October 27, 2013

The People Lost: Translators of Dante's Inferno - Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney translated the first 3 cantos of this edition, edited by Daniel Halpern. The People Lost is a series of articles on the frustrating English translations of Dante's Inferno. In part two, I'm going to all but plagiarize the excellent commentary of Douglas Hofstadter to cover a little more background on why Inferno translations are, you might say, ugly as sin. The Hofstadter comments below all come from Chapter 17 of Le Ton Beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language, Hofstadter's book about poetry translation. Hofstadter identifies several formal features present in Dante's original text which, ideally, would be reproduced in a perfect English translation. I've arranged them here roughly from simplest to translate to the most difficult:
  • The poem is composed of tercets (three-line stanzas) with an isolated final line at the end of each canto.
  • Inferno is 34 cantos long, and each canto is 40 to 50 tercets long.
  • The vast majority of these tercets express a complete, self-contained thought.
  • Each line has eleven syllables.
  • Nearly every line is accented on syllable 10 and on either syllable 4 or 6, giving the poem its rhythm.
  • The rhyme scheme is terza rima: the first and third lines of each tercet rhyme with the second line of the previous tercet. In rhyme scheme notation: ABA BCB CDC DED EFE FGF and on.
In summary, Inferno has a very strict form and style, almost none of which is reproduced in English translations. Hofstadter comes down especially hard on the translation work of Seamus Heaney, a Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet who gave his own version of a portion of Inferno. Here is his version of the famous opening lines of Canto III, the inscription at the entrance to Hell which is most famous for line 9, usually translated as "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here"

THROUGH ME IT LEADS TO THE CITY SORROWFUL.
THROUGH ME IT LEADS TO THE ETERNAL PAIN. 
THROUGH ME IT LEADS AMONG THE LOST PEOPLE. 

JUSTICE INSPIRED MY MAKER ABOVE. 
IT WAS DIVINE POWER THAT FORMED ME, 
SUPREME WISDOM AND ORIGINAL LOVE. 

BEFORE ME NO THING WAS CREATED EXCEPT THINGS 
EVERLASTING. AND I AM EVERLASTING. 
LEAVE EVERY HOPE BEHIND YOU, YOU WHO ENTER. 

I saw these words inscribed above a gate 
in obscure characters, and so I said, 
"Master, I find their sense hard to interpret." 

What a disaster. Completely unnatural, ugly English, let alone poetry. What is the "it" in the first three lines? Why is there a "the" before the presumably non-metaphorical "eternal pain"? The "you, you" in the inscription's final line is awkward. I can't parse any consistent meter, either. It's nearly Google Translate poetry, but here's how I know for certain it didn't come through a machine translator: A machine translator would have known that "oscuro" in Dante's original means "dark," not "obscure," which in English more closely means "not well-known." Hofstadter had nearly the same complaints, and I don't mean to copy them, but these are all very basic translation errors committed by an award-winning professional poet. Can't miss 'em.

And for all of this awkward and ugly English, this translation only copies two of Inferno's formal features listed above. It sticks to tercets and doesn't split thoughts between them. You can see that there was, at some level, an attempt at a rhyme scheme--"above" and "love" rhyme, "sorrowful" and "people" nearly do--but there's no attempt to employ terza rima, and "gate" and "interpret" don't rhyme at all and "things" and "enter" are not even similar words. In four stanzas, we see very little rhyme, very little meter, awkward English grammar, and basic errors in meaning. Is there even one admirable thing about this translation?

After discussing this and a few other attempts at translating Dante, Hofstadter proposes a new motto for future attempts: "Try a little harder." These translators are raising the white flag on form in pursuit of perfect replication of content. Again and again, translators take this tact, claiming that rhyme is too sing-song and silly anyway, and we're left with unpoetic translations.

"Try a little harder" sounds fair to me, but let's quickly examine why Inferno's form, especially its rhyme scheme, is seen as too difficult to translate. Rhyming is indeed harder in English. Elementary school may have told you that English has five (and a half) vowels, but pronunciation-wise there are actually somewhere between 15-20, depending on your accent. Italian only has 5-7 vowel sounds, which makes rhymes easier to find.

 For instance, the Italian words "stazione" and "azione" rhyme. Both these words come from Latin to both Italian and English, but in making the jump to English, "station" and "action" took on different sounds of the same English phoneme "a." English took the same vowel sound in these words from Latin and turned it into two different vowel sounds in English, so these words can no longer rhyme. But translating into rhyme can still be done. How badly does it corrupt all the other elements of the translation? Here is a rhyming translation of the beginning of Canto III done in 1919 by Eleanor Prescott Hammond:

"Through me comest to the land of woe; 
Through me to endless sorrow is the gate; 
Through me along the lost the way doth go. 

Justice did my first Maker actuate; 
I am the supreme handiwork of Power Divine, 
Of Supreme Wisdom, and Love the uncreate. 

Naught hath beginning elder than was mine, 
Unless eternal; eternal I abide; 
Ye who make entrance here, all hope resign." 

These sentences, in colors darkly dyed, 
Above a gate I saw, that written were: 
And I: "O Master, hard things do they betide." 

The grammar is clumsy, but hardly any clumsier than Heaney's attempt above. The content is actually more faithfully translated than as done by Heaney, and with perfect terza rima. This proves it can be done.