Translated by J.G. Nichols and published by OneWorld Classics
An article on a new reissue of Dante’s Inferno seems, at first, to be redundant in two senses; firstly one might presume that, with the multitude of translations already offered to us over the last century, another one thrown in front of an unsuspecting public may not also be next to useless. One also might presume that, with the standard of school literature courses at such a low, particularly when it comes to the study of epic works originally presented in languages other than English, another volume may well fall on deaf ears.
In general terms I’ll try to emphasize why both these approaches might be refuted. To begin, one would have to look into the publishing history of The Divine Comedy in English in the twentieth century. It would also be useful to initially point out that Dante has been read in mass market forms over the last hundred years or so, and is not as arcane or as ‘literary’ a pursuit as we sometimes imagine. First we have the immensely popular (for their time) Temple Editions of the Commedia which were read across the first half of the twentieth century and the latter half of the previous century, translated by Israel Gollancz more recently, then, up through mid-nineteenth century by John Carlyle, who was later revised for Temple by H.Oelsner… in many ways these are names long gone to today’s modern reader of Dante.
But what made Temple so successful, and so profusely read, it seems, is the approach that Dante simply could be enjoyed by many, rather than left to the scholars. Temple’s publishing remit also covered a series of Primers for the Commedia edited by the Dante scholar P.H Wicksteed (whose Life of Dante translation is re-printed in the current OneWorld series). The closest thing to the Temple approach in our time might be Allen Mandelbaum’s well known translation across the pond.
So it is incredibly important to note that very few paperbacks of the Commedia, within our time, have been bilingual. After the Mandelbaum, in bilingual editions, we only have John D.Sinclair’s translation available to us; begun during the second world war and completed in the mid-sixties… still, I’d reckon, the de facto affordable and well used crib for many students of Dante (in a Q + A session a few years ago Ciaran Carson mentioned to this author that the Sinclair was the crib that led him to make his own rhymed translation of The Inferno).
Both Sinclair and the Temple editions emphasized faithfulness to the original with plainness of phrasal expression… the Temple asserts an even closer link to the original by 1/trying to mirror the grammatical constructs of Dante’s Italian in English and 2/mirroring archaisms… an interesting and intriguing approach, which sometimes comes off and sometimes doesn’t.
So, while we’ve been festooned with translations over the intervening time it is interesting to note that, to this reader’s knowledge, only three bilingual cribs with English translation are now currently on the market (the Sinclair translation really came of age in the mid to late sixties with the Mandelbaum put out as a mass market paperback by Bantam in the mid-eighties). So it seems to me that OneWorld’s new edition, originally put out on Hesperus Press in 2005, is really aiming for the reader who wants a bilingual edition with a readable, up-to-date rendering of the Italian in English verse (ostensibly the reason why I haven’t mentioned the myriad of names previously involved in translations of the Commedia, of whom it may be worth noting Mark Musa’s translation, now available on Penguin, given it’s large swathe of influence, and, by a fluke, also an edition I own and will quote from later).
With the Temple editions long gone and Sinclair’s edition in prose (by no means a bad option for the first timer to the Commedia) it’s only the Mandelbaum that can really compare with this present edition in terms of the formal presentations of the two texts. One would also guess that it may have been an influence on Nichols, whose translations do mirror some of the features of Mandelbaum’s presentation.
First of all Nichols is working at using rhyme when he can but in no way is he after copying the tricky terza rima rhyme form of Dante’s original (a b c b c d c d e d e f… etc, for those uninitiated. If you’re in need of the rhyme replication in English I’d refer you to Peter Dale, John Ciardi or Ciaran Carson’s Inferno for these).
With only a very bare bones Italian I won’t attempt to pass judgement on the faithfulness of Nichol’s work in depth, but WILL contrast and compare the tone of his style with other translations I’ve come across.
To begin, let’s simply delve into a few quotes to give us a feel for what Nichols seems to be shooting for. The very famous and oft-quoted opening:
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.
Ah, quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier rinova la paura!
The long-line poesy version of Carlyle’s Temple edition has:
In the middle of the journey of our life I came
to myself in a dark wood where the straight
way was lost.
Ah! how hard a thing it is to tell what a wild,
and rough, and stubborn wood this was, which
in my thought renews the fear!
Midway along the journey of our life
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
For I had wandered off from the straight path.
How hard it is to tell what it was like,
this wood of wilderness, savage and stubborn
(the thought of it brings back all my old fears),
Halfway along our journey to life’s end
I found myself astray in a dark wood,
Since the right way was nowhere to be found.
How hard a thing it is to express the horror
Of that wild wood, so difficult, so dense!
Even to think of it renews my terror.
Hopefully these comparisons will firstly, trace a vague lineage in translation but also exemplify what a random sample of approaches might be. Knowing the Italian for this section, it’s slightly easier to judge. The Temple is more faithful to the Italian and does not attempt to explain the literality of the Italian “ritrovai”, Musa explains more with two verbs… and Nichols treads the middle ground with the verb ‘found’ which strikes one as modern but not as effusive as Musa. Musa loses a little rhythm/music, however, in: For I had wandered off from the straight path.
Of course, Nichols’ “end”, in the first line, is reaching to half-rhyme, for the terza rima, with the word “found” in the third line. This is what comes of rhyming, and it is the same issue one might one might take up with Mandelbaum, mildly, and more comprehensively with rhymed translations (of which I’m aware John Ciardi is, perhaps, the most well known recent example). The word ‘end’ is, in no way, present in the original… with ‘mezzo’ (literally: middle) as the only place-specification.
Further down, the Italian proceeds: ch’i’ fur per ritornar più volte vòlto… while Nichols has: I kept on turning round to turn and flee. The question being: is this possibly-more-literal rendering adding to the quality of the English? Possibly not, I’d venture. It’s simply an awkward construction.
Having said that, the very beginning of the Inferno is perhaps where Nichols is at his clunkiest. Canto XI has him striding out more confidently, with a tone that is both consistent, and believably Dante’s:
– […] it follows that mankind
Should make its way in the world, and make a living
That’s not the method of the usurer,
For he must slight both nature and her pupil,
Hard human work, placing his hopes elsewhere.
The sporadic half-rhyme or specified echoes in vowel sounds can open up a certain rhythm that is more appealing. Nichols, it seems, is not so adamant on modernizing or explaining the language, and, if in doubt, he plumps for choices that reinforce clarity over total faithfulness. All these definitions are, in a translation of a well-known text, up for grabs… and we’ve now had plenty of time to make up our minds on Dante. The focus on rendering the time of Dante’s verse can be, however, problematic of course.
In Canto XV line 20, a description a group of The Inferno’s various sinners, Nichols has: They knit their eyebrows and squinnied up at us… from e si ver noi aguzzavan le ciglia / come ‘l vecchio sartor fa nella cruna. The verb squinnied might grate, and yet may also have some accurate historical echo. The ‘old Temple’ responds in a much plainer fashion: towards us sharpened their vision… while Musa waxes: They strained their eyebrows, squinting hard at us. One would be hard put to not prefer the Musa, here, modernized though it seems.
The more arcane plain language of Nichols (half-Musa-half-Mandelbaum?), though, has its very interesting uses, particularly in the episodes of the travelers coming upon Bertran de Born and Ugolino, some of the scariest, dramatic moments in the Inferno, firstly the entrance of De Born, felled in the Guelf/Ghibelline feud of Dante’s day;
I really saw, and still I seem to see,
A trunk without a head, moving along
With all the others in that company;
It held its severed head up by the hair,
Swinging it in one hand just like a lantern;
The head saw us and moaned in its despair.
…a great improvement on Carlyle’s very awkward And it was holding by the hair the severed head, swinging in his hand like a lantern; and that looked at us and said: “Oh me!” Nichols phrasing perfectly captures the shock of the image, while retaining, for good or ill, the rhyme at “despair” rather than translating the spoken exasperation itself. Translator’s license? The reader is left to decide for themselves (again, a nice benefit of the bilingual edition is that the translator is always leaving the last word up to us, in offering up the en face original for judgement).
And then we come to Ugolino, munching on the head of one of those who betrayed him:
He raised his mouth from his barbaric feed,
That sinner, and he wiped it on what hair
There still remained on the half-eaten head.
Where Musa has:
Lifting his head from his horrendous meal,
this sinner first wiped off his messy lips
on the hair remaining on the chewed-up skull,
…the ‘messy lips’ don’t altogether convince in making plain acted and acted-upon, while the Nichols might be accused of straying in his faith to the text and ‘explaining’ the action. Here, I’d still plump for the Nichols in rendering up the inherent drama of the image more viscerally.
In summation there’s much to weigh up. As I’ve mentioned any bilingual edition of the Commedia is welcome, particularly as a study mechanism for students, and as a way into the study of other languages, also. The OneWorld Classics series, by all stretches of the imagination, are most probably working on quite a tight budget in a field stuffed with options in translation so it is good to see such dedication to Italian literature in translation. It looks as though Nichols will be following up his Inferno with the release of the Purgatorio next year and it’s to be hoped very much that he’ll complete the cycle… a very necessary task in competing with the more established Mandelbaum edition.
One would hope that this edition could be the one used in schools/universities in years to come, rather than the usual knee-jerk response of many places (those looking into Dante at least) in picking up the most well known complete edition of the Inferno, or the complete Commedia. What’s also pleasing, as mentioned, is that Nichols has seemed to render a certain amount of rhythm and music in the English of this newest release.
Any competition between this edition and the well-established Sinclair prose edition may well hinge on the notes each provides. The notes, in Sinclair, are, without doubt, more comprehensive, while all of the OneWorld Classics editions are much more precise and perfunctory (with short bunches of footnotes included and a general background to its authors at the backs of the books)… possibly a plus for the student already wading through a great morass of waffly introductions to cumbersome and inaccessible ‘masterpieces’. To these eyes, it is the clarity and music of Dante that is more important in perfecting than the quality of notes. I’m also glad to see footnotes over endnotes in this series, saving the reader from rooting through the rest of the book at each moment of confusion.
Time will also tell if, amongst these knackered out economies of ours, a pioneering publisher could muster an all-purpose one volume hardcover bilingual edition of Dante’s great work (perhaps on thin paper?) Maybe this is something that these most current translations might find themselves in, within the next decade or so? Who knows.