Thursday, May 21, 2009

Classics in Translation

I enjoyed John McWhorter's piece arguing that Shakespeare should be performed as translated into modern English, because even when he used words that exist to this day (such as "character"), he was using older meanings that are rather different than what we would understand.

I've recently been trying to read Dante's Divine Comedy. Emphasis on "trying," because it's rather hard going, mostly because so much of the meaning lies in Dante's placement of so many then-modern-day Italian politicians, popes, and bishops in one of the levels of hell. But all of those politicians and church officials are now totally obscure, at least to me.

Thus, translating Dante into English doesn't quite take things far enough. In order for the work to produce the same effect that would have been experienced by an Italian circa 1300, one would have to see (just for example) Pope John XXIII, Nancy Pelosi, Rembert Weakland, Dick Cheney, and perhaps Newt Gingrich in hell. Not that I'd consign any of them to hell, of course; the whole point would be to mimic the shocking (and perhaps humorous) effect that the Divine Comedy originally would have had.

4 Comments:

Blogger Bryan said...

Ah, but the trick would be (for both Dante and Shakespeare) to capture the loveliness, cleverness, etc. of the language. It's hard to imagine someone doing it well - and easy to imagine someone doing it very, very poorly.

I've often thought something similar should be done with Hobbes. When I teach Leviathan, students often get stuck on his antique language and don't appreciate the power of the argument.

6:47 AM  
Blogger CrankyCon said...

On reading Dante: I read the Divine Comedy right after college. It was an edition with a lot of footnotes, but that's a problem in and of itself because it's annoying to have to pause after every other sentence, practically, to read the footnotes in order to understand who in the hell Dante is referring to.

I'd probably get more of the references now, but I might wait another few years before attempting a re-reading.

8:56 AM  
Blogger Michael Drake said...

This seems to miss one of the most important reasons for reading older works, which (besides the inimitable, untranslatable music that Bryan mentions) is to have a conversation with the past, and maybe to inhabit a perspective from which to view (critically) our present. Sometimes I don't get it; but when I do, I have an uncanny feeling of being stretched out over time. I don't think there's any way to achieve that experience other than by learning the language of the work.

But . . . Dante, huh? Well, you sure picked a doozy.

8:47 PM  
Blogger Michael Drake said...

BTW, another "In Our Time" podcast had a quite good discussion of the Divine Comedy.

8:02 AM  

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