Tag Archives: Dante

Dante and the three beasts

In the first canto of the Inferno, Dante, having gone astray in a dark wood, reaches the base of a sunlit hill (later described by Virgil as “the mountain of delight, the origin and cause of every joy”) and begins to climb — only to find the way blocked by three beasts. First, a leopard appears.

And almost where the hillside starts to rise–
look there! — a leopard, very quick and lithe,
a leopard covered with a spotted hide.
He did not disappear from sight, but stayed;
indeed, he so impeded my ascent
that I had often to turn back again.

It is a spring morning, and “the hour and the gentle season” give Dante “good cause for hopefulness” upon seeing the leopard — but then he sees a lion.

but hope was hardly able to prevent
the fear I felt when I beheld a lion.
His head held high and ravenous with hunger —
even the air around him seemed to shudder —
this lion seemed to make his way against me.

When the third beast appears, Dante gives up hope entirely.

And then a she-wolf showed herself; she seemed
to carry every craving in her leanness;
she had already brought despair to many.
The very sight of her so weighted me
with fearfulness that I abandoned hope
of ever climbing up that mountain slope.
. . . I retreated down to lower ground.

Allen Mandelbaum, in his notes to his translation of the Inferno (which is the version I have quoted), writes, “For most early commentators — and, after many alternate proposals, for many moderns — the leopard represents lust; the lion, pride; the she-wolf, avarice or cupidity.” In what appears to be the most popular of the alternate proposals, the three beasts, instead of representing a seemingly arbitrary subset of the seven deadly sins, stand for the three divisions of Dante’s hell: incontinence, violence, and fraud. Everyone who advocates this latter scheme agrees that the lion represents violence, but there is no agreement as to which of the other two beasts maps to which of the remaining categories of sin. (The leopard’s spotted hide could represent camouflage and thus fraud, or it could be “spotted” in the sense of being impure — macolato as the opposite of immaculate — and thus represent the lusts of the flesh.) In any case, regardless of the details, commentators are unanimous in interpreting the three beasts as allegories of sin and in associating at least one of them with lust or incontinence, and it is in this general sense that I wish to discuss them.

There is, on the face of it, something very odd and counterintuitive about portraying lust as an intimidating beast which stands uphill from the pilgrim, blocking his ascent and forcing him to turn back down the mountain. Surely people are lured from the path of virtue — not intimidated — by lust, and a more natural allegory would have depicted lust as an enticing siren located downhill from the pilgrim, drawing him towards her rather than scaring him away. The same is doubly true of pride, if that is indeed what the lion is meant to represent. How can it possibly make sense to say that the pilgrim had been full of hope until his own pride struck terror into his heart? What has trepidation to do with pride? If the beasts are sins, whatever particular sins they may be, one would expect them to be portrayed as tempting Dante rather than frightening him — but when Beatrice tells Virgil of how Dante is “hindered in his path along that lonely hillside,” she says nothing about temptation or going astray; rather, she reports that her friend “has been turned aside by terror.”

So it appears that what bars “the shortest way up the fair mountain” is not sin but fear of sin, not temptation but the avoidance of temptation. When Dante repeatedly turns back and retreats, this does not symbolize sinning or backsliding; rather, he is abandoning his spiritual quest for fear that if he continues he will fall prey to sin. Ascending the mountain — which surely symbolizes spiritual advancement and drawing closer to God — nevertheless exposes Dante to the danger of sin, which no longer menaces him when he retreats to lower ground.

Perhaps this lower ground, where one can be safe from sin and yet unsaved, is the ground taken by those Dante later encounters in Canto III,

the sorry souls of those
who lived without disgrace and without praise.
. . .
The heavens, that their beauty not be lessened,
have cast them out, nor will deep Hell receive them —
even the wicked cannot glory in them.
. . .
and their blind life is so abject that they
are envious of every other fate.
The world will let no fame of theirs endure;
both justice and compassion must disdain them;
let us not talk of them, but look and pass.

To remain in safety at the foot of the mountain is to be one of these “wretched ones, who never were alive.” To attempt the ascent is spiritual suicide, a sure path to damnation — for the she-wolf, Virgil explains, “allows no man to pass along her track, but blocks him even to the point of death.” Dante is quite literally damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t, and he escapes his predicament only through divine grace, when the saints in heaven (the Virgin Mary, St. Lucia, and Beatrice) send Virgil to his aid. The remainder of the Comedy — the grand tour of hell, purgatory, and paradise — is nothing but the detour Virgil arranges for Dante because “the shortest way up the fair mountain” is blocked.


Dante’s dilemma brings other heroes to mind — Gilgamesh, for one, who also finds his mountain path blocked by fierce beasts, but who reacts rather differently:

At night when he came to the mountain passes Gilgamesh prayed: ‘In these mountain passes long ago I saw lions, I was afraid and I lifted my eyes to the moon; I prayed and my prayers went up to the gods, so now, O moon god Sin, protect me.’ When he had prayed he lay down to sleep, until he was woken from out of a dream. He saw the lions round him glorying in life; then he took his axe in his hand, he drew his sword from his belt, and he fell upon them like an arrow from the string, and struck and destroyed and scattered them.

What the lions meant to the Mesopotamian poets is unknown, but that they represented “sin” or anything of that nature seems unlikely, so the Dante-like imagery of this episode is probably a coincidence. Nevertheless, the parallels are more than superficial. In broad terms, Gilgamesh faces the same dilemma as Dante — whether to ascend the mountain and dare damnation or to settle for the safety and stagnation of moral circumspection — and he makes the other choice. Gilgamesh is perhaps the earliest prototype of the Faustian man, and it is Faust even more than Gilgamesh who comes to mind as a counterpart to Dante, one who is put in the same predicament and chooses the other path. As Terryl Givens puts it in an insightful essay comparing Faust to Eve,

Dr. Faustus conveys the pathos of what it means to be Eve in a claustrophobic garden: Logic, medicine, law—the entire medieval curriculum he has mastered. His narrow study, like the boundaries of Eden, fits only “a mercenary drudge . . . too servile and illiberal for me.” So finding his only road to self-actualization is the path of sin, he takes it.

Dante also finds that his only road to self-actualization is the path of sin, and he retreats to lower ground. Of course, Dante reaches heaven in the end, while Faustus is damned, all his daring and striving ultimately as futile as Gilgamesh’s. Only in Goethe’s version is Faust saved — and, like Dante, only by grace. “Whoever strives with all his might,” say the angels in the closing scenes of Goethe’s drama, “we are allowed to save.”

Goethe uncannily echoes the Book of Mormon here — “it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Ne. 25:23) — and Givens in his essay sees Goethe’s conception of Faust as parallel to Joseph Smith’s conception of Eve. Smith taught that the Fall was not an unfortunate catastrophe, but rather a necessary step along the road to salvation; had Adam and Eve not fallen, they would have remained in a state reminiscent of the “sorry souls” encountered by Dante, “having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin” (2 Ne. 2:23). Dante, in contrast, follows the more orthodox understanding that it would have been better if Adam and Eve had not fallen, that had they chosen pusillanimity instead of sin, God could have saved them from that as well.

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On Auster, Dante, and being an atheist conservative

I’ve been reading old articles on Lawrence Auster’s blog View from the Right and came across his review of the then-new blog Secular Right, in which he pretty much denies that “secular right” is even a coherent concept. Here are some key excerpts (italics are Auster’s; boldface and ellipses are mine):

The problem is in the very notion of a “secular right,” of a publicly and actively atheist conservatism. These are contradictions in terms. . . . It’s one thing for people privately not to believe in God, but still maintain adherence to the common loyalties we have as Americans. But if you publicly deny and attack and thus try to make other people disbelieve the specific supernatural claims on which our form of government is based, such as that our fundamental human rights to liberty and self-government come from our being created by God in his image, such as that man is a flawed and fallen being and therefore the powers of human government must be carefully restrained, I don’t see how you can call yourself a conservative or a person of the right, at least in the American context.

By definition, an outspoken public stance against religion and the existence of God is incompatible with conservatism. People taking such a stance may have conservative positions on this or that issue, but I don’t think they have the right to call themselves conservatives. . . . A conservative by definition is a person who respects, or at the very least defers to and doesn’t publicly attack, the fundamental principles and beliefs of his society.

Auster goes on to say that the people behind Secular Right (John Derbyshire, Heather Mac Donald, and Razib Khan) are not only unconservative but, by virtue of being outspoken atheists, are actually hostile to Western civilization itself.

These people are saying that America and the whole world would be better off if the whole human race stopped believing in God and if religion ceased to exist. They’re not just saying that religion intrudes in areas where it doesn’t belong or that religion sometimes leads astray and that man’s reason may a better guide in some areas than religion. They’re saying that wherever religion and belief in God exist, the world is worse than it would be than if it were guided by pure, godless reason.

. . . [t]hey are indicating their hostility to the entire Western tradition of Reason and Revelation. They don’t accept the Revelation part, and everything in our thousands-year-long history that is of religion, that makes reference to God or gods, that is not of materialist, scientific reason, they will, if it comes within their ken, put down, devalue, and discard. Whether it’s the Iliad (in which the heroic ideal is to become for brief moments like a god), or the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome (completely based in religion), of the plays of Aeschylus (inconceivable without the religion sense), or the Parthenon (a temple to Athena); . . . or the Hebrew Bible, or our entire moral and social system that comes from the Hebrew Bible, . . . or whether it’s the teachings and personality of Jesus Christ, . . . or whether it’s the establishment of the Christian Church in Rome, or the Christianization and re-civilization of Europe by the Roman Church after the barbarian conquests and the fall of the western Roman empire, or whether it’s the Frankish kingdom’s defeat of the Muslim invasion of France, which would not have happened if the Franks weren’t Catholics defending Catholic Europe from Islam . . . .

I could go on for thousands of words, but I think the point has been sufficiently made. Our history, our civilization, the BEST that we have been, is intertwined with God, gods, and religion at every point. Yet the village atheists of Secular Right would dispense with it all, and they want the rest of us to dispense with it as well, because in their wisdom they know that secular reason could have done a better job of it than religion — these intellectual adolescents who think they know everything but know nothing.

So it’s not just that they have no right to call themselves conservatives. It’s that they are hostile to that which makes up our historic civilization, the Christian West, as well as to the specifically religious dimension of the American Founding, without which there would be no rights as we understand them, and no limited government as we understand it.

According to Auster, to be an atheist — or at least to be openly atheistic — is to be hostile to the entire Western tradition. Because the West has always been based on religion in one form or another, anyone who is against religion is against the West. But in fact “the” Western tradition comprises a succession of mutually incompatible movements — Classical religion and philosophy, Catholicism, Protestantism, the Enlightenment — each of which was more or less openly hostile to its predecessors. To the extent that Greco-Roman culture was “completely based in religion,” it was a religion which Christians saw as completely incorrect. The Parthenon is, to Christians no less than to atheists, a temple to a false god — a being which does not actually exist and ought never to have been worshiped. If atheists often feel that “the whole world would be better off if the whole human race stopped believing in God and if religion ceased to exist,” serious Christians tend to feel the same way about paganism and idolatry.

The pagans of Greece and Rome perceived Christianity as a direct attack on their beliefs, culture, and civilization, a situation dramatized in the “Great is Diana of the Ephesians!” episode in Acts 19. The evangelist mostly plays the confrontation for laughs — Demetrius is a self-interested silversmith whose main concern is protecting his own job as a manufacturer of idols, and the crowd he raises are a confused rabble, most of whom “knew not wherefore they were come together” — but history has nevertheless vindicated them. “This Paul,” says Demetrius, “hath persuaded and turned away much people, saying that they be no gods, which are made with hands: so that . . . the temple of the great goddess Diana should be despised, and her magnificence should be destroyed, whom all Asia and the world worshippeth.” And, well, didn’t that happen? In hindsight, we can see that Demetrius was right, and that the seemingly reasonable townclerk (“ye ought to be quiet . . . these men . . . are neither robbers of churches, nor yet blasphemers of your goddess”) had gravely underestimated the existential threat Christianity posed to Diana, to her temple, and indeed to “all Asia and the world.”

And yet Christianity didn’t destroy Western civilization; it became Western civilization. Despite the fact that Christianity is by definition hostile to paganism, it still managed to assimilate and perpetuate much of Classical civilization and to define itself within a broader Western tradition. Augustine, Thomas, and Descartes were the heirs of Plato and Aristotle. The legacy of Virgil and Homer lived on in Dante and Milton. Despite the inherent incompatibility of paganism and Christianity, of Catholicism and Protestantism, there really is such a thing as what Auster elsewhere calls “the Classical-Christian tradition” — e pluribus unum. I would add that the Enlightenment also belongs to that same tradition, and that there is no obvious reason why out-and-out atheism might not also be included. For the would-be atheist conservative — or, if “conservative” is too strong a word, for the atheist who is in awe of the Western tradition and wishes to perpetuate it, but who wishes also to be loyal to the truth as he understands it, including the truth that there don’t actually seem to be any such things as gods — for such a person, the Christians of antiquity and of the Middle Ages provide an invaluable example of how to honor, appropriate, and continue a great tradition whilst at the same time unflinchingly opposing some of the core beliefs on which that tradition is based.

A particular source of inspiration for me is the fourth canto of the Inferno. Dante and his guide Virgil visit the First Circle of Hell, to which are consigned good and honorable men who, not being Christians, are nevertheless damned because “they lacked baptism” and “did not worship God in fitting ways.” For the most part they represent the great men of pre-Christian antiquity, though some medieval Muslims (Averroes, Avicenna, Saladin) are also among them. Being serious about his religion, Dante never flinches from the harsh judgment it demands: that, Christianity being the Truth, non-Christians are, at bottom, wrong — ignorant, superstitious, damned. “Though they have merits, that’s not enough.” However wise and good they may have been in some ways, they were in the end — even Aristotle, “the master of the men who know” — simply wrong about that which mattered most. And so Virgil, as he prepares to lead Dante into the presence of such intellectual giants as Thales and Democritus, Plato and Socrates, Homer and Horace, says simply, “Let us descend into the blind world now.”

But Dante is no Vizzini (“Plato, Aristotle, Socrates? Morons.”), and despite his principled rejection of some of these men’s most fundamental beliefs, he approaches them not with contemptuous dismissal but with awe. “Great-hearted souls were shown to me,” he says of those he meets in the First Circle, “and I still glory in my having witnessed them.” And when he is invited to take his place among the great (damned) poets of the past — Homer, Horace, Ovid, Lucan, and Virgil — Dante’s attitude is an appropriate mixture of pride and humility. “And even greater honor then was mine,” he writes, “for they invited me to join their ranks — I was the sixth among such intellects. So did we move along [together] toward the light.” There is in Dante’s attitude none of the wishy-washy “all religions are true” universalism, nor of the “formerly all the world was insane” cockiness, which characterize so much of today’s philosophical and religious discussion. And, despite his categorical rejection of paganism, he nevertheless aspires to be worthy of the great pagans’ company, to continue the tradition they began, to “move along” with them “toward the light.”

In my own reading of the great Christian literature of the past (and, very occasionally, of the present), the words of Inferno IV often come back to me. Opening up a volume of Augustine, of Traherne, of Dante himself, I think, “Let us descend into the blind world now.” These men were, in my judgment, simply wrong about some very important things, including, most fundamentally, the existence of God — but they were giants, masters of the men who know, spiriti magni, and it would be an honor to be worthy to join their ranks — not as a Christian, any more than it was as a pagan that Dante joined Homer and Virgil, but as part of a tradition larger and grander than any one creed — and move along toward the light.

Besides Dante, another useful model for how, as an atheist, to relate to religion is provided by St. Augustine and the metaphorical spolia Aegyptiorum he calls for in De doctrina christiana:

Moreover, if those who are called philosophers, and especially the Platonists, have said aught that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it. For, as the Egyptians had not only the idols and heavy burdens which the people of Israel hated and fled from, but also vessels and ornaments of gold and silver, and garments, which the same people when going out of Egypt appropriated to themselves, designing them for a better use, not doing this on their own authority, but by the command of God, the Egyptians themselves, in their ignorance, providing them with things which they themselves, were not making a good use of; in the same way all branches of heathen learning have not only false and superstitious fancies and heavy burdens of unnecessary toil, which every one of us, when going out under the leadership of Christ from the fellowship of the heathen, ought to abhor and avoid; but they contain also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of the truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths in regard even to the worship of the One God are found among them. Now these are, so to speak, their gold and silver, which they did not create themselves, but dug out of the mines of God’s providence which are everywhere scattered abroad, and are perversely and unlawfully prostituting to the worship of devils. These, therefore, the Christian, when he separates himself in spirit from the miserable fellowship of these men, ought to take away from them, and to devote to their proper use in preaching the gospel. Their garments, also,—that is, human institutions such as are adapted to that intercourse with men which is indispensable in this life,—we must take and turn to a Christian use.

Augustine’s approach is less humane, less graceful than Dante’s — he speaks in terms of plundering the paynims rather than of learning from the masters and “separates himself in spirit from the miserable fellowship” of those whom Dante was honored to join — and is in this way perhaps closer in spirit to many a modern atheist. But underneath the hostility lies the same call to move beyond the mere écrasement de l’infâme, to learn all that can be learned even from the “blind world,” to take in all truth everywhere with what David B. Hart, in his own description of the Christian spolia (qv), called “a kind of omnivorous glee.”

What makes this omnivorous glee possible? The overriding concern with truth as such, over and above any cultural loyalties, which has — if not always then at least impressively often — been a hallmark of the West. Contra Auster, I would say that to put the Western tradition above truth itself, to refrain from publicly attacking your society’s false beliefs simply because they are those of your society — to subject even philosophy to the standard “my country, right or wrong” — is to go a whoring after idols and, paradoxically, to betray the Western tradition.


Filed under Christianity, Philosophy

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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