978-0-375-40921-9 / 0375409211

Purgatorio: A New Verse Translation (English and Italian Edition)

by Dante Alighieri




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About the book:

In the foreword to his version of the Purgatorio, W.S. Merwin dwells on the quasi-insuperable hurdles that any translator of Dante must face. Choosing just a single line from the first canticle, he asks: "How could that, then, really be translated? It could not, of course." This makes Dante's masterpiece sound like the literary equivalent of Mission: Impossible ("Your mission, Mr. Merwin, should you choose to accept it...") Happily, however, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet decided to give it a try. He spent several years wrestling with Dante's inexhaustible tercets, and rather than applying himself to the fire-and-brimstone-scented thrills of the Inferno, Merwin turned to the middle and most humane portion of the entire work: Purgatorio. It's here, in a kind of spiritual halfway house between heaven and hell, that the poem reaches a peak of tenderness and regret--and rises quite literally from the dead.

Merwin's version must be measured against a good many predecessors, from John Ciardi's reader-friendly approach to Allen Mandelbaum's free-versifying to Charles Singleton's prosaic trot. How does this Purgatorio stack up? Very decently indeed. Merwin is something of a strict constructionist, who wants to hew as closely as possible to the syntax and sound of the original Italian. Yet he's no Nabokovian naysayer, slapping himself on the wrist every time he deviates from Dante's text, and he's wisely thrown the rhymes overboard. That leaves him with enough flexibility to echo some of the poem's loveliest effects:

A sweet air that within itself was
unvarying struck me on the forehead,
a stroke no rougher than a gentle breeze,

at which the trembling branches all together
bent at once in that direction where
the holy mountain casts its first shadow,

without ever leaning over so far from
the upright as to make the small birds stop
the practice of their art in the treetops...

Merwin also does a good job capturing Dante's asperity, including his near-proverbial response to a rebuke from main squeeze Beatrice in Canto XXX: "As a mother may seem harsh to her child, / she seemed to me, because the flavor / of raw pity when tasted is bitter." There are moments, of course, when the translator's taste for literalism gets him in trouble. When, for example, Dante is surrounded by a crowd of souls in the second canto, who are astonished to see one of the living among them, he describes them as "quasi obl´ando d'ire a farsi belle." A difficult phrase to translate, yes, but Merwin's solution--"forgetting, it seemed, to go and see to their own beauty"--makes it sound as though they're late for an appointment at the hairdresser's. Still, these are minor flaws in a major and often marvelous piece of work. Can we look forward to a paradisiacal follow-up? --James Marcus

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