Return to the poem

Translator's Note: From the Last Canto of Paradiso

by Robert Pinsky

Translation, always, is a matter of degree. Even the most methodical legal document, expertly moved between languages, will lose some nuances and create others. The simplest nouns—house and casa; bread and pane; head and capo or testa; vision and visione or vista—have different feelings and associations. At the other extreme, the most wildly innovative writer cannot be absolutely original. The work, even if by defiance or annihilation, translates what came before it.

Near one end of the range are the European poets in various languages who in translation compressed Statius's sixteen-line poem about sleep into a sonnet. Near the other end is Samuel Beckett parodying or echoing centuries of writing in many tongues.

The range is not necessarily between "close" and "free" translation. Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood and Ran get closer to vital aspects of Shakespeare than most representations of Macbeth and King Lear—though in Ran the great director's Japanese ruler has three sons instead of daughters.

If I were translating the entire Paradiso, rather than trying to make a poem in English, I would not skip over the stanza where St. Bernard directs the pilgrim's attention upward. In another degree of difference, the inclusions and ambiguities of the English "end" and "vision" resemble those of the Italian "fine" and "visione"—but not exactly.

Dante in these lines meditates on his own impassioned consciousness as a kind of translation. The explicit, literal experience is lost, but the feeling survives in "sweet droplets." The passion in his heart is a translation of a lost original.

Virgil's Cumaean Sibyl wrote her prophecies in verses and symbols on light leaves, arranged and kept aside in a certain order. When anyone approached the Sibyl's cave to read them, the leaves were disturbed by a gentle current of air that lifted them into chaos, as soon as the door to them turned on its hinges.

In that image, the action of writing represents the mind itself as it tries to translate between the past and the future—the barely decipherable past, the barely imaginable future, both desperately and frustratingly sought after. Only the nearly weightless present is expendable.


This poem originally appeared in the April 2007 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2007

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.