Monthly Archives: February 2010

Fifteen translations of Dante compared

In my last post I compared John Ciardi and Allen Mandelbaum’s translation of the Inferno by looking at how they handled Canto XXVI, lines 112-120. Here I want to expand that exercise, comparing 15 different translations in a more systematic way. The 15 translations are those of Ciaran Carson, John Ciardi, Anthony Esolen, Robert and Jean Hollander, Robin Kirkpatrick, Stanley Lombardo, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Allen Mandelbaum, Mark Musa, J. G. Nicholls, Robert Pinsky, Tom Simone, John D. Sinclair, Charles Singleton, and C. H. Sisson.

I will be looking at the same passage as before, but I’ve broken it into 10 sections, each of which will be graded based on its fidelity to the original Italian. (I don’t actually know much Italian, but I do have a dictionary and 15 different translations of the passage in question.) The grading is as follows: 3 = perfectly faithful, 2 = defensible paraphrase (same basic meaning), 1 = dodgy paraphrase, 0 = unforgivable paraphrase (putting words in Dante’s mouth). The translators scored as follows:

  • Longfellow, Singleton (27)
  • Sinclair (26)
  • Mandelbaum (25)
  • Simone, Sisson (23)
  • Hollander, Kirkpatrick (22)
  • Lombardo (21)
  • Musa, Nicholls, Pinsky (18)
  • Ciardi (17)
  • Carson (14)
  • Esolen (13)
As might be expected, the three prose translations score highest in terms of fidelity, with Allen Mandelbaum close on their heels as the most accurate of the 12 verse translations. Ciardi unsurprisingly ranks rather low.
Here are the details of the scoring:

O frati, dissi,

  • Brothers, . . . I said (Carson) – 3
  • Shipmates, I said (Ciardi) – 1
  • O brothers (Esolen) – 2
  • O brothers, I said (Hollander, Simone, Sinclair, Singleton) – 3
  • Brothers, I said (Kirkpatrick, Lombardo, Musa, Sisson) – 3
  • O brothers, said I (Longfellow) – 3
  • Brothers, I said, o you (Mandelbaum) – 3
  • O brothers! I began (Nicholls) – 2
  • O brothers . . . I began (Pinsky) – 2

che per cento milia perigli

  • who . . . through perils numberless (Carson) – 1
  • who through a hundred thousand perils (Ciardi, Lombardo, Longfellow, Sinclair, Singleton) – 3
  • who have borne innumerable dangers (Esolen) – 1
  • who in the course of a hundred thousand perils (Hollander) – 3
  • a hundred thousand perils you have passed (Kirkpatrick) – 2
  • who having crossed a hundred thousand dangers (Mandelbaum) – 3
  • who through a hundred thousand perils have made your way (Musa) – 2
  • who . . . through perils without number (Nicholls) – 1
  • who . . . through a hundred thousand perils, surviving all (Pinsky) – 0
  • who through a hundred thousand dangers (Simone, Sisson) – 3

siete giunti a l’occidente,

  • have reached the west (Carson, Ciardi, Lombardo, Longfellow, Pinsky, Sinclair, Singleton) – 3
  • to reach the setting of the sun (Esolen) – 1
  • at last have reached the west (Hollander) – 2
  • and reached the Occident (Kirkpatrick) – 3
  • reach the west (Mandelbaum) – 3
  • to reach the West (Musa) – 3
  • to the west . . . now have reach’d (Nicholls) – 3
  • have come to the west (Simone) – 3
  • at last have reached the occident (Sisson) – 2

a questa tanto picciola vigilia d’i nostri sensi ch’è del rimanente

  • now that you’ve run the race of life, in this last watch that still remains to you (Carson) – 0
  • to the brief remaining watch our senses stand (Ciardi) – 2
  • from those few hours remaining to our watch, from time so short in which to live and feel (Esolen) – 0
  • to such brief wakefulness of our senses as remain to us (Hollander) – 3
  • For us, so little time remains to keep the vigil of our living sense (Kirkpatrick) – 1
  • to the last glimmering hour of consciousness that remains to us (Lombardo) – 0
  • to this so little vigil of your senses that remains (Longfellow) – 2
  • to this brief waking-time that still is left unto your senses (Mandelbaum) – 2
  • during this so brief vigil of our senses that is still reserved for us (Musa) – 3
  • to this the short remaining watch, that yet our senses have to wake (Nicholls) – 3
  • So little is the vigil we see remain still for our senses, that (Pinsky) – 2
  • for this so limited vigil of our senses which still remains to us (Simone) – 2
  • to this so brief vigil of the senses that remains to us (Sinclair) – 3
  • to this so brief vigil of your senses which remains (Singleton) – 2
  • to this short vigil which is all there is remaining to our senses (Sisson) – 3

non vogliate negar l’esperïenza

  • I ask you not to shun experience, but boldly to explore (Carson) – 0
  • do not deny . . . experience (Ciardi, Lombardo) – 3
  • do not refuse experience (Esolen) – 3
  • do not deny yourselves the chance to know (Hollander) – 1
  • Do not deny your will to win experience (Kirkpatrick) – 2
  • be ye unwilling to deny, the experience (Longfellow) – 3
  • you must not deny experience (Mandelbaum) – 2
  • do not deny yourself experience (Musa) – 2
  • refuse not proof (Nicholls) – 0
  • you should not choose to deny it the experience (Pinsky) – 2
  • do not be content to deny yourselves experience (Simone) – 2
  • choose not to deny experience (Sinclair) – 3
  • wish not to deny the experience (Singleton) – 3
  • do not deny experience (Sisson) – 3

di retro al sol,

  • beyond the sun (Carson, Ciardi) – 3
  • of the lands beyond the sun (Esolen) – 1
  • following the sun (Hollander, Longfellow, Singleton) – 2
  • behind the sun (Kirkpatrick) – 3
  • that lies beyond the setting sun (Lombardo) – 0
  • of that which lies beyond the sun (Mandelbaum) – 3
  • of what there is beyond, behind the sun (Musa) – 2
  • following the track of Phoebus (Nicholls) – 1
  • behind the sun leading us onward (Pinsky) – 0
  • Follow the sun into the west (Simone) – 0
  • in the sun’s track (Sinclair) – 1
  • following the course of the sun (Sission) – 1

del mondo sanza gente.

  • the vast unpeopled world (Carson) – 1
  • of the world (Ciardi) – 0
  • the world where no one dwells (Esolen) – 2
  • the land where no one lives (Hollander) – 2
  • of worlds where no man dwells (Kirkpatrick) – 2
  • of the unpeopled world (Lombardo, Nicholls, Sinclair) – 3
  • of the world that hath no people (Longfellow) – 3
  • and of the world that is unpeopled (Mandelbaum) – 3
  • in the world they call unpeopled (Musa) – 0
  • of the world which has no people in it (Pinsky) – 3
  • of the world without people (Simone) – 3
  • of the world that has no people (Singleton) – 3
  • of that world which has no inhabitants (Sisson) – 2

Considerate la vostra semenza:

  • Remember who you are (Carson) – 0
  • Greeks! (Ciardi) – 0
  • Think well upon your nation and your seed (Esolen) – 1
  • Consider how your souls were sown (Hollander) – 1
  • Hold clear in thought your seed and origin (Kirkpatrick) – 1
  • Consider the seed from which you were born (Lombardo) – 2
  • Consider ye your origin (Longfellow) – 2
  • Consider well the seed that gave you birth (Mandelbaum) – 2
  • Consider what you came from: you are Greeks (Musa) – 0
  • Call to mind from whence we sprang (Nicholls) – 2
  • Consider well your seed (Pinsky) – 2
  • Consider your seed and heritage (Simone) – 1
  • Take thought of the seed from which you spring (Sinclair) – 2
  • Consider your origin (Singleton) – 2
  • Consider then the race from which you have sprung (Sisson) – 1

fatti non foste a viver come bruti,

  • what you were made for: not to live like brutes (Carson) – 2
  • You were not born to live like brutes (Ciardi) – 2
  • For you were never made to live like brutes (Esolen) – 2
  • you were not made to live like brutes or beasts (Hollander) – 2
  • You were not made to live as mindless brutes (Kirkpatrick) – 2
  • You were not made to live like brute animals (Lombardo) – 2
  • ye were not made to live as brutes (Longfellow, Singleton) – 3
  • you were not made to live your lives as brutes (Mandelbaum) – 2
  • You were not born to live like mindless brutes (Musa) – 2
  • Ye were not form’d to live the life of brutes (Nicholls) – 2
  • You were not born to live as a mere brute does (Pinsky) – 2
  • you were not made to live like brutes (Simone) – 3
  • You were not born to live as brutes (Sinclair) – 2
  • You were not made to live like animals (Sisson) – 3

ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza.

  • but for the quest of knowledge and the good (Carson) – 1
  • but to press on toward manhood and recognition (Ciardi) – 0
  • but to pursue the good in mind and deed (Esolen) – 0
  • but to pursue virtue and knowledge (Hollander, Singleton) – 3
  • but go in search of virtue and true knowledge (Kirkpatrick) – 3
  • but to live in pursuit of virtue and knowledge (Lombardo) – 2
  • but for pursuit of virtue and of knowledge (Longfellow) – 3
  • but to be followers of worth and knowledge (Mandelbaum) – 2
  • but to follow paths of excellence and knowledge (Musa) – 1
  • but virtue to pursue and knowledge high (Nicholls) – 1
  • but for the pursuit of knowledge and the good (Pinsky) – 2
  • but to follow virtue and knowledge (Simone, Sinclair) – 3
  • but to pursue virtue and know the world (Sisson) – 2

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Mandelbaum vs. Ciardi as translators of Dante

I just finished Allen Mandelbaum’s translation of the Inferno and found it much more moving that John Ciardi’s, the only other translation I’ve read. As I did before with Goethe’s Faust, I want to compare the two translations in terms of their accuracy by looking at a sample passage. I chose one of my favorite parts, Ulysses’ speech to his shipmates (Canto XXVI, lines 112-120).

First, the original Italian:

‘O frati,’ dissi, ‘che per cento milia
perigli siete giunti a l’occidente,
a questa tanto picciola vigilia
d’i nostri sensi ch’è del rimanente
non vogliate negar l’esperïenza
di retro al sol, del mondo sanza gente.
Considerate la vostra semenza:
fatti non foste a viver come bruti,
ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza.’

Here’s John Ciardi’s rendition:

‘Shipmates,’ I said, ‘who through a hundred thousand
perils have reached the West, do not deny
to the brief remaining watch our senses stand

experience of the world beyond the sun.
Greeks! You were not born to live like brutes,
but to press on toward manhood and recognition!’

And Allen Mandelbaum’s:

‘Brothers,’ I said, ‘o you, who having crossed
a hundred thousand dangers, reach the west,
to this brief waking-time that still is left
unto your senses, you must not deny
experience of that which lies beyond
the sun, and of the world that is unpeopled.
Consider well the seed that gave you birth:
you were not made to live your lives as brutes,
but to be followers of worth and knowledge.’

Mandelbaum is clearly the more faithful to Dante here. Ciardi condense’s Dante’s nine lines into six, makes the first sentence hard to parse by throwing in the random word “stand” (to rhyme with “thousand,” which it doesn’t really), cuts out “the world that is unpeopled” altogether, and stretches his poetic license to the breaking point when he chooses to translate “Considerate la vostra semenza” as “Greeks!” (Mandelbaum’s only real liberty — adding “that gave you birth” — seems a necessary one, since otherwise “your seed” would seem to be referring to descendants rather than ancestors.)

The two translators’ very different renditions of “virtute e canoscenze” — “manhood and recognition” vs. “worth and knowledge” — are intriguing. Since my knowledge of Italian doesn’t go much beyond the ability to recognize obvious cognates, and since both translations seem etymologically plausible, I don’t know who’s closer to the mark here. If I had to bet, though, I’d put my money on Mandelbaum. “Press on toward manhood” isn’t the most natural exhortation to give to a company of veterans who are “already old and slow.”

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