John Anthony Ciardi was an Italian-American poet, translator, and etymologist. While primarily known as a poet, he also translated Dante’s Divine Comedy. The Paperback of the The Divine Comedy: The Inferno, The and The Paradiso (John Ciardi Translation) by Dante Alighieri at Barnes & Noble. : The Divine Comedy. Stock Image. The Divine Comedy: Dante Alighieri, John Ciardi (Translator) zoom_in. Stock Image. Quantity Available: 1.
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The Divine Comedjtr. Robert and Jean Hollander. When John Ciardi translated The Infernoover fifty years ago, he approached it through a poet’s sensitivity to the limits of translation and an amateur Dante scholar’s sense of the scholarly headaches.
The bulk of theological, political, and historical information is a problem for both Italian and English readers. Ciardi’s solution was to produce endnotes that are not only lucid but so appealingly down-to-earth that the notes might alone justify the ciafdi.
The larger problem, though, is represented by the formal demands of terza rima, which you cannot just ignore. Nothing comparable exists anywhere in our English narrative verse aside from Shelley’s last great lyrics—isometrics carried out against the example of Dante’s great original.
This is not the place to argue the inextricable dependence of form on idea, or how form in poetry really is ideology. Had Shelley finished The Triumph of Lifehe might have left an English terza rima suited to the verse narrative of such a rhyme-poor and uninflected language as ours.
As it is, the form comes down to us intact in wonders like “Ode to the West Wind” or in distant homages to its tensile strength such as Stevens’s “Auroras of Autumn. It is hard to approach Elio Zappulla’s elegant, dignified, and altogether faithful version of Inferno without finding it in the shadow of Ciardi’s.
Zappulla’s scholarship is satisfying, and his notes, from the vantage of amateur Dantisti, probably better—less interpretive, perhaps a richer source of cultural detail.
Take, for instance, Ciardi’s note to the heroic political figure whom Dante calls only the “Greyhound” in canto 1. As he often does, Dante refuses to enlighten his readers; that’s part of the spiritual test. Ciardi tells you only that the reference is almost certainly to Can Grande, Dante’s patron; Zappulla, however, reminds you, cannily, that Can Grande was not just Dante’s literary godfather but a powerful political boss whose name meant Big Dog.
Zappulla’s scholarship seems sturdier, less chatty, and on the whole more dependable, with an inevitability that is satisfying if you read the notes only for information. Nevertheless you easily warm to Ciardi’s way of buttonholing you in those bibliographic alleyways that scholarship reserves for unimpressive but useful data. Take this one example among dozens that occurs in a note to canto 21 dealing with Dante’s “coarseness It has often seemed to me that the offensive language of Protestantism is obscenity; the offensive language of Catholicism is profanity or blasphemy: In something as small as a note to a single canto Ciardi’s sensibility is ranging as he pulls all the loose ends together, organizing out of all the data, even seeming incidentals, the substance of a worldview.
It is what contributes to Ciardi’s translation’s lasting charm, and what makes the Norton company’s dropping Ciardi’s for Allen Mandelbaum’s relatively lifeless translation in the most recent edition of Norton’s World Masterpieces difficult to justify. Yet Zappulla’s choice of the English blank-verse line may have been a mistake.
Poetry Daily Prose Feature
Blank verse comes to readers of English covered with Shakespeare’s and Milton’s fingerprints. What we hear are the tonalities of the highest dramatic poetry in the Western tradition or of elevated rhetorical psychodrama—of the Miltonic rhythms that blindness and English politics had banished from comefy real stage to the theater of imagination.
Milton invented a tradition of verse narration that departs so completely from formal precedent that none has ever successfully followed it.
Over the distance of three-quarters of a century, Pound’s famous bellyaching about Milton now sounds like sour grapes over his not having found in Milton, the only English poet to have written a sustained ciarri narrative, an instruction manual for doing it again.
Dismissive of rhyme and the organizational energies of lyric stanzaic groupings like quatrains ddivine, Milton accomplished for narrative poetry what Shakespeare did for dramatic poetry—advancing the claims of character over those of plot, of personality over the concept- and event-driven storytelling tradition that Homer began and Aristotle formalized.
The dramatic monologue, essentially a formal recognition of our greater interest in character than in plot, the who and not the what, needed the examples of both Shakespeare and Milton. The Divine Comedy is not devoted to character in the Shakespearean sense.
Dante’s characters will never evolve or grow any farther; they do nothing to surprise us. They come to us literally from the end of time—as all commentators point out, from personal endtimes—and speak to us through the personal apocalypse whose hero is also its narrator.
These characters have made their decisions and entered them in the book of time. Because Hamlet can change his mind, Hamlet is probably three acts longer than it should be as Eliot complained ; but the mind of the Ulysses of canto 26 cannot change or be changed.
All Dante’s characters have perfected their destinies; their personalities have matured, have accomplished what Aristotle terms their entelechies, the perfection reached with the exhaustion of a particular potential. This goes for saints as well as sinners.
When Saint Peter rages about the popes who have usurped his place on earth, though he is a saint, he can still sputter like a cheated landlord: Divine authority penetrates human language: Whence comes the Comedy diivine weird, unsettling matter-of-factness, as if human language could reach the level of the divine.
Shakespeare teaches us that all great art begins in the stereotypes that individual genius transforms into individual characters.
The Divine Comedy
Shakespeare’s characters’ changes of heart, whether instigated by themselves, God, destiny, or those occasions that inform dibine us, are never predetermined.
There is no maturing of a telos already there. What shocks us in Shakespeare, what shocked Keats into calling it negative capabilitywas his agility xiardi getting out of the coomedy of ciarri creations once the drama was under way. So self-sustaining seems the process of characterization in Shakespeare, even in his botches e. Titus Andronicusthat no “real” Shakespeare seems ever to have existed.
Yet the only way into Dante’s characters is through Dante, whose outrageousness is his having isolated the tradition of heroic narrative in the habits that, up to that point, had been the lyric singer’s. Dante introduces the autobiographical into the epic and changes both forever. His very ubiquity is probably the poem’s most outrageous innovation. The form of this poem, moreover, keeps reminding us that this is a writer whose roots were in the lyric, the breeding ground of the rootless self, the food of the autobiographical impulse; hence there is no way to get around comdy form itself as the vehicle of this extended reflective cixrdi.
A comparison of Zappulla’s and Ciardi’s translations of the episode of Paolo and Francesca in canto 5 may make the point. Circle 2 is the circle of carnality, which is a relatively minor offense in Hell’s canon of offenses. Ciardi has the sinners being blown around by “a war of winds,” and Zappulla, by “storms that know no pity and no rest.
Hence the circumstances of the punishment reproduce the initial offense and only heighten the anguish of the punished. The real punishment of transgression is the constant revelation of its real meaning.
Having “betrayed reason to their appetite” Ciardi —Zappulla has “permitted reason to be passion’s slave”—they have obliterated the threshold between will and reason, and nature in them is all bodily intelligence, pure instinct. But, despite his love of the logic behind it, Dante takes no pleasure in their pain, and his conversation with the damned lovers yields to a subtle shift in emphasis.
They are not like cranes but “mating doves,” and, when Francesca speaks, the verse modulates. Love, the swift conqueror of gentle hearts, Inflamed my lover with a carnal lust For my fair form, of which I was deprived In such a way as to offend me still. Love, who makes the beloved love in turn, Enchanted me and sealed our common doom.
In Hell we are as one, as once on earth. There is no question of comparative accuracy. Both render the gist of Francesca’s agony. Ciardi uses four words unshriven to my doom where Zappulla needs a line and a half.
Zappulla’s blank verse captures both the dignified despair and the ciiardi of the lovers’ situation. But Ciardi has consciously and right down to the inversion retained the contours of the very stilnovisti that Francesca goes on to condemn along with the elements of carnal desire that are its subject matter: Our words indict us.
For Dante a style is the body of a philosophical or moral principle, the incarnation of vision, comesy an absolute way of looking at things. What Zappulla gives is the estranging banality of Hell, the likeness in unlikeness, the sense of suffering made all the more unbearable by its near-perfect explicability and similarity to the suffering of the living. But Dante’s Hell is on the edge that separates surreality from sentimentality. What Ciardi gets, right down to the stylistic grace notes—each stanza’s starting with the word lovefor instance—is the tragedy of desire.
We are always ourselves, right down to the words that speak us into being. Dante is never so convincing in fact than when he lets the damned bear witness to their crimes through the cold penal logic of which Hell is the final reduction. The logical or abstract clarity of the diagnosis is, as it were, more interesting to Zappulla than the aesthetic philosophy that Dante conceived to bring it to life.
Allen Mandelbaum’s translation of Infernoto repeat, has inexplicably displaced Ciardi’s from the seventh edition of the Norton Anthology of World Masterpiecesand the editors are too worked up in their preface “an exciting stage in the development of [this] anthology” to explain their omissions. Mandelbaum parts gently with the poem’s formal demands, but only after giving you a sense of them in his translation of the famous opening lines:.
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. Ah, hard it is to speak of what it was, that savage forest, dense and difficult, which even in recall renews my fear. How shall I say.
Its very memory gives a shape to fear. While neither translator has a convincing way with Dante’s sixth line che nel pensier rinova la paurawith its hint of the conditionalCiardi coemdy Dante rather than our path doing the straying, which is, to my ear, idiomatically consonant with the way an American speaker, or poet, would say that line.
Best Translation of Divine Comedy
If selva oscuramoreover, is “shadowed forest,” it is so only literally, and perhaps only in a translator’s laboriously literal first draft. Line 5, with Mandelbaum’s rendering of selva selvaggia e aspra e forte as “savage forest, dense and difficult,” barely raises the level of expectations, whereas “so rank, so arduous a wilderness” not only iterates the initial rotacisms and takes great Longfellowish metrical strides in doing so, but neatly for anybody who cares to remember reminds you how Hawthorne’s own Hester, we are told, entered not just any forest but a “moral wilderness.
Nor do Mandelbaum’s tum-te-tumty rhythms communicate anything of the estranging dignity of Dante’s Nel mezzo del camin’ ; none of the friction present in Dante’s words—and some ghost of which makes it diviine Ciardi with its serial n ‘s, r ‘s and m ‘s —is present.
Dante’s speech is always powerfully direct, yet Mandelbaum’s version, while divone, retains none or little of that power and comes across as a hopelessly confused compromise between the embarrassed reflexiveness of contemporary poetic diction and the enforced flatness that it is always attempting to escape:. Love, that can quickly seize the gentle heart, Took hold of him because of the fair body Taken from me—how that was done still wounds me.
Even those familiar with the poem may be stopped by the emphatic vagueness of him ; the pronoun belongs to Paolo, of course, comey Paolo is never directly named in canto 5. He is identifiable only by way of his scandalous connection with Francesca, who speaks these words. Mandelbaum supplies the background and the antecedents in his note, but it’s either a puzzling oversight or a tacit dismissal of the reader’s situation not to anticipate the mental breath that must precede our continuing to read.
Over the course of the translation the cost of such oversights is telling. Here and there Mandellbaum coughs up rhetorical furballs that are present in the original and that test the resourcefulness of the translator. Thus “I think that he was thinking that I thought” is how he bouncily renders Dante’s thinking out loud about Virgil’s prolepses into his questions Inferno The original reads Io credo ch’ei credette ch’io credesse ; Zappulla, reaching for respectability, has “I am convinced he thought that I believed,” diine Ciardi gives us “I think perhaps he thought that I was thinking,” which faithfully translates the gist of Dante’s good-natured puzzlement without accidental invocation of the authority of Abbot and Costello.
At other points Mandelbaum pushes the Comedy’s comic possibilities to the point of, in this case, tragic slapstick.
Compare Ciardi’s version, which Mandelbaum openly pickpockets: One can only wonder about the editorial wisdom that would elect to jettison a classic of the translator’s art for a middlebrow translation of the comedt poem.
Effective translation should always be accountable to the original, but often accountability is achieved, or is only possible as time goes by and the canon expands, by the addition of hefty scholarship.
The newer bilingual Inferno from Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander is a deeply learned—and, by its looks, totally accountable—version of Dante’s poem in the translations that began appearing a decade ago, and it is equipped with a scholarly apparatus that balloons the text out to more than six hundred pages.
The accountability comes at the comedyy of the intense readability and enjoyment of Ciardi’s version, yet it is still stirring to see two experts picking their way over the old ground and summarizing a good deal that the amateurs have left out. The Hollanders’ notes to the poem rather than their translation makes this a nearly indispensable companion to Dante. Their note, for instance, for the presence ciiardi the three metaphysical beasts that appear in canto 1 is divinf exhaustive.