Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
che la diritta via era smarrita.

In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.

 

 

DANTE'S INFERNO?: TRANSLATIONS

Dante's Commedia has been translated, recast, and transposed into English more often than any other work of poetry, often accompanied by the apologies of the translator. John Ciardi, whose aim was to reproduce the music inherent in the poetry of the Inferno, acknowledged his debt to all previous translators of Dante: "without their failures I should never have attempted my own" (Ciardi xi). The problems of translating the Commedia are enormous, for it is a complex structure whose style is born anew in almost every canto, whose images are alive with color, clouded with gloom, aflame with passion, or wallowing in human excrement. It is an adventure, a vehicle for pedantry; it is an allegorical and fantastic journey that is also quite real. The poem is recounted in words, which the poet calls "abstract, sadly approximate, dull with use" (Inf. XXXII, 5-6), and so the words are attended by the interplay of images and incidents (Merrill xi) and by the "melody of thought" (Mazzotta 162).

The Commedia's first tercet, perhaps the most recited in western literature, sets the tone for Dante's entire poem. It is an end-stopped tercet with two extremely important rhyme words, vita 'life' and smarrita 'lost', which De Sua calls "opposing semantic spheres" (De Sua).

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la via diritta era smarrita.
 
[In the middle of our life's walk
I found myself in a dark wood
for the straight road was lost]

Dante uses hendecasyllabic meter based on the magic number three, which represents the Trinity, and multiples of three: in particular, three-squared, which represents Beatrice, and three times ten, the symbol of perfection, or God. There are thirty-three syllables per tercet and three metrical units per line, nine per tercet. The rhyme scheme (ABA BCB CDC, etc.) is Dante's own invention, and has the effect of bringing the action of the poem forward like a gently rolling wave folding over into itself, weaving it into a huge, complex net: transmogrify just one tercet, and the rhythm and flow are interrupted, unsettling the tercets that follow. Bickersteth is among many who assert that "in no other very long narrative poem in European literature . . . are form and content so closely integrated" (xxviii). He traces the terza rima directly to the sirvantese of the Provençal poets in which two or three mono-rhymed hendecasyllables are followed by a quinario that supplies the rhyme for the next stanza: AAAb, BBBc, CCCd, etc. The implication, of course, is that Dante created terza rima as a tribute to the Provençal poets, without whose contributions his "divine comedy" could not have been created.(1) Given this, it might seem improbable that the translator's first decision is whether to render or not to render the terza rima, which seems indispensable to the structure of the poem. For some translators, however, there is too high a price to be paid in trying to reproduce terza rima in English (Musa viii), a relatively rhyme-poor language in comparison to Italian.(2) Indeed, rhyme can be an absolute dictator in a poem such as the Commedia, which demands the production of as many as 4,500 triple rhymes, and in fact Dante's intricate rhyme scheme has been referred to as a "no-tresspassing sign, protecting the text" (Merrill x).

Charles Singleton--Montale called him "l'americano che ci spiegò Dante"(Mackey 45)-- avoids the use of rhyme altogether and recasts the Commedia in prose:

Midway in the journey of our life
I found myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.

He writes that his prose version "is but one more answer to the perennial question: How do we read this verse, this tercet, this canto?" And he concedes "the painful loss of the poetry of the Comedy that any prose translation inevitably brings about" (372). For this reason, his text appears alongside an edition of the original, not as a substitute for Dante, but as a partial answer for those searching for the real Dante. The consensus among prose translators is that their renderings must remain Dantesque; that is, they must retain the ideas and music of the original. Gilbert observes that the prose translator, unconstrained by rhyme, iambic pentameter or the tercet, "can be succinct where Dante is succinct, plain where Dante is plain" (x) and is not obliged to elaborate or truncate the original.

Allen Mandelbaum is criticized by Freccero for placing too much emphasis on Dante's individualism,(3) but other critics find his translation a needed addition to the twentieth-century repertory. Tinkler-Villani applauds Mandelbaum's success in producing the same dramatic effects as the original. For example, in the first four tercets of Canto I (Inferno) he recreates the time transitions that underscore the existence of two Dantes: the protagonist, Dante the pilgrim, and the narrator, Dante the poet. The critic acknowledges that no English-language translator can recreate the juxtaposition of era and è in English (Ahi, quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura), which refers back to the previous tercet and connects it to the present tense of the fourth; but Villani insists, "this [effect] is exactly what Mandelbaum is trying to use as a guiding light in his translation" (77).

The savage wood in Mandelbaum's translation is not aspra e forte, but "dense and difficult." Villani defends his verbal digressions with the argument that his work stresses the "craft of the poet [Dante] at work" (77). Compare Mandelbaum's dense and difficult wood with Singleton's in which the poet seems to be searching for an appropriate modifier for that dark wood: "Ah, how hard it is to tell what that wood was, wild, rugged, harsh."

Ciardi's Dante is lost in a "drear and dark wilderness"; Pinsky's pilgrim finds himself in a wood that is "tangled and rough and savage"; Musa's poet tells us that he had wandered into a "wilderness, savage and stubborn, a bitter place!" Clearly, each translator creates a somewhat different image of Dante's "selvaggio, e aspra e forte," but none leaves doubt as to the terrible nature of the place.