Guest Review: Capildeo On Slavitt's La Vita Nuova

Translated by David R. Slavitt

Vermilion is the colour of the Seraphim in the angelic choir of Dante’s Paradiso; the burning, stinging ones, according to the likely Hebrew root of their name. Red, too, is the colour of Dante’s robe or scarf, distinguishing the poet of love, in so many of the anguished-yet-muscular portraits of this man whose political life saw him driven into exile from his beloved city of Florence. Slavitt’s new translation of Dante’s libello is itself a little book, and slips ardently into hand or pocket: an ideal gift. The hardcover edition’s binding and endpapers are cardinal red. Most disconcerting, the sweetly grave dark eyes of a young lady all in shades of red and white and gold fix you with a quality that may soon appear relentless. Her posture is open, yet she is ungraspable: this detail taken from an Elisabeth Sonrel painting shows the right arm crooked around saffron lilies, while the left arm, not shown here, disappears off the book’s edge, buried perhaps in the pages or belonging altogether to the realm of the invisible. This is a promising start. Already we are focused on the double aspect of Dante’s intense devotion: the adorable Beatrice; the abstract Lady Philosophy: which informs his philosophical and craftsmanlike account of love, bereavement, memory and illumination.

Now, what of the sheer harsh strangeness of the perhaps late thirteenth-century text, not always easy for us to sense through the sugar incrustations on the nineteenth-century lens, and the perennial temptation to level out the complexity of people, times and places removed from ours? This takes us to the business of the translation proper. How does it deal with the transformative scene that sets the medieval poet/lover on his way?[1] The flaming apparition of a glad, intimidating man, carrying a naked woman draped in blood-red, tells Dante a lot of things the poet says he doesn’t understand (and doesn’t repeat for the reader), except for the all-too-clear Latin command: ‘Ego dominus tuus’ [I am your lord]. This character is holding something that is on fire: ‘Vide cor tuum’ [Behold your heart], he informs Dante. The poet again records a silence, a lapse of time, for what appalling mutual contemplation it is left to us to imagine. Lording it yet more, the masterful being — Love — wakes up the scantily clad creature in his arms and coerces her into eating Dante’s heart (just as much on fire as ever); she does so ‘dubitosamente’ and in the imperfect tense, i.e. she takes a while chewing it over. ‘Dubitosamente’: ‘hesitantly’, translates Stanley Appelbaum in his dual-language edition (New York: Dover, 2006), and Mark Musa (Oxford and New York: OUP, 2008 [1992]); while Barbara Reynolds (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2004, rev. ed.) strings it out so we really feel it, ‘[r]eluctantly and hesitantly’. ‘Hesitantly’ is Slavitt’s choice as well. There is no lack of Vita Nuova anglophone translations in a price range similar to Slavitt’s Harvard University Press offering.

There is also, however, no end to translating. Arguably, every translation involves a process of re-envisioning, even if making no claim (true of some) about being a new work in its own right. Even for a reader conversant with the source language, to read an array of translations is both to have a series of conversations with other, passionate readers (the translators) about what is at stake, and perhaps to see ‘the original’ anew, rather like meeting a friend in a different country or a different social rôle, or glimpsing a person thought familiar from a suddenly revealing angle. Estrangement, provocation, invitation: literary translation is not in the business of serving up a mere substitute. So what does Slavitt do that is different enough to justify the production of his beautiful libello?

Bringing La Vita Nuova to live again in our times would be part of the answer. In the scene just cited, Slavitt has Love named in English and speaking English. This evidences the translator’s commitment to readability, to making the readers encounter the text as quick and vivid, not an artifact: a laudable general aim. In my view, an important loss is incurred in this instance. Love, if allowed a perfectly comprehensible identification as ‘Amor’, would have retained the essential otherness that marks his irruption into the human dream; the Romance-language wordform could keep the reader alert to the difference (not the remoteness, not the unreadability; the specialness) of the ways of loving in Dante’s emergent world. Scraps of Latin text could easily have been footnoted; Slavitt, in fact, ends this section with a four-line historical footnote on Dante’s too-powerful poet-friend, Guido Cavalcanti.  We are, in everyday life, accustomed to the Latinate languages of authority: medical, legal, bureaucratese, perhaps ecclesiastical. We are also patient with (some of us, entertained by) the antique-effect prestige gobbledygook spouted by fantasy and historical characters in popular culture. The Harvard rendition is so keen to white out the opaque language of authority that later, in section XII, it resorts to a clunky in-line specification, ‘in Latin’, ‘in Italian’, during another originally polyphonic dialogue. Can we not cope with a little Latin in La Vita Nuova, especially in a scene that is all about forceful yet obscure communication, a scene that sets us up for progressive revelation? And indeed, by section XXIV, Amor is chatting away in the vernacular to Dante, speaking Tuscan into his very heart and helping him interpret encounters and visions.

In other words, an evolving relationship with Amor himself (itself?) is a vital part of Dante’s awakening to his new life. This is marked by a move from Amor’s unreported speech and deployment of magisterial Latin towards a kind of ordinary involvement (you know, those girls you saw in the street, well, think about it this way...). Taking this further, the linguistic hint to us as readers is that Dante the Tuscan vernacular writer is becoming the authoritative speaker on Love, and his local tongue an adequate vehicle for the highest thought. The evolution of this relationship and Dante’s status within the narrative is quite something to see diminished in the translation’s undue efforts not to alienate modern readers by presenting an approachably Englished Love from the start. A quibble over detail often yields a clue to the greater movement of reinterpretation incrementally caused by subtle repositionings of the reader.

Let us turn again to Slavitt’s libello. What are the ways in that it offers? The Translator’s Preface distances the word ‘translation’, preferring ‘rendition’, winning closeness to us by throwing in a jokey modern aside about interrogation centres. The translator claims that most of the ‘versions’ of La Vita Nuova that he has seen are in prose, ‘accurate betrayals’ failing to convey the character of the mixed prose and verse text, or prosimetrum.[2] This reviewer’s experience differs, even without recourse to small press publications or library relics. Both Reynolds for Penguin and Musa for Oxford World’s Classics make a good stab at translating the poems as poems. Reynolds is particularly eloquent about the poetic authorship, audience and subject of the treatise; about her joy before the, to her, necessary task of attempting a poetic translation that aims at ‘lucidity as well as strictness of form’. She calls our attention to Dante’s own not-to-be-betrayed love of concatenatio pulcra (the ‘beautiful linkage’ of rhyme), and the surprising plenteousness of rhymes in English.[3] By contrast, Slavitt’s Preface declares that he is guilt-free about cutting out without notice a lot of Dante’s prose explanations of his poems. Slavitt views these as ‘unnecessary’ and ‘boring’ ‘Cliffs Notes’-style encumbrances likely to cause anxiety except to academic readers, who anyway are not reading for poetic enjoyment.[4] So the pre-Raphaelite flavour of the cover art continues into the translation; Dante Gabriel Rossetti is Slavitt’s grand predecessor in viewing Dante’s analyses with distaste. (The need for dissociation may partly motivate Seth Lerer’s explicit praise, in his Introduction, for Slavitt’s rendition as being far from the Pre-Raphaelites and truly of our time). Reynolds, on the other hand, is moved to wonder whether Dante’s intention was to give a musical guide for composers or reciters, as he takes apart his poems in ways corresponding more to sense than structure. Certainly this reviewer had enjoyed both in Italian and various translations the way Dante’s own comments increase our sense of intimacy with the restless, almost geekily obsessive lover/author at work. Dante’s divisions are sometimes shockingly non-correspondent to the standardizing descriptions of the parts of a sonnet or canzone that one might find in a creative writing textbook nowadays. As only an author can, he makes us know how his poems kindle to kinetic life: a reader who bothers to add up the line references in the commentary with the lyrics commented on will find the poetry spring apart, join, echo, sink, expand, appeal, and flow in unexpected and moving numbers. These line references no longer work in the Harvard rendition, and Slavitt is ‘not unhappy’ about this.[5] It would not have been mannerly to dwell on this Preface — the rendition should speak for itself — were it not for the startling rhetorical move whereby the existence of the original and so-called ‘literal translations’ (dismissed, as seen above, somewhat without respect to their own creative claims) justifies a make-it-new slash-and-burn approach, whose cheekiness, passion and sense of entitlement are (dare one say) reminiscent of the enfant terrible persona available to popular lecturers in that very academic setting so keenly disavowed.  Slavitt clearly loves La Vita Nuova in his way, and wants a fresh and widening audience to love it too. On now to the pleasures of the text.

The cultural translation that inevitably takes place sometimes gives us an articulate American Dante, very refreshing to encounter, sure that Love ‘wasn’t merely being cute’ in his fancy advice.[6] As with all such pioneering efforts, a lot of the time this works; occasionally it does not. This Dante ‘wanting to have the feel of my pen in my hand again’ has acquired a post-Freudian (post-George Barker?) phallicism.[7] Sometimes there is a levelling out of the plain weirdness (half symbolic, half real) of the medieval landscape. Our American Dante is not on the path of sighs, cammino de li sospiri; he’s ‘on the road’ with no further ado.[8] Tuscan Dante veers away from a path molto inimica, very hostile, towards him; ours says with Robert Frost-like laconicism, ‘that was a road I did not wish to take’.[9] This focuses us on the poet in his journey rather than immersing us in the texture of his world; a valid way to guide us into the experience of La Vita Nuova. The translation is often very smart in refusing to engage with the untranslatable, e.g. ‘before he takes his leave’ is an excellent solution to avante che sdonnei (‘before he dis-ladies himself’? No!).[10]

Slavitt (or his rendition) are, again sometimes but not always, nifty at dealing with unwanted cultural spectres. He cleverly avoids ringing a heavy Proustian bell of anachronistic allusion by rendering Dante’s remembrance of passato tempo, time past, simply as ‘my loss’.[11] Abandoning Dante’s poetic self-image, in one sonnet, as sole survivor of a battlefield and putting in its stead the image of an incarcerated ‘madman or simpleton’ repeating one phrase over and over is a temporal as well as cultural refocusing through the Victorian monomaniac-in-love (cf. similar self-images for characters in Dickens and C. Brontë). This keeps our minds away from a perhaps distracting link with the so technologically different war zones of our day. [12] So far so good. The Victorian returns, however, in a phrase perhaps better lost in translation, as Slavitt is well daring enough to have done — anyone who fails to mourn Beatrice’s early death ‘has a heart of stone’, a cliché which raises the ghost of Little Nell and Oscar Wilde’s quip.[13] Slavitt takes poetic license to intensify the real-world-turned-horrible feel of Dante’s dream prefiguration of Beatrice’s death, steering us towards materiality and away from watching it like cinema spectators: when birds fall from the sky, he adds the simile in ‘dead as stones’.[14] The only glaring instance of cultural mistranslation comes in section VII p. 39, where American Dante apparently borrows from queer slang. To conceal his devotion to Beatrice, he has been pretending to court a lady as a ‘screen’ (Slavitt’s accurate, neutral lexical choice elsewhere). The screen lady leaves town; whereupon the poet laments the loss of his ‘beard’! A ‘beard’, correctly enough, used to be the term in both hetero- and homosexual contexts for a fake lover conscripted (consciously or no) to hide some real, less socially acceptable involvement. Nowadays the reference belongs very much more to queer culture. In either case, it is misleading; Dante is trying to cover up fidelity, not adultery, and at these moments he is, loverlike, too earnest to apply a self-directed wit of ironic reversal.

The action and pace of the rendition are in some instances dreamier or less obsessive than the source text. Beatrice’s verbal greeting, which gives a new push to the whole courtly-to-spiritual love drama, strikes Dante for the first time, la prima volta, in the opening scene of section III. We do not know if he really never spoke to her before (Florence was a small place and the families frequented the same narrow streets) or whether this is the ‘first time’ in the sense of ‘first meaningful’ encounter; cf. our own more recent debates about love at first sight — which may signify ‘first random sighting’, or ‘first instance of truly appreciative beholding’. This detail, or rather this spring, simply is absent in the rendition. Direct speech, staged exchanges, direct reported speech are often present in the source text, both in the poems/songs and in the body of the narrative. This is one of the stylistic features consistent between Dante the intense individual poet of La Vita Nuova and Dante the eventual author of the grand, theatrically peopled whirl of the Commedia. Such dramatic exchanges are often paraphrased or dropped from the rendition, which loses the plurality of voices, the performance aspect that can stir from a polyphonic page and bring closer the sense of the possible recitation context. The result is a book much more of the brooding self; indeed, pensare is translated more than once as brooding, rather than thinking. This is fair enough perhaps, as it conveys lyric identity in accordance with our post-Romantic ideas, compensating for the tricky river of chimes and liquids lost with the move from Tuscan to English. It is made clear in the paratextual material that this rendition seeks to win a place among a new readership for La Vita Nuova as an independent achievement, not just a forerunner of the Commedia. This may be why the English rendition of the sonnet in section IX gets rid of the faint semblance to the Inferno’s middle-of-the-way-of-life opening line, and ‘trovai Amore in mezzo de la via’ is reduced to ‘I encountered Love’, which prevents inappropriate over-reading and linking between the so different texts.

Dante’s La Vita Nuova employs a specialized vocabulary of deceptively simple words. It is probably impossible and undesirable to find consistent English equivalents for the key words such as gentilissima that, while forming part of ordinary speech, encode a second, special meaning in Dante and his contemporaries’ terminology proper to courtly and divine love.  Slavitt fluently substitutes ‘glorious’, ‘gracious’, ‘gentle’, ‘noble’, ‘noblest’ and similar terms, sometimes simply Beatrice’s name, to bring out the marked virtue and individuality of the lady as gentilissima rather than trying to replicate a label for an elevated role that no longer exists in our modern sensibilities. The slight archaism this sometimes produces is an effective reminder of the formality and deeper significance of Dante’s adoration of the beloved. This rendition resists cheap dealing in cognates, allowing nobilissima to stand forth in English as ‘marvelous’ rather than ‘most noble’.

Translation, no matter how passionately or gleefully or carefully undertaken, is always a game of both gain and loss. There is (intentional or not), another trend: the removal of words that more explicitly have a religious meaning. Seth Lerer’s Introduction identifies the road, the pathway, walking the line, as the central image of La Vita Nuova. There is another, equally strong: transfiguration (both trasfiguramento and trasfigurazione), the startlement of becoming new in life, love and understanding. Space here lacks to list the numerous instances of this animating image being secularized out of the text, la nuova trasfigurazione incarnated in English as ‘this peculiar experience’; suffice it to note the trend.[15]  We do not get to see Dante’s eyes empurpled by weeping as encircled by martyrdom’s crown, corona di martìri
.[16] Similarly, much that was miraculous, mirabile, softly vanishes away or dissolves into terms (‘paradoxically’, ‘remarkable’) less brightly Catholic. Little point in questioning the translator’s intention — to make the text an independent matter of literature? to render it more accessible to twenty-first-century readers who may not care to mix poetry and faith?

What happens is a censorship of this spiritual-philosophical memoir, which therefore relays its love-message on a more human than angelic scale. In section III, the source lyric celebrating the vision of the fiery, edible heart stars a Beatrice who nibbled it humbly, umilmente pascea, where her lamblike action shows her engaged in a rite of idealized Christian love. The Harvard rendition just has her down as ‘frightened’ (p. 34).  The delicate rewriting of this unruly, holy strand continues throughout, and with skill. The penultimate section, XLI, celebrating divinized love above the operations of the intellect (an even stronger measure of the journey of understanding made by Dante in the Vita Nuova, had the poet’s intellectualizing insistence on commentary been allowed to stand till finally overturned), has Dante speaking of Beatrice’s ‘indescribable condition’, something of a shading of the eyes before her source-text mirabile qualitade.  This is Dante in the Auerbach line, poet of the secular world.

Translations are creations of their own time, even those that are presented as faithful to their sources. This one truly records a widespread acute unease before the overinterpreted, the transcendent, above all the godly, that which doesn’t let the individual stay individual or slide away with postmodern provisionality from What It Must All Add Up To In The End. The rendition achieves its sense of finality by other means: from the Latin that has been removed from its dramatic interventions in the body of the text, and reserved for use as if engraved upon the portals of the physical book: within the beginning of the text, Incipit vita nuova (translation in brackets); at the end, qui est per omnia secula benedictus, translation footnoted, a solemn close. Slavitt’s bold and abbreviating grasp pulls La Vita Nuova into the twenty-first century by way of all the time between. This beautiful little book does something different from its companions in other translation series, and will find happy readers.

Vahni Capildeo arrived in the UK in 1991 from Trinidad, where she was born. After completing a DPhil in Old Norse at Oxford University, she held a Research Fellowship at Girton College, Cambridge. Her first volume of poetry, No Traveller Returns (Salt) appeared in 2003, followed by several other critically-acclaimed publications. Her work has been anthologized in The Oxford Book of Caribbean Verse (OUP, 2005) and appears in numerous literary journals.  She was Lecturer in English Literature and Creative Writing at Kingston University, 2010-11.

[1] Vita Nuova III.
[2] Slavitt, p. (ix).
[3] Reynolds, p. (xxxi).
[4] Slavitt, pp. (xii) and (xiii).
[5] Slavitt, p. (xii).
[6] Slavitt, p. 98; Vita Nuova XXV.
[7] Slavitt, p. 104; Vita Nuova XXVI.
[8] Slavitt, p. 47; Vita Nuova X.
[9] Slavitt, p. 45; Vita Nuova XIII.
[10] Slavitt, p. 54; Vita Nuova XII.
[11] Slavitt, p. 126; Vita Nuova XXXV.
[12] Slavitt, p. 67; Vita Nuova XVI.
[13] Slavitt, p. 116; Vita Nuova XXXI.
[14] Slvaitt, p. 88; Vita Nuova XXIII.
[15] Slavitt, p. 63; Vita Nuova XV.
[16] Slavitt, p. 137; Vita Nuova XXXIX.
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