let's pretend that Dante said this, ok?"

But looking at other translations, it seems like Ciardi didn't change the literal meaning very much, and I... I miss the rhyme. I'd forgotten how much I enjoy structure in poetry. Really, I'm a little ashamed of myself. I memorized "Kubla Khan" when I was twelve because I loved the way it sounded. I am rather fond of Tennyson. Why did I think that I wouldn't want my Dante to be structured?

Let's look at a couple of examples. Here's the canto ending I mentioned liking in Ciardi a while back:
But now the Poet already led the way
to the slope above, saying to me: "Come now:
the sun has touched the very peak of day

above the sea, and night already stands
with one black foot upon Morocco's sands." (IV.136-41)

And here's that same set of lines in W.S. Merwin's translation*:
And already the poet had begun
to climb ahead of me, and he said, "Come now.
See: the meridian is touched by the sun,

and on the shore night has set foot on Morocco." (IV.136-41)

(I believe Esolen's translation of these lines is fairly similar to Merwin's. Perhaps Fiona can give that version in a post or in a comment, just for comparison. What? You don't find translations fascinating? Well, I do.)

Anyway. Don't get me wrong. I like the Merwin translation. There's a certain delicacy, an awareness of diction, that is maybe missing in Ciardi. But there's something about the structure of Ciardi's phrasing, particulary in these canto endings, that Merwin's less formal verse lacks. And I miss it.

One more example. Here's the Pia episode that I quoted last week, in Ciardi:
A third spoke when that second soul had done:
"When you have found your way back to the world,
and found your rest from this long road you run,

oh speak my name again with living breath
to living memory. Pia am I.
Siena gave me birth; Maremma, death.

As he well knows who took me as his wife
with jeweled ring before he took my life." (V. 136-143)

And here are the same lines in Merwin:
"Oh when you are back in the world again
and are rested after the long journey,"
the third spirit followed upon the second,

"pray you, remember me who am La Pia.
Siena made me, Maremma unmade me;
he knows it who, with his ring taking me,

first had me for his wife with his gem." (V.130-136)

Which translation presents Pia in a more poignant, more memorable way?

On the plus side, Merwin has the original poem on the facing pages. I don't know Italian, but I have a decent command of Spanish, so I can piece out a little. Just for fun, here's Pia in Dante's original:
"Deh, quando tu sarai tornato al mondo
e riposato de la lunga via,"
seguitò 'l terzo spirito al secondo,

"ricorditi di me, che son la Pia;
Siena me fé, disfecemi Maremma:
salsi colui che 'nnanellata pria

disposando m'avea con la sua gemma."


*Merwin, W.S., transl. Purgatorio, by Dante Alighieri. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.

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