Princeton Weekly Bulletin May 24, 1999
"You call yourself a poet?" "You call yourself a scholar?"
By Caroline Moseley
Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.
Ah, how hard it is to tell
the nature of that wood, savage, dense and harsh --
the very thought of it renews my fear!
Thus begins a new translation into English free verse of The Divine Comedy, the greatest work of Florentine poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321). The translators are Robert Hollander, professor in European literature in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures and one of the world's premier Dante scholars, and his wife, Jean Hollander, a poet, teacher and director of the Writers' Conference at the College of New Jersey.
Jean and Robert Hollander (photo by Denise Applewhite)
The Comedy describes the author's imagined journey through Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio) and Heaven (Paradiso). But whether this collaborative translation represents a partnership born in Heaven, or one of the other available locations, depends on which translator you ask, and when.
"We fight about aspects of the translation all the time," says Robert, "but that's part of the fun."
"What is that? It's awful"
The project originated, he says, "when Jean glanced over my shoulder as I was writing. 'What is that?' she asked. 'It's awful!' 'It's not that bad,' I said. 'I need an English text for that computer project I'm working on.' She looked again and said, 'But it really is awful. It's unsayable. Let me have a look at it.'"
Two days later, he continues, "She came back with a fairly acceptable poetic translation of Canto I. I liked it enough to ask if she wanted to spend a good hunk of her life continuing to work on the translation, and she agreed."
Since then, there have been "numerous arguments," according to Jean, and even "occasional shouting matches," according to her husband. Making a good translation is difficult; making a poetic translation is difficult; and doing both together, they agree, is "very difficult indeed."
Says Robert, "We argue over both parts. She'll invade my turf to argue about the meaning, and I'll invade her turf to argue about the sound."
"Always incorrectly," Jean points out.
"You see? We fought like hell," says Robert equably. "I'd say, 'You call yourself a poet? That line limps.' And she'd do the same to me: 'You call yourself a scholar, and you're standing behind such a ridiculous interpretation as that?' But it was a lot less polite."
Wonderful time on Tortola
"Very often," Jean acknowledges, "by trying to make the text more poetic I altered the meaning slightly. I would read a passage that just lay dead on the page and want to enliven it. My husband would insist, 'No, this is what Dante said.' He'd often win those arguments, because he knows more about Dante than I do. About poetry I could argue, but not about what the lines mean."
Both recall with satisfaction a recent sojourn on Tortola, during which they finished work on Inferno. "We were having a wonderful time, literally finishing the translation on the beach," says Jean. "But we were yelling at each other. The people around us must have thought, 'My God, they're getting divorced tomorrow.'"
Here's a therapeutic modality for quarreling cotranslators, honed in the fires of Inferno: The Hollanders eventually began to document who won which disputation, and (with some creative accounting) the tally was "almost exactly 50-50."
Let's hope the ratio holds. They still have Purgatorio and Paradiso to translate; Inferno is to be published by Doubleday/Anchor in 2000, with the rest of the poem to follow.
14,233 lines of terza rima
The Divine Comedy is 14,233 lines long, although most American students read only Inferno. It is written in Italian terza rima -- three-lined rhyming stanzas. While there are verse translations, none to date "has pleased me completely," says Robert, and in his courses he generally uses the 1939-46 prose translation by John Sinclair.
Dante called his work a "comedy" because, according to his view of the literary conventions of the time, it ends happily and is written in the "low," i.e., vernacular, style. La Commedia was first called La Divina Commedia in a Venetian edition of 1555.
The Hollanders' verse translation is to be part of the Princeton Dante Project, the "computer project" Robert was working on when his wife cast that fateful glance over his shoulder. He describes the PDP as "a multimedia edition of the Divine Comedy," in which their translation will appear on screen across from the current standard Italian edition. The PDP will also include "a voiced Italian reading of Inferno; full-scale commentary; images; texts of all Dante's minor works; a link to the Dartmouth Dante Project, which is a database of Dante commentaries; and links to just about every other Dante site in the world."
The project, he says, "combines a traditional approach with new techniques of compiling and consulting data, images and sound." Still, he emphasizes, "The text is always at the center of the user's attention."
The last word
The PDP, he notes, is available free to Princeton students, faculty and staff at www.princeton.edu/~dante/pdp, as well as to alumni, who can register at http://TigerNet.princeton.edu.
Robert Hollander, a member of the Class of 1955, has been at Princeton since 1962 and teaching Dante "since 1967 or 1968." He leads the annual Dante Reunion, at which alumni of his course gather to discuss a particular passage in the poem.
Jean Hollander, who has taught writing and literature at Princeton, Columbia and elsewhere, has published two collections of poems: Crushed into Honey (1986) and Moondog (1996).
And as the scholar and the poet continue to tangle -- no, make that "wrangle" -- over modes of diction, who will have the last word?