Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Dante in the wood

Gustave Doré, Dante in the Gloomy Wood

I think I may have mentioned a time or two the awe in which I hold the late Allen Mandelbaum, who might be called in two sense a "translator of genius." He translated geniuses, and he was himself a genius. (Can a mere translator, who adapts someone else's work, be a genius? Yes, just as much as a classical musician who performs works composed by others. Think of Mandelbaum as the Glenn Gould of translation. Interpreting the tongues of angels is one of the canonical gifts of the Spirit.) I've read roughly a zillion English translations of Dante, and they fall into two categories: Mandelbaum, and everyone else. He's also a very strong contender for the title of best English translator of Virgil. Oh, and Homer, too. You know, the three greatest writers who ever lived, and who wrote in three different languages. We won't see another translator like Mandelbaum for a very long time.
Today I picked up Whitley Strieber's Communion for the umpteenth time. It opens with an epigraph from Mandelbaum's Dante, the first lines of the Inferno:

When I had journeyed half of our life's way,
I found myself within a shadowed forest,
for I had lost 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 hardly more severe!
But to retell the good discovered there,
I'll also tell the other things I saw.

I myself once had a go at translating those lines while experimenting with a new rhyme scheme -- a rhyme scheme which I recently revisited, modified, and used to compose a prayer to St. Joan of Arc. First the opening of the Inferno, then Joan of Arc.

This evening I was listening to some music on YouTube. I started with Ween, whose album The Mollusk I've been playing a lot lately, but then I suddenly wanted to listen to "Joan of Arc" by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark -- a song I had discovered only recently, when it was recommended by some of my readers.

When it was over, YouTube decided that the next thing I wanted to listen to was "I'll Find My Way Home" by Jon and Vangelis (Jon Anderson of Yes, and Vangelis, the Chariots of Fire guy). I'd never heard it before and wasn't quite sure what I thought of it at first, but I soon realized that the lyrics were (not explicitly, but still pretty obviously) about Dante in the wood -- first Joan of Arc, then the opening of the Inferno.

Jon and Vangelis:

You ask me where to begin
Am I so lost in my sin
You ask me where did I fall
I'll say I can't tell you when

Inferno, Canto I:

I cannot say how I had entered
the wood; I was so full of sleep just at
the point where I abandoned the true path.

Jon and Vangelis:

My sun shall rise in the east
So shall my heart be at peace
And if you're asking me when
I'll say it starts at the end
You know your will to be free
Is matched with love secretly

Inferno, Canto I:

The time was the beginning of the morning;
the sun was rising now in fellowship
with the same stars that had escorted it 
when Divine Love first moved those things of beauty;
so that the hour and the gentle season
gave me good cause for hopefulness

Jon and Vangelis:

Your friend is close by your side
And speaks in far ancient tongue

Inferno, Canto I: The ancient Roman poet Virgil appears and serves as Dante's guide (too many lines to quote). And as I listened, although the song itself was new to me, it felt familiar because it was after all just my old friend Dante, speaking his ancient tongue close by my side.

After the Jon and Vangelis song, YouTube played another song I'd never heard before, "The Voice" by Ultravox, which begins thus:

Native these words seem to me
All speech directed to me
I've heard them once before
I know that feeling

Ultravox coming right after Vangelis is a further coincidence, since I had recently read a post by Vox Day called "The new Chariots of Fire." 

1 comment:

No Longer Reading said...

I enjoyed this post. Quite impressive for someone to translate fairly difficult poems in three different languages.

The love of God in the Tarot

Three of the seven virtues are explicitly present in the Tarot. Over at The Magician's Table , I discuss where to find the other four, p...