Category Archives: Translation

Was the firmament good after all?

Much of the 13th and final book of St Augustine’s Confessions is given over to a very meticulous — even tedious in places — analysis of the first chapter of Genesis, combing over every word and turn of phrase again and again, interpreting and reinterpreting it as if determined to winkle out every last molecule of meaning.

As I was reading this, I was naturally curious to see whether Augustine would pick up on the oddity in Genesis 1 which I had recently noticed and commented on —  namely, that God created the firmament on the second day but neglected to pronounce it good until the sixth. But instead I was startled to read this:

Of the several kinds of Thy works, when Thou hadst said “let them be,” and they were, Thou sawest each that it was good. Seven times have I counted it to be written, that Thou sawest that that which Thou madest was good: and this is the eighth, that Thou sawest every thing that Thou hadst made, and, behold, it was not only good, but also very good, as being now altogether.

Apparently the puzzle I had spent so much time pondering didn’t even exist in Augustine’s Bible! Where my King James clearly has only seven instances of God pronouncing his creation good, it appears that the version St Augustine was using had eight — with the additional “it was good” presumably being applied to the firmament.

I tried looking up Genesis 1 in the Vulgate, which is figured is what Augustine would have been reading, but it turns out to be the same as our English Bibles, with God saying “it was good” only seven times and neglecting the firmament. Then, figuring that Augustine may instead have been reading Vetus Latina versions translated from the Septuagint, I looked that up and, sure enough, the Septuagint Genesis 1 inserts an extra “and God saw that it was good,” applied to the firmament, into the eighth verse.

I don’t really know what to conclude from this. I suppose it’s possible that a line which was accidentally lost in the Masoretic text has been preserved in the LXX — but it seems equally probable that, the original text being so decidedly odd on this point, the LXX translators fudged it a bit and inserted a line which obviously seemed to belong.

At any rate, it’s too bad St Augustine didn’t have a Vulgate handy when he wrote his Confessions. I’m sure he would have noticed the firmament discrepancy and come up with an ingenious explanation for it.

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Walter Kaufmann’s “Epitaph”

Walter Kaufmann ends his book Critique of Religion and Philosophy with an untranslated poem in German, entitled “Epitaph”:

Alles starb in meinem Herzen
was nicht reines Feuer war:
in den Gluten meiner Qualen
bracht ich’s Gott im Himmel dar.

Nur das flammenhafte Sehnen,
das sich grad am Brande nährt,
hat die Gluten überstanden
noch nachdem sie Gott verzehrt.

I’m sure I’m not the only reader of Kaufmann who has virtually no German but would like to know what this poem says. The only translation I’ve been able to find is a tentative first draft (“there’s a lot in this one I’m unsure of, it may change quite radically”) by the blogger Peter Saint-Andre:

All is dead inside my heart
that once was purest fire:
in the heat I offered up
my pain to heaven’s God.

Only the ardent passion
that once nourished the flame
has yet outlived the fire
that God alone devoured.

Something tells me that can’t possibly be right, especially the last line, so here’s my attempt. The reader is strongly warned that I know no German whatsoever and did this translation by looking up every word in a dictionary and skimming parts of a German grammar. Still, since no professional translation seems to exist, I offer this for whatever it’s worth. My hope is that someone who actually knows German will stumble upon this post and set me straight.

All died in my heart
which was not pure fire:
In the heat my pains
I brought to God in heaven.

Only the flame-like longings
Which fed the fire
Have survived the heat
Even after it consumed God.

There’s much here that I’m unsure of, too. The word bracht is confusing, so I read it as brachte or gebracht. I didn’t know what to do with dar or grad, either, so I just omitted them. The dictionary says Sehnen is a noun meaning “sinews,” but that didn’t make much sense in context, so I interpreted it as having something to do with the verb phrase sich sehnen, meaning “to long.”

My version differs from Saint-Andre’s on two crucial points: (1) his says the fire is dead, but mine says everything but the fire is dead; and (2) his says God devoured the fire, but mine says the fire consumed God. Although I don’t know a lick of German, I do know a bit about Walter Kaufmann, and I think my reading is more plausible.


Filed under Literature, Translation

Paul Roche as a translator

In evaluating a translation, one of the things I ask myself is this: If I were to quote this and attribute it to the original author, would I embarrass myself? That’s why I give Robert and Jean Hollander low marks for rendering Dante’s “Considerate la vostra semenza” as “Consider how your souls were sown.” In a way it’s an admirably elegant solution to a problematic line (Dante says “Consider your seed” to mean “Consider your origin,” whereas in English “seed” would have the opposite meaning) — but could I say, “Remember where you came from, or, as Dante puts it, ‘how your souls were sown'”? No. It includes too much — souls, sowing — that Dante didn’t actually say. Lombardo’s “Consider the seed from which you were born,” while inferior to the Hollanders’ version as poetry, is far better as translation. While it, too, of necessity, goes beyond the literal meaning of the Italian, it remains close enough in spirit that I would be comfortable quoting it as a line from Dante.

In this passage from A Parliament of Women (a translation of Aristophanes’s Ecclesiazusae), Paul Roche fails the quotability test. A young woman is addressing one of the old women which a new law would require her young lover to sleep with, and Roche has her say,

It doesn’t make sense, it sucks to sleep with you, he’s far too young: you’re more like his mother than his lover, and if you women enforce this law you’ll fill the land with Oedipus Wrecks.

“Oedipus Wrecks”! It’s so clever you want to quote it — but if you did you obviously wouldn’t be quoting Aristophanes, since the pun works only in English. What did Aristophanes actually say here? Is there some Greek word which sounds like tyrannos and means something like “wreck”? I don’t know. Elsewhere, when “christenings” and “coffee grinders” anachronistically turn up in Roche’s Aristophanes, he at least provides footnotes to explain what the original said; here he offers nothing. To find out what Aristophanes really said, we have to look elsewhere. So here, for comparison, are a few other translations.

This is a public domain version. (The translator’s name is not given.)

You do ill. A young fellow like him is not of the age to suit you. You ought to be his mother rather than his wife. With these laws in force, the earth will be filled with Oedipuses.

And here’s Jack Lindsay’s version:

I think you’re wrong; he’s far too young, just look! He couldn’t do a thing, no, not an inch; and you are old enough to be his mother, not his woman. If this law’s to work, there’ll be an Oedipus under every sheet.

And Jeffrey Henderson’s:

That’s not very prudent. He’s the wrong age to be sleeping with you — you’re more his mother than his wife. If you people start enforcing a law like this, you’ll fill the whole country with Oedipuses.

In these three translations, there’s no pun at all, suggesting that “Oedipus Wrecks” is Roche’s own idea, with no warrant in Aristophanes. Nor do any of the other translators have anything like “it sucks to sleep with you.” Someone’s straying from the text, and I think it’s Roche.

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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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Mandelbaum’s Dante

I’m reading Dante again, by the way — Allen Mandelbaum’s translation. I was so impressed with his Odyssey that I went from bookstore to bookstore until I had finally tracked down copies of his Aeneid and Commedia. He’s also translated Ovid, Quasimodo, and Ungaretti, and I’ll snatch those up too if I can find them. For someone who is such a virtuoso at translating poetry (and from three different languages!), Mandelbaum surprisingly turns out to be a bit of a klutz when it comes to English prose, at least if his nearly unreadable introduction to the Inferno is any indication. A typical passage:

For Dante is an Aeolus-the-Brusque, a Lord-of-Furibundus-Fuss, the Ur-Imam-of-Impetus. Or, for brutish Scrutinists, who reach for similes among the beasts and not among the gods, he is the lizard that, “when it darts from hedge/ to hedge beneath the dog days’ giant lash,/ seems, if it cross one’s path, a lightning flash” (Inf. XXV, 79-81)

Note how the dead, bloated language suddenly springs to life as soon as he stops speaking for himself and starts translating Dante. Like Plato’s Ion, he has nothing to say except as a reciter of his favorite poets — of which, unlike Ion, he happily has more than one.

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Reading: The Odyssey

I’ve read two translations of Homer’s Odyssey:

  • Robert Fitzgerald (29 Aug 2001)
  • Allen Mandelbaum (19 Sep 2009)

I’ve also perused bits of W. H. D. Rouse’s translation, although I’ve read his Iliad and wasn’t impressed. As I might have expected, he manages to mangle even the most beautiful passages. Compare these lines from Mandelbaum’s Odyssey

Tenacious, shameless, driven to deceive,
even in your own land you cannot leave
behind the tales and traps, the lies you love.

with their counterparts in Rouse’s

Irrepressible! everlasting schemer! indefatigable fabulist! Even in your own country you wouldn’t desist from your tales and your historiological inventions, which you love from the bottom of your heart.

The man simply has a tin ear.

That scene, by the way, from Book XIII has always been for me the heart of the Odyssey; I find his reunion with Athena, who knows and loves him as the inveterate old schemer he is, more moving than his reunion with Penelope, who knows him only as a husband. Yes, Odysseus loves his wife and is as true to her as could reasonably be expected given the circumstances, but man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart. The final reunion is Penelope’s scene, not his; Odysseus is no more himself than when sitting under that olive tree with his old friend Athena, plotting.

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