Saturday, May 02, 2009

Ciaran Carson's Dante

Ciaran Carson's translation of Dante's Inferno was such a rush to read that I was still buzzing from it a day after finishing it. It's chock full of quotable passages, but I was particularly pleased to find a fantastic bit of trash talking between two sinners in Canto XXX:

"Though I'm kept back,"
he quipped, from moving by my watery weight,
I have this arm that's well-prepared to smack."

The other said: "You weren't so free with it
the time they put you to the fire; the alloy
that you'd coined with it had sealed your fate."

The dropsied one: "You speak the truth, old boy;
but not so truthful were you, truth to tell,
when you were asked to tell the truth at Troy."

"If I spoke false, your coin spoke false as well,"
said Sinon. "I'm here for a single falsehood;
you, for more than any fiend in hell."

"Remember, perjurer, the horse of wood,"
replied the Paunch, "and may it torture you
to know the whole world knows that you're no good!"

"With thirsty tongue may you be tortured, too,"
the Greek shot back, "and with the dropsied piss
that swells your gut to keep the world from view!"

The forger then: "Your filthy orifice
spews out the usual ravings of your brain;
and if my thirst has bloated me, your sickness

makes you burn, and gives your head a pain;
and were Narcissus' mirror conjured here
for you to lick, I don't think you'd abstain."

Virgil threatens to chew Dante out for lingering too long—and as I noted when I read the Aeneid last year, Virgil was just as good at representing trash talking as Dante himself!


And this passage from Canto VII seems like a nice comment on our contemporary financial crisis (Virgil is commenting on the avaricious):

My son, see how the wheel of fortune whirls!
Observe them, as they dance to money's tune,
in money wars eternally ensnarled!

Not all the gold that lies beneath the mon,
or ever did, could buy a moment's rest
for even one of these misguided fools.


The other verse Inferno I have read is Robert Pinsky's, which I read with delight back in 1998. But while that delight was made possible by Pinsky's translation (I don't know Italian), its source was, I now realize, Dante's magnificent work itself. In contrast, Carson's translation crackles with a ferocious energy that had me gasping at times, I was so impressed, and often had me laughing out loud (as with the trash talking). For comparison, here's Pinsky's version of the same passage from Canto VII:

"Now you can see, my son, how ludicrous
And brief are all the goods in Fortune's ken,
Which humankind contend for: you see from this

How all the gold there is beneath the moon,
Or that there ever was, could not relieve
One of these weary souls."

Pinsky's Virgil: majestic, sonorous, oratorical. Carson's Virgil: temperamental, impatient, aggressive. At least in this reader's experience, that stands for the difference between the two, and it explains why Pinsky's book is a good read, while Carson's is a great one.


swiss said...

well maybe your enthusiasm for the rhyming will make me a convert yet. like the look of this despite that tho! ; )

Donald Brown said...

ok, Mr. Translator, you seem to be suggesting that these differences in the recreation of Virgil are up to the individual translator; that there is no imperative to render Virgil as Dante created him, that one may take what liberties one will. I see this to be the trend in translation (witness what Steven Berg did to Rimbaud): to move away from the original in favor of the most readable U.S. English version.

I read the entirety of the DC in Ciardi's version back when he was the most recent translator of all three parts; taught Inferno in Mandelbaum's, which I preferred if only because he gives you the Italian, which makes a big difference to me. I've seen excerpts from Pinsky's, but the one I want to read is Robert Hollander's rendering of all three parts because no one knows Dante like Hollander. And what I'm after is Dante, not Ciardi, not Pinsky, not Carson.

Andrew Shields said...

Well, maybe I'm suggesting that, but I didn't really mean to. The experience of reading Carson's version was invigorating, while the experience of reading Pinsky's was mostly just interesting. Not knowing any Italian, I can't say whether Carson's diction reflects Dante's at all, but I can say that it was a joy to read.

I would be surprised, though, if Carson's "demotic" idiom does not reflect Dante at least somewhat better than Pinsky's regal imperiousness, since Dante is known (isn't he?) for explicitly writing in the "demotic" vulgate rather than in the "high" Latin.

Donald Brown said...

Indeed, Dante is known for the breakthrough into "vulgar" language, measured against Latin. I don't doubt Carson's is fun to read, but you should check out a copy with Italian facing. It's really not hard to get a sense of the lines with a reasonable English fascimile across the page.

I had a similiar experience to yours with Pinsky and Carson when I first read Rimbaud (with no French): Fowlie gives very accurate renderings that sound stilted in English, but he also provides the French; Paul Schmidt gave a very American-sounding, readable Rimbaud that I loved. It wasn't till I started reading French that I resented the liberties, though that's still the Rimbaud I mentally cite.

Andrew Shields said...

It's possible that part of the fascination of Carson's Inferno for me is that it is not an American version but an Irish version. So it's vigor may in part just be a result of my distance from an Irish demotic.

Donald Brown said...

whoa, good point: an Oirish Dante, I'm tinking is bound to knock Amirican versions into a cocked hat.

Andrew Shields said...

Well, from an American perspective, at least. Maybe an American version will sound more exotic to an Irish reader than an Irish version. I'm a bit suspicious of my own possible tendencies toward exoticism here.

Unknown said...

I've taught Dante to 12th graders for about five years now, and I've used the Pinsky translation, the Hollander, and the Carson. I've read the book about 6 times so far, including reading every single footnote in the Hollander translation.

The Pinsky is not very good. He loses accuracy for his rhymes, but his rhymes aren't especially memorable.

The Hollander is amazing. He's a scholar of Dante, so it's got about 6 pages of notes for every three pages of poetry. The text of the poem is a faithful line translation that is much prettier than the Pinsky translation. Robert Hollander worked with his wife Jean, an accomplished poet, to craft the lines.

The Carson translation, though, is one of my favorite things I've ever read. Carson is a madman with no fear at all about dropping accuracy of word-to-word translation to create the tone he is going for. His introduction makes it clear: Dante's use of the word shit ('mierda' in Italian) defines him as a poet for the common man. That's the characteristic that most defines Carson's attempt at translating Dante. The terza rima is nearly impossible to capture in English, but Carson makes it look easy. One of my favorite rhymes is the trio of ghastly bawls, infernal applause, and funereal gauze.

If you want to read Dante as a scholar of Dante, getting close to his language, and getting a mountain of scholarly context, then Hollander is the way to go. If you want to read Dante as the hilarious and vulgar poet that he was in his day, then Carson is your man. Obviously, though, the best choice is to read both. The Inferno is such a quick read, after all.