Now the poet Dante went to hell and lerned plenty, so I went to Baltimore to hear Dr. Charles Singleton's lectures on the sire of the Renaissance and now am returned to tell you Dante was a plain writer like myself.
"Not at all flowery?" I asked in doubt.
"Not the least flowery. Very plain."
Dante did not use big words, or leap for lofty glories. He just gave the facts, ma'am, of his trip through hell and what people said to him, and told plainly how the place was laid out in different levels and which pope was where. Which was very practical of him because so often it helps us to read a book or two before we get there.
He was discussing centaurs in Dante, the day I was there, and said we had never seen one.
"But you'd rather see than be one," he added, pausing for the laughter that never came. This is not the place to observe it, but you really do get the impression that kids in college nowadays are substantially dumber than a generation ago. And less easily amused.
He discussed Dante's images of the centaurs, how they looked down at their chests, how they reached for arrows from the quivers at their sides, and so on, and remarked that if you visualize all these body movements, as Dante describes them, your eye is led inescapably to that point at which the human torso is attached to the rough horse body.
Dante lets you remaind yourself that the centaur's manhood is flawed by savagery and bestial hoof. Dante does not go on and on about the beatsliness, but directs your eye so you make the point for yourself.
We also thought a bit about the tangled wood -- that awful place (in the Inferno) that is not even a fordibidding forest, but merely a twisted company of ratty bushes.
Of course you need not expect me to tell you all I now know of Dante in five paragraphs, but I did ask Singleton what good it does to translate Dante into our tongue, since all the magic must be lost.
No doubt translations can be very to that poet than poetry. His work in addition to its great surge of language, is a landmark of the imagination. We can get, even in translation, the scope of it, and can get at least the more apparent points of his argument.
No doubt translations can be fery good. We assume the 1607 translation of the Bible is better written than the orginal, and of course the Germans are forever saying Shakespeare is better in German than English, though you always wonder how they thanslate Cleopatra, that lass unparallel'd. Schmiddenfaddle frauleion, I guess.
Poetry is luck, and luck does not repeat. If the chief glories of English were translatable, be sure that those who write in English would be the first to learn.But there is no way to account for the sole-syllabled words of this tongue when used by a master, whether Milton (Mee for him, life for life ) or Shakespeare (as if we were God's spies ) or Bunyan (and he said I think I do ) or the other big ones.
So if a poem is great, like Dante's stuff, then even the best translation (and all Singleton's friends know which one that is) is no more than the relices of a woman, a snippet of her hair, the black dress from Worth that still has the Caron scent, the bracelet she wore on such and such a night.
But not the light at the neck and the shoulder, not the shift in the eye, not the unique voice that you would recongnize, if it were hers, in this world or any other among a multitude.
Translators, too painfully aware of that, are like men who are already down. You should not kick them. still, you woe it to the glory of the world to mark the distinction between the interpreters for the deaf and the open throat of heaven.
We can learn about Dante, but we'll never know him except in his own voice and on his terms.
It was the sunniest day, and Singleton was at ease before the class, his face hair white like the bristles of a boar, not silky like a saint.
The complexity of Dante he knew he could teach, and if the gorgeousness of the art be lost, still the powerful brain, the high, rough energy, the block of the architecture could be taught.
The students sat with their books open. One scratched his ear. Another scratched elsewhere. Some eyes were bright, some not. A young woman squeezed the hand beside her. Tangled wood, schmangled schmood, and God help her on the exam.
Outside on the marble steps between two quads, two glossy mutts ran up -- dobermans -- and one had a yellow Frisbee he thought the world of. Ears rigid, eyes bright, electrichocked and ginger-souled.
He had his treasure.
The students, some of them possibly peering down rainbows for the pot of gold, making notes on Dante, stretching the brain, accepting the puzzle and anxiety of ignorance and pushing on, looked at the dogs.
The waggables already had it made. Up the marble steps with authoritative pad, the bright gold disc already secure in the jaw.
Any mortal looking at the dogs would envy them. Not because they were dumb animals, untroubled by the Inferno, but because they were perfect. Flawless in motion, sleek with health, excited with triumph, bounding up the stone grade.
A fate not granted to the kids of Hopkins. Who, if they learn right, and are lucky, will go round and round in a long life of tangled wood and mixedup centaur, without even a glossy coat at the last.
It is really a bit glum to think of. Thank God for dobermans with Frisbees to stand for the quest accomplished and the victory won.