Tag Archives: Allen Mandelbaum

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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