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.

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