Adventures in the Romance Languages: Reading Dante

Photograph by Pixabay

For some reason, several years ago, I got myself a copy of The Divine Comedy in Italian. I like translating stuff, so I wanted to start with what was, to me, a brand new language. I recently got further than the first page and I’d like to talk about that today.

So here’s how I work. I have two websites open on my computer: WordReference and Google Translate. Everyone probably knows about Google Translate. When I started studying French, my teachers advised me against using it. We weren’t warned off it, by any means, but I definitely think they didn’t want us taking our homework, lashing it all into Google Translate and copying it down. They told us it’s good for individual words and phrases but simply isn’t built for paragraphs or even complicated sentences. Instead, we were encouraged to use WordReference. I’m no expert on translation software but if you try each of the sites, you’ll see the difference.

WordReference simply doesn’t respond to sentences. Instead, it gives you a page of possible translations for individual words and short phrases. I also found the conjugator really useful. Put in a verb and it’ll give you a table of all its tenses and also stuff like the imperative (used for giving orders) and the past participles (‘walked’, ‘ran’, ‘hidden’, ‘born’, ‘banjaxed’, etc). I found that, by using it every time I saw something I recognised as a verb, I just got familiar with the various tenses in Italian. I’ve never taken a class in the language, but because I’ve done French for years and years, I had a head start when it came to recognising the patterns inherent to one of its sister languages.

WordReference assumes you have some experience in learning a language formally, so it’s quite technical in its layout. Google Translate is more user-friendly, once you’re aware of its limitations. Its obvious advantage is that it can actually handle sentences. It’s more responsive to a wider variety of inputs and will translate what you’re typing in real-time. WordReference requires you to press enter or choose one of its suggestions and then it takes you to a new page. My main reason for using Google Translate is for their greater text-to-speech support. WordReference has it too, but for fewer results. Google, on the other hand, has pronunciations for everything, even names. I wanted to get familiar with how the language sounded, instead of intuiting based on my knowledge of English and French. I even read some bits out loud, so I could hear when I automatically pronounced something the French way, e.g. prounouncing ‘ch’ as ‘sh’, like in French, instead of ‘k’, like in Italian.

So first, I translated the back of the book, both the blurb and also the section about the author. I translated every word, putting each into WordReference first and Google Translate if the the other site didn’t have a pronunciation. The main thing I got from this first step was context. Dante’s reputation is legendary among poets, Italian or otherwise. The blurb calls him “nostro somma poeta” or our supreme poet, which says enough, really. Each section has its own purpose but I think the bio section was more engaging than the blurb. One of my great interests is historical people as people, be they named figures or just society as a whole. I prefer to read a brief factfile about their life instead of something about how the author was a Great Man and how this is a Great Work. I know that’s what a blurb is for, but I knew the work’s reputation before I ever opened the book. I mainly want to see the text for myself. Still, the more Italian vocabulary, the better. There’s a much longer biographical profile and an “introduzione”, both of which are in italics. After learning the basics about who Dante was, I really just wanted to get started.

I like to read stuff in the original language where possible so that I can read the author’s words directly, to see the material raw. I accept that if I want to explore the world’s literature, I’ll mostly have to read translations. I’ve written elsewhere that I believe translation is itself creative work, because it requires someone else to bring themselves into the text and work with the original. The finished translation is derivative, sure, but it’s still a new text, in my view. I believe that gives the translator a certain authority over the text. Given my position as a neophyte translator, I wouldn’t claim that authority over this text. I’m not translating, in the strictest sense. I don’t speak Italian, first of all, so the relevant translation sites carry the bulk of the work. I’m also not writing anything down, so there isn’t really a new text for me to claim a hand in. I’m basically doing a guided reading of Dante’s work, because I enjoy the challenge of navigating an unfamiliar language and I enjoy a more hands-on reading experience.

The text itself is easy to work with, since it’s in verse. Dante’s strict adherence to metre means that the text is centred on the page and has a consistent number of syllables from line to line. There’s also reams of footnotes on each page, so even though the book I have is over 600 pages, the poem itself is relatively manageable. My aim is to do no more than a single page on any given day so I’m not rushing it. The length of each page varies, depending on the footnotes. There’s a number every three lines, so it’s easy to tell at a glance how much progress I’ve made and how much of the poem is featured on each page. I’m not intending to do it all, necessarily, but I’d like to do enough so that if I don’t touch it for a few months or years, I won’t feel the need to start all over again. Luckily, the poem’s divided into a hundred canti (literally ‘songs’), so there’s a ready-made way of marking my progress. And, of course, the whole poem is divided into Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso, so I’m not likely to permanently lose my place. Like Dante’s journey, I start at one end and must make my way through a series of waypoints to get to the other.

Part of my interest in literature from the past is how works survive over the years. I don’t just mean how they persist culturally but also how they are contained physically. Dante wrote his poem in the 1300s, before Gutenberg’s press allowed European literature to have hundreds of copies in circulation, so few fourteenth century copies survive. In first and second year of college, I did Old and Middle English, which involved looking at the specific manuscript sources of the works. Old English in particular owes much to archaeology, since works from that period often date from a thousand or more years ago. The best known work of Middle English, Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, was written in the same century as The Divine Comedy, albeit six or seven decades after. This means that the development of these texts is much easier to follow than that of Beowulf, for example. I wanted to see for myself how similar the poem as printed in my book was to surviving documents from that time, so I went in search of fourteenth century manuscripts. Luckily, Dante’s work was popular in its own century, so there’s no shortage of documents. The earliest ones I found dated to around the time of The Canterbury Tales. In decades past, I’d have to go to libraries and try to find black and white pictures of the documents, but now it’s easy enough to get clear colour images of seven to eight hundred-year-old folios and codexes in various archives. My favourite was a copy associated with Filippo Villani, a Florentine chronicler estimated to have lived at and around the turn of the fifteenth century. He wrote it out by hand, and you can see where he ruled the page. I admit, there’s a thrill to looking at a photograph of something a person physically wrote six whole centuries ago. I saw the photo on Filippo’s Wikipedia page. For a more complete archive of manuscript copies of Dante’s work, there’s also this archive. Be warned, though; the site’s format shows its age.

I enjoyed reading the poem and researching the sources. It made me feel like a medieval scholar, hunting through limited primary material in search of the past. It’s an extension of my desire to connect as directly as possible to a writer’s message. Irish monks worked painstakingly to transmit textual information and the slow, methodical approach I took to translating an unfamiliar language reminds me of that same attention to detail. Dante scholarship as a discipline is many centuries old and my work is little more than a brief tour. Here is a statue of Dante from the Uffizi, a gallery in his native Florence.

Photo by Frieda at Italian Wikipedia. – Transferred from it.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY-SA 3.0,

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