Vol. 33, 2011
When we read the Commedia, we become aware that, as readers, we exist somewhere in the poem’s future. While we, trapped in our present, read Dante’s words, the text continues to flow inside the geography of Dante’s time. Over this geography, successive generations of readers have layered their own harvests of knowledge and interpretation, transforming the original landscape into something that Dante himself would find far more unfathomable than his most recondite verses are to us. Dante’s personal experience of smoke—whether that of autumn bonfires or the burning fields of war through which he traveled in exile—colors and shapes the purgatorial smoke. But to that body of experience we have added centuries of other dreadful smoke: the smoke of autos-da-fé, the smoke of Blake’s satanic mills, the smoke of Auschwitz, the smoke of tires burnt in bloody demonstrations, the smoke of ecological disasters.
Like a monstrous chrysalis, the Commedia contains in itself all possibilities of migration and change. By means of ongoing readings, the original poem, though grounded in Dante’s time, becomes nomadic, and its translations, for better or worse, render explicit the amorous progress of Dante’s words from the past to the reader’s present. The response “I too feel this” that the poem so often elicits is made overt in the act of translation: It is literally put into words.
[The translators Thomas Okey and Dorothy Sayers], in their consciously classical style, distance us from the original by creating a pseudo-medieval past. Dante’s period rigorously distinguished between several forms of address, in both Latin and in the Florentine vernacular, and these Dante uses (as he uses everything else) to establish levels of intimacy, strangeness, guilt and grace, strengthened sometimes by means of archaisms, at other times by means of colloquialisms, invented words, or baby-talk. Okey’s and Sayers’ “lo!,” which lends a costume-ball atmosphere to the whole, belongs to neither Dante’s present nor the reader’s, but to the sort of arch Edwardian lyricism that Pound abominated. To give a similar example from a different language, André Pézard’s translation of the Commedia, produced for the canonical series La Pléiade, is in an archeological fourteenth-century French that at times requires its own translation; interesting as the exercise might be, it is not intended for the reader of Dante but rather for the reader of Pézard. The same might be said of Okey and Sayers.