IMPOSINGLY OUTSIZE, brilliantly designed and handsomely printed in hard, clean Dante Monotype on luxurious stock, this is physically a beautiful book, a delight to look at, leaf, and heft. It is also generously illustrated with line and wash drawings (Baskinesque in style) by Barry Moser; the aim of the two modes of drawing, I take it, is to convey both Dante's clawlike particularity and precision of language, and the evocative power of large generic suggestion -- an aim in which, given the impressive competition from the great line of Dante illustrators, Moser seems to have succeeded remarkably well. In every possible way, the format insists that this is the Dante we've all been waiting for; the real, right English Dante which will at last put to rout all those mostly mediocre versions, high-falutin', or prosy, or inaccurate, with which the general reader now must live.
These ambitious claims are, unfortunately, not well sustained by Allen Mandelbaum's often pleasant, literally accurate, but generally disappointing version of the Inferno. The trouble is not Mandelbaum's scholarship, which is impressive, nor his strategy for handling the terza rima -- a blank verse line linked by occasional rhyme and intricate assonance -- which shows poetic intelligence and theoretical energy. The trouble lies with the poetic skills, above all the musical skills, on which the success of the strategy obviously depends. Mandelbaum, to put it bluntly, too often lacks that "adroit ars poetica" which he rightly observes that Dante's translation requires. To my eye and ear at my rate the general feeling is one of slapdash; rhetorical inflation and philogical fussiness often combine to defeat the translator's poetic commitment.
But the crucial trouble is the music, the continuous rhythmic sinew of Dante's poem, which appears in Mandelbaum as tonal discontinuity and jerkiness of movement, now forceful and elegant, now stilted or verbose or even pompous. The verse at one place moves vigorously enough, but then, without warning or warrant, sags into limp doughy prose chapped into verse lengths; or worse, into traditional iambic tub-thumping. The technical miracle of Dante's poem is of course its perfect, apparently effortless blending of colloquial and literary, high and low, realistic and allegorical/symbolic. The poet Dante is always in control. With Mandelbaum one feels that the rhetorician, or the philologue, or both, are too often running the show. The philologue in him, insisting on literal accuracy, tends to intimidate the poet, making him unadventurous or stilted; the rhetorician, as though mesmerized by the sound of his own ars rhetorica, drowns out the poet is a coarse blaring of bugles or conventional doggerel. If Mandelbaum's ear is not quite tin, it is too often, and not from any limitation of talent, brass. The poet, and the poet's ear, are there, but in potentia, waiting to emerge.
Right from the start, the rhetorician and his companion philologue are ominously present: When I had journeyed half of our life's way, I found myself within a shadowed forest, for I had left the path that does not stray, Ah, it is hard to speak of what it was, that savage forest, dense and difficult, which even in recall renews my fear: so bitter -- death is hardy more severe!
The italicized words indicate my sense of the flaws. I note, for instance, the metrical "filler" in that gritty "of," "within," and the gratuitous "even" -- padding exacted, not by blank verse, but be the translator's inadequate handling of the blank. A first-rate poet, like Seamus Heaney, also used blank verse to translate Dante, but with such agile economy that every line, every unit in every line, musically authenticates its own necessity; there is no spinning-out, no padding. But the critical flaw in the passage is the musically disastrous third line, with its rhythmic banality and its slammingly flat (to what purpose?) end-stopped line and masculine rhyme -- an effect echoed by the equally insensitive handling of syntax and music in the sixth and seventh lines. In the fifth line, padding again. "Difficult" translates nothing in Dante's beautiful musically rendered tangle of gnarled sound: esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte. Why is it there? Because Mandelbaum's pentameter requires a three-syllable word. In l. 2, "shadowed" translates oscura, but the effect is a trite poeticism which softens and romanticizes a place that has nothing soft or romantic about it. Give Mandelbaum a choice between literal verbal accuracy and the requirements of his meter, and the rhetorician invariably wins out over both poet and philologue.
One more example -- Dante's great figure in Canto 26 of Elijah's chariot, itself appended to the equally wonderful image of the flame-wrapped sinners glimmering like fire flies at the bottom of the Eighth Bulge: Even as he who was avenged by bears sa, as it left, Elijah's chariot -- its horses rearing, rising right to heaven -- when he could not keep track of it except by watching one lone flame in its ascent, just like a little cloud that climbs on high: so, through the gullet of that ditch, each flame must make its way; no flame displays its prey, though every flame has carried off a sinner. I stood upon the bridge and leaned straight out to see; and if I had not gripped a rock, I should have fallen off -- without a push.
The familiar flaws recur: the limply unresponsive rendering of Dante's al dipartire, which pointedly closes l. 35; the prosy detente of 37; the archaizing padding of "on high" consorting oddly with the colloquial padding of "just"; the coarse interior rhymes of 41, so much more subtly handled in Italian the pointlessly dash-stressed gaucherie of the tricky final clause of 45.
But the revealing failure is the absolutely unnecessary loss in ll. 37-38 of Dante's central metaphor here. "Except/ by watching one lone flame" misses, and makes the English reader miss, the point and force of the image. Elijah's horses rise, ramping, lifting off and up, towards heaven; as they rise into the distance, chariot and prophet both fold, to Elisha's following eye, into fire, a single cloudlet of flame. ("Within these fires are spirts;/ each one is swathed in that which makes him blaze"). The image is vivid in its evocation of Hell, but even under the vividness, it glancingly expresses the human hunger for transcendence, for what Dante elsewhere calls varco, passage from one world to another, which is the essential dynamic of the whole Commedia. Just as Elisha's eye follows Elijah's fiery upward varco, so Dante, standing on the infernal bridge, rises up and looks out (a veder surse) to follow the flickering flames of the sinners below. Even for those sunken and sinking in Hell, the vertical passion displays itself defining the human spirit. All this, as well as Dante's plain metaphorical intent -- the chariot which, disappearing from sight, first vaporizes into a cloud of flame -- has been buried by the translators' metrical and philological shuffling with the syntax at ll. 37-38. Compare Singleton's plain prose ("for he could not so follow it with his eyes to see aught save the flame alone, like a little cloud ascending"), and the cost of Mandelbaum's misrendering of vedesse altro che la fiamma sola becomes immediately apparent. Once again, the poet and the original poem have been defeated by uncritical philological zeal -- or simple hasty carelessness. I hasten to add that Mandelbaum doess not often miss the meaning in so serious a manner; but the tendency towards fussy accuracy -- towards preferring the letter to the spirit -- reveals the degree to which Mandelbaum the poet has been intimidated by the learning and the rhetorical skill which, in translating Dante, must support the poetry.
In translating a great and formidable poet like Dante, camparisons are instructive. We ought to know, before we condemn or censure a given version, just how it might have been done better. Without further comment, I invite the reader to compare a passage from Mandelbaum's handling of the famous Ugolino episode in Canto 33 with Seamus Heaney's version of the same passage. (Mandelbaum's passage, cited in his own introduction, is presumably one of the same passage from Mandelbaum's handling of the famous Ugolino episode in Canto 38 with Seamus Heaney's version of the same passage. (Mandelbaum's passage, cited in his own introduction, is presumably one of which he is proud. And the strategy of both poets -- blank verse, with occasional rhyme and assonance -- is the same).
Here is Mandelbaum: But after we reached the fourth day, Gaddo, throwing himself, outstretched, down at my feet, implored me: "Father, why do you not help me?' And there he died; and just as you see me, I saw the other three fall one by one between the fifth day and the sixth; at which now blind, I stated groping over each; and after they were dead, I called them for two days; then fasting had more force than grief." When he had spoken this, with eyes awry, again he gripped the sad skull in his teeth, which, like a dog's, were strong down to the bone. Ah, Pisa, you the scandal of the peoples of that fair land where si is heard . . .
And here is Heaney: "For four days we let the silence gather. Then, throwing himself flat in front of me, Gaddo said, 'Why don't you help me, father?' He died like that, and surely as you see Me here, one by one I saw my three Drop dead during the fifth and sixth day Until I saw no more. Searching, blinded, For two days I groped over them and called them. The hunger killed where grief had only wounded." When he had said all this, his eyes rolled And his teeth, like a dog's teeth clamping round a bone, Bit into the skull and again took hold. Pisa! Pisa, your sounds are like a hiss. Sizzling in our country's grassy language . . .