The Middle Way

From Virgil to Dante through the lens of Borges (Translating Poetry, Part 2)

In “Two Ways to Translate” (“Las dos maneras de traducir”), Jorge Luis Borges identifies these “two ways” as classical and romantic. His description of the former is:

The classical way of thinking is interested only in the work of art, never the artist. The classics believe in absolute perfection and seek it out. They despise localisms, oddities, contingencies.

And the latter:

Romantics never seek the work of art, but rather the man himself. […] That reverence for the I, for the irreplaceable human difference that is any I, justifies literal translations.

The essay concludes with two representative translations the first line of “Martín Fierro”, an epic poem about the titular gaucho by Argentine writer José Hernández:

Aquí me pongo a cantar. Al compás de la vigüela

We can translate them in a long-winded literal way: “In this same place where I am, I am beginning to sing with my guitar,” and with high-sounding paraphrase: “Here, in the company of my guitar, I begin to sing, […].”

For comparison, the “standard translation” offered in the essay is:

And here I begin to sing—to the rhythm of the vihuela.

Although Borges taxonomizes the classical and romantic types, though he does decry poetic cliché, he does not seem to favor either. And nor do I. Elements of each seem appropriate to me in different situations.

By way of illustration, let’s look at some Dante. when Robert Pinsky’s translation of the Inferno came out, I heard good things and picked it up. A passage I had not remembered from my previous reading caught my eye:

In that part of the young year when the sun
Goes under Aquarius to rinse his beams,
And the long nights already begin to wane

Toward half the day, and when the hoarfrost mimes
The image of her white sister upon the ground—
But only a while, because her pen, it seems,

Is not sharp long—a peasant who has found
That he is running short of fodder might rise
And go outside and see the fields have turned

To white, and slap his thigh, and back in the house
Pace grumbling here and there like some poor wretch
Who can’t see what to do; and then he goes

Back out, and finds hope back within his reach,
Seeing in how little time the world outside
Has changed its face, and takes his crook to fetch

His sheep to pasture.

First, this simile that begins Canto XXIV is one of the longest in the work, a welcome reprieve from Dante’s extensive revenge fantasies and classical references. Second, I loved the bucolic imagery which then shifts to refer to Virgil (the peasant) who is leading Dante (his flock),¹ which, of course is also classic Christian symbolism.

But the structure is frankly annoying—basically the last bit of each sentence has been shoved into the next line throughout, and the rhymes are pretty weak. An excellent illustration of the problem of trying to preserve an original’s meter, especially Dante’s intricate, interlocking terza rima scheme. Sun/ wanebeam/ mimes/ seemsground/ found/ turnedrise/ house/ goeswretch/ reach/ fetch are some rough rhymes, but it seems meter and rhyme were Pinsky’s secondary focus, as he says in his Translator’s Note, apologizing for the difficulties. I’ll let him off the hook just a bit by noting that even in more rhyme-rich Italian, and with all his poetic skill, Dante rhymes both tempra and faccia with themselves in the passage.

It was second nature to consult the original:

In quella parte del giovanetto anno
che ’l sole i crin sotto l’Aquario tempra
e già le notti al mezzo dì sen vanno,

quando la brina in su la terra assempra
l’imagine di sua sorella bianca,
ma poco dura a la sua penna tempra,

lo villanello a cui la roba manca,
si leva, e guarda, e vede la campagna
biancheggiar tutta; ond’ei si batte l’anca,

ritorna in casa, e qua e là si lagna,
come ‘l tapin che non sa che si faccia;
poi riede, e la speranza ringavagna,

veggendo ‘l mondo aver cangiata faccia
in poco d’ora, e prende suo vincastro
e fuor le pecorelle a pascer caccia.

And, as I have suggested, my version is indeed a mix. Just as with the Aeneid passage, I feel it’s important to understand the original and its context, but it’s still more important that the metaphors of the original make sense in English:

In that moment of the fledgling year when the Sun douses his crown beneath Aquarius and the night becomes half a day’s length,

When the Frost traces the image of her white sister upon the ground, even though her quill’s sharpness lasts but briefly,

The peasant, low on fodder, rises and gazes out, and seeing all the countryside gone pale, slaps his thigh,

He turns back indoors, lamenting to and fro—a poor wretch who knows not what to do; but then, returning, his hope revives,

Seeing how the world’s face has changed in so short a while, takes up his staff and drives his lambs to pasture.

I won’t digress into a belabored discussion of the reasoning behind each word I chose, but just to give one example, the original has crin—“hair” as what the sun is “putting under Aquarius”, and Pinsky has the sun “rinse his beams”, both of which seem strange to my ears. I gave the sun a crown, which seemed a more sensible image using its double meaning as the item of regalia—and of course the sun is king of the heavens—but also the top of the head. In any case, I think my overall rendering lets the depth and resonance of the original shine through.

Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 3: Wanting to be Magic

Read PreviousArticles in This Series

Part 1: Faithful Treason


  1. That is the characters of Dante and Virgil.

Faithful Treason

The endless word game of translating poetry (Translating Poetry, Part 1)

In Borges’ essay, “Two Ways to Translate” (“Las dos maneras de traducir”), he begins by citing the Italian quip traduttore, traditore (“translator, traitor”), which he then goes on to discredit thus:

[I] believe in the good translations of literary works (not to mention didactic or speculative works) and am if the opinion that even poetry is translatable.

Nonetheless, in another essay on the topic, “The Homeric Versions” (“Las versiones homéricas”),¹ he also concedes that it is not easy:

[N]o problem is as consubstantial to literature and its modest mysteries as the one posed by translation. […] Translation […] seems destined to illustrate aesthetic debate. The model to be imitated is a visible text, not an immeasurable labyrinth of former projects or a submission to the momentary temptation of fluency.

He discusses one specific problem, that of a shared context between writer and reader:²

Evaristo Carriego’s poems will appear slighter to a Chilean’s ear than to myself: I will have a feeling for those Southside sunsets, the local characters, and even the details of a landscape not registered but latent, such as a corral, a fig tree behind a rose-colored wall, a bonfire in the street.

Pointing back to the notion framed in traduttore, traditore that the original text is somehow sacrosanct, and that therefore all translations are lesser works, he continues,³

To assume that every recombination of elements is necessarily inferior to its original form is to assume that draft nine is necessarily inferior to draft H [i.e. Homer’s draft]—for there only can be drafts. The concept of the “definitive text” corresponds only to religion or exhaustion.

Long before I first encountered Borges, and especially these lesser-known essays of his, I was tinkering with conlangs, and one of the ways I would test them is to try to use them to translate poetry. Within fairly brief passages, I could quickly see if the lexicon needed expanding, if the grammar and morphology I was creating were sufficient to the task.

The first poetry translation I did into a “real” language was, rather oddly, of a Chinese poem into Japanese. The poem by Du Fu (杜甫), for which I cannot find the original, reminded me of haiku both in its succinctness and its sense of mono no aware (もののあわれ); a wistful sense of the ephemerality of reality. Indeed, the famous haiku poet Matsuo Bashō (松尾 芭蕉), seemingly influenced by this poem, penned a quite similar one. Du Fu’s runs:

Cicadas’ voices echo in the old temple.
Birds’ shadows fly across the cold pond.

The matching of the exact parts of speech and relationships of the words in the two lines was another intriguing element that caused it to stick in my mind. And so, when I was working in Japan, where I was doing a great deal of translation of Japanese game text into English, I decided to share it with some of my coworkers there, as:


Semi no koe, furui tera de hibikimasu.
Tori no kage, samui ike de tobimasu.

Translating poetry from other languages into English began for me with a passage from Virgil, and my experience followed Borges’ description closely. Indeed in all the examples discussed in this series, I encountered the work in English translation, was struck by it, consulted the original, and executed my own version.

During the development of Diablo II, I was looking for an inspirational piece regarding hell, and the one from Dante’s Inferno was feeling a bit tired—“Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate […]” (“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here….”) It’s actually a great passage, but was one of the pieces I had been using to test conlangs for some time. I ran across the 1697 Dryden version of the Aeneid, VI, 273–81:

Just in the gate, and in the jaws of hell,
Revengeful Cares and sullen Sorrows dwell;
And pale Diseases, and repining Age,
Want, Fear, and Famine‘s unresisted rage;
Here Toils, and Death, and Death’s half-brother Sleep
(Forms terrible to view), their sentry keep;
With anxious Pleasures of a guilty mind;
Deep Frauds before, and open Force behind;
The Furies iron beds; and Strife, that shakes
Her hissing tresses, and unfolds her snakes.

Overall it was interesting, and in fact, the Inferno passage is an homage to this one. But some of it felt a bit clumsy to me, in particular, the forced meter and rhyme: Dryden expands the original by an entire line to make it work. So, although I’ll admit to being a Latin novice at the time, I turned to the source, finding:

vestibulum ante ipsum primisque in faucibus Orci
Luctus et ultrices posuere cubilia Curae,
pallentesque habitant Morbi tristisque Senectus,
et Metus et malesuada Fames ac turpis Egestas,
terribiles visu formae, Letumque Labosque;
tum consanguineus Leti Sopor et mala mentis
Gaudia, mortiferumque adverso in limine Bellum,
ferreique Eumenidum thalami et Discordia demens
vipereum crinem vittis innexa cruenti.

I took on my own translation, yielding:

Before the entrance, at the very maw of Orcus,
Grief and unrelenting Anxiety make their Lair,
Here pallid dwells Disease, sad Senescence,
And Fear, corrupting Hunger, and squalid Poverty,
Shapes terrible to behold, Death and Exhaustion;
Then Sleep, of one blood with Death, and Dark
Joys, and against the gate, deadly War,
The Fates in rooms of iron and frenzied Strife,
Her snaky hair bound in ribbons oozing gore.

Attempting to preserve the meter, much less adapt a different one seemed a fool’s errand, and rhyming is, let’s be honest, a bit of a silly linguistic game. Instead I was interested in the metaphors the original work was dealing in, the resonances and nuances of its diction.

My focus initially was on using English cognates of the Latin words when they were available, but words like senescence later seemed like they’d only appear on the SAT. I did have enough restraint to not use consanguineous, and indeed many more Latin words that have been borrowed directly into English, since at a certain point it would cease being a translation. Furthermore, when I was working on Gods and Heroes, I came to understand that the passage presented several lesser deities of the Roman pantheon, and these had accepted English equivalents. Dryden, too seems to have been unaware of the standard renderings of these deity names. I’ve capitalized them in my translation, below. Additionally, my ability to parse the fairly complex Latin had increased significantly, I had studied Roman culture in great depth, and I had read the Aeneid in its entirety. This was the result of another pass from this period:

Before the antechamber, even in the very gullet of Orcus,
Grief and unrelenting Cares have made their lair,
Here abide discoloring Diseases, melancholy Old-Age,
And Fear, corrupting Hunger, and squalid Want,
Forms dreadful to behold: Death and Distress;
Next, Death’s kinsman Sleep, and the soul’s
Guilty Joys, and opposite the threshold, death-bringing War,
And the Furies’ chambers of iron, and frenzied Strife,
Her snaky tresses bound in a gore-smeared band.

As far as a series of drafts, mine improved by coming to grips with the issues that Borges pointed out. And in fact, these drafts, as Borges suggests, are merely some relatively stable ones, there were many more in between them. Greater understanding of the original language and cultural context and an attempt to bring that information to a modern English-speaking audience informed the more recent one. Rather than focusing on cognates of the original Latin words in English, I moved toward diction relatively accessible to a moderately educated reader, but containing resonances that attempt the depth of the model’s.

I’ll close with one final Borges quote that sums up his (and my) thoughts on the topic:

The original is unfaithful to the translation.


I quite recently learned from a course on Roman architecture that the term fauces, an inflected form of which, faucibus, appears in the first line of the Virgil verse, which both Dryden and I took in an anatomical sense of “jaws, maw, gullet”, is actually an architectural feature common to Roman houses. As further such language is used by Virgil (vestibulum, cubilia, limine, thalami), we can conclude that his intent is to juxtapose these mundane domestic elements with the horrible creatures appearing within them, similar to that of of the white vitta (“hairband”), and the blood staining it. Yet another draft was therefore needed:

Before the anteroom, even at the very entrance of Orcus,
Grief and unrelenting Cares have made their parlors,
Here dwell discoloring Diseases, melancholy Old-Age,
And Fear, corrupting Hunger, and squalid Want,
Forms dreadful to behold: Death and Distress;
Next, Death’s kinsman Sleep, and the soul’s
Guilty Joys, and opposite the doorway, death-bringing War,
And the Furies’ iron bedrooms, and frenzied Strife,
Her snaky tresses bound in a gore-smeared band.

Read Subsequent Posts in This Series:

Part 2: The Middle Way

Part 3: Wanting to be Magic


  1. Both this and the previously mentioned Borges work are collected in On Writing.
  2. This is from “Two Ways of Translating”.
  3. I’ve returned here to “The Homeric Versions”.

The Role of the Ear-Lopper

Incorporating the outsider as a source of innovation (Creator Styles, Part 2)

Some commented on my previous article on creator styles that I was comparing apples and oranges—individual artists versus the team dynamic at work in video game development—but was I? Actually, schools of art provide something of a corollary. In these schools, individuals with shared goals work closely together, learning from one another to advance the aesthetic they are trying to achieve. As David Galenson notes in Old Masters and Young Geniuses, we should remember that:

[A]rtistic innovations are not made by isolated geniuses, but are usually based on the lessons of teachers and the collaboration of colleagues.

Certainly, there remain differences in the contexts, as the artists are still creating their own individual works, but there are also situations like studios where works would be executed under the name and direction of a master by various artists, etc., and the Brothers le Nain even worked on one another’s paintings, to such an extent that art historians are still trying to puzzle out which of the brothers is responsible for which paintings.

And so, as I continued to peruse Galenson’s work, a passage leapt off the page at me:

What appears to be necessary for radical conceptual innovation is not youth, but an absence of acquired habits of thought that inhibit sudden departures from existing conventions.

He’s talking about van Gogh, an artist instrumental in the Impressionist movement. Obviously, using van Gogh as the example here is somewhat charged due to his mental instability and eventual suicide, but it’s also inarguable that he was an artistic genius. Because he had his own ideas, he moved to the middle of nowhere, perfected his style, and then unfortunately went a bit crazy.

And, in the team-based creation process of games, a van Gogh sounds like a troublemaker, right? There needs to be unity, everyone on the same page, rowing in the same direction. Wrong:

[W]ith astonishing speed van Gogh gained a knowledge of the methods and goals not only of Impressionism but also of Neo-Impressionism, and he became acquainted with Paul Gauguin, Émile Bernard, and a number of other young artists who were developing a new Symbolist art.

And, yet we know that van Gogh clashed with his contemporaries, as well as his brother Theo, repeatedly. When he left Paris for Arles it was partly from exhaustion from his work, having produced some 200 paintings during this time, but also because his personal style was diverging from Impressionism and he knew the group would never accept it. In his own words:

Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I see before me, I make more arbitrary use of color to express myself more forcefully. […] I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of the red and green […].

This passage shows how he is moving past the strict dictates of the movement to explore new territory that was to show the way to Symbolism, Fauvism, and Expressionism. But the clashes still weren’t over—when Gauguin came to visit and paint with him, they had a massive quarrel: van Gogh threatened his colleague with a straight razor and then used it to slice off part of his own ear.

In the world of game development, I have championed passionate people, and especially those whose views are not mainstream. This can be a tough row to hoe: management typically dislikes disruptions and sees “company culture” as monolithic; a world where everyone plays nice and gets along. My view is that different perspectives, devil’s advocates, and clashes, as long as they can be kept constructive and no one loses an ear, make a team stronger.

In my brief encounters with Hollywood, I’ve seen how sycophancy can distort the creative process: those who should be challenging an artist instead simply say “yes”. I’ll provide one salient anecdote: when a colleague of mine and I were on the set of Antitrust an actor improvised a line about creativity saying, “Use the left side of the brain”, everyone over each other to confirm that this was correct. It’s not.¹ My colleague, another pilgrim in this unholy land, looked at me imploringly. “We’re not here to fight this fight,” I told him, sotto voce, “they’ll just have to fix it in post.”

Perhaps I relate to the ear-lopper role because I’ve lived it. When I got into game development, I did so very much as an outsider, in terms of nearly everything: influences, experience, values, goals. I was perhaps even more of an outsider than van Gogh—he at least was attracted to a school of painting, while I entered a medium wherein various genres and styles coexist, many times even within companies. On top of this, my first real development role was in Japan.

Working in Japan was pretty crazy—basically nearly no one in the company had the intent to make games, instead they were recruited as unskilled workers graduating from university to be sararīman (サラリーマン). Derived from English “salary-man”, the term refers to white-collar workers for corporations but also implies lifetime employment, for whichever company made the best offer, including banks, or electronics manufacturers, or whatever. Whether they came to have passion or even aptitude for their work was a matter of complete happenstance. And indeed, even those who did succeed often did so only to see their ambitions crushed, as they typically had little control over the strict hierarchy in which they worked. Of the handful of Americans I worked with in this organization, none were on the creative side: they were either translators or programmers, just as likely to fit into their roles as their Japanese counterparts. I’m not sure if any besides me continued in the field of games—I certainly haven’t run across any of them.

Then there was me. I’ve already detailed some of my background in earlier posts, so I won’t belabor the point here. On top of all that, I came from art school, believing in the integrity and grand potential of the medium, rather than thinking of games in terms of a set of genre-defined components.

And indeed, although I clashed strongly with many teams, especially early in my career, I feel it is appropriate to credit the successes of games I’ve worked on to my nontraditional approach. The very name of this blog, which comes from the Japanese expression, deru kugi wa utareru (出る釘は打たれる), reflects this; the phrase roughly translates to “the nail that sticks up gets pounded down”, though I’ve taken only the first part.

Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 3: Closing the Circle

Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: Passing on Picasso


  1. The pop psychology notion on the lateralization of the brain holds that the left side is logical and the right creative, but science doesn’t bear this out, so it’s actually kind of doubly wrong.