Friday, 2 April 2010

Cloud Talk 6: Cloud passage, Dante, Herbert, Batchelor

Photograph by Mark Granier

This is the last part of the Cloud Talk series on translation.

...Let me take the winner then. Here we are back to Dante and terza rima, back in fact to one of the best known and most loved passages in the Inferno, Canto V, about the tragic affair of Paolo and Francesca. Here is the original passage:

Inferno: Canto V, lines 121–38

E quella a me: “Nessun maggior dolore
che ricordarsi del tempo felice
ne la miseria; e ciò sa ’l tuo dottore.

Ma s’a conoscer la prima radice
del nostro amor tu hai cotanto affetto,
dirò come colui che piange e dice.

Noi leggiavamo un giorno per diletto
di Lancialotto come amor lo strinse;
soli eravamo e sanza alcun sospetto.

Per più fïate li occhi ci sospinse
quella lettura, e scolorocci il viso;
ma solo un punto fu quel che ci vinse.

Quando leggemmo il disïato riso
esser basciato da cotanto amante,
questi, che mai da me non fia diviso,

la bocca mi basciò tutto tremante.
Galeotto fu ’l libro e chi lo scrisse:
quel giorno più non vi leggemmo avante”.

Dante Alighieri

And here is the winning translation by Paul Batchelor:

The Damned
After Dante

The bitterest
sorrow is not regret,
though that is part of what we suffer –
the bitterest sorrow lies in happiness rehearsed,
as when I speak of how
our fate took root.

It was a poem:
the ballad of Sir Lancelot
whom love enslaved – old fashioned stuff,
pure nonsense really, so where was the danger if
from time to time our eyes met –
where was the harm?

We read on
until we reached the line
about a kiss both looked-for and unbidden –
a kiss so long desired and yet so lightly taken –
that line was our undoing:
a sidelong

glance – another –
into each other’s eyes, and we,
who since that day have never been apart,
we latecomers to everything within our hearts,
we put the book away
and read no further.

Translated from the Italian by Paul Batchelor

There is, in fact, an interesting mid-point of reference between the original and is translation, or rather, its ‘after Dante’. It is George Herbert’s Easter Wings:

Easter Wings

Lord, Who createdst man in wealth and store,
Though foolishly he lost the same,
Decaying more and more,
Till he became
Most poore:

With Thee
O let me rise,
As larks, harmoniously,
And sing this day Thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.

My tender age in sorrow did beginne;
And still with sicknesses and shame
Thou didst so punish sinne,
That I became
Most thinne.

With Thee
Let me combine,
And feel this day Thy victorie;
For, if I imp my wing on Thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.

Herbert’s poem is a wonderful sally at breathing and heart-beating through a set of emotions. In each half of the Easter Wings the lungs empty half way through, growing ‘most poore’ and ‘most thinne’, then picking up the breath and filling the lungs out again by the end of each verse, so the soul may fly. To read the poem aloud is to give bodily expression to a spiritual condition, an exercise in deprivation and ecstasy.

Herbert’s feeling is directed to the Christian God: Batchelor’s to the god of desire and regret. The translation therefore draws a parallel between the two kinds of love, the sacred and profane. Like the Herbert, the Batchelor version employs breath to make the heart beat. In Dante, the episode is part of the general progress of the whole, not isolated, and I don’t think Batchelor is proposing that Dante should be entirely re-interpreted via Herbert, but is drawing upon a possibility in English verse to respond to something in the Italian.

In this particular cloud of Dante, in other words, he sees the beating heart of Herbert and takes the brief journey into the heart of that cloud to produce his own.

I am perfectly aware that what I have been discussing is not the normal business of professional translators, certainly not of translators of fiction – it is not how I translate fiction, nor, most of the time poetry. With poetry that is translated for the first time, from a little spoken or read language, there is, as I have said, a kind of personal obligation to produce a kind of inspired imitation – to produce a cloud, if you like, whose form may lend itself to weasel or camel or whale, in much the same way as the original poem does. In which the thoughts may follow in an order that is not altogether different from the original, in which the poet might possibly recognise himself or herself the way one might do in an old fogged mirror.

With poets whose work is well-enough known – Baudelaire and Dante - I think there may be more scope. What I wanted to offer was some sort of insight into the act itself, an act that is itself a form of composing, that is not a forgery, but the possibility of offering a kind of formalism as a background noise against which to hear the noise of the text itself, of the new text – the music within cloud, within which we seek a face that tries to free itself and lodge itself in action, as in a discarded part of the poem,

The Translators

This face. This one right here. This solid
mobile face looking into time,
the lost face, the loved face, the dim,
vulnerable, ageing, suffering, pallid

imitation that face knows itself to be,
knows without language, by gesture
and grimace, by posture and imposture,
by the way it tries to tear itself free.


This is where the lecture ended. It was cut to half-hour length, from about forty-five. One of the interesting omissions is the reference to James Hogg, and the strange cloud in The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. That is so extraordinary I will put it up as a post on its own.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Paul Batchelor's translation is wonderful. It's impressive he managed to make such a well-known passage his own.