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Helen Vendler calls Dante "Fatally Insusceptible to Translation"

By Harriet Staff

In the latest issue of The New Republic, Helen Vendler reviews Andrew Frisardi's recent translation of Dante's pre-Commedia work, the Vita Nova. Somewhat flippantly dismissing any virtues Frisardi's translation may have, Vendler calls Dante's work "fatally insusceptible to translation."

The young Dante is someone to whom certain Italian words and their associated emotions have become talismanic. (Others might say fetishized.) Each such indispensable sound-word represents a certain note in a repertory of notes, and the music under the poet’s construction requires that this note be struck here and repeated there, that it be colored by these adjoining notes in this place and by other notes at other places. It is as though a set of precious game-pieces had been distributed to the poet, and he was adjured to arrange them in telling permutations and combinations, each configuration unique while recognizably part of a total pattern. (The nearest musical parallel might be a Bach canon.)


Although Frisardi’s rendition of the prose of the Vita Nuova is graceful and readable, his resolve to duplicate Dante’s verse in “contemporary American English” sits ill with the archaism of medieval manners and sentiment in Dante’s fiction. In fact, Frisardi cannot really remain within his desired idiom: in the United States we do not say lady, we say woman; we do not say flee, we say run away. One cannot imagine a native American speaker referring to his heart’s demolished core. And yet to offer the poems in a prose translation, as some have done, forfeits the very form of the Vita Nuova—the back-and-forth, prose-to-verse, retrospection to instantaneity—which establishes the rhythm of the whole: how life feels when you are living it (the poem) and how, looking back, you see it really was (the prose).

So what's a poor, Dante-loving monoglot to do? Read the full review here.

Originally Published: October 11th, 2012
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