I’ve finished reading a review copy the Cambridge scholar Prue Shaw’s forthcoming book Reading Dante. It’s a general introduction to Dante’s thought and writing, especially the Divine Comedy. It’s hard to overstate how much richer the experience of reading the Commedia as an amateur is when you have someone like Shaw explaining things, and showing you depths to the text that you may not have otherwise seen.
The final chapter is about the language Dante uses in the Commedia, and how masterful, and innovative he was with vernacular Tuscan. Did you know that 80 percent of the Commedia is “immediately intelligible” (Shaw’s words) to modern Italian speakers? Contrast that with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written, in English, decades after the Commedia. An excerpt:
That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde;
The chambres and the stables weren wyde,
And wel we weren esed atte beste.
And shortly, whan the sonne was to reste,
So hadde I spoken with hem everichon,
That I was of hir felawshipe anon,
And made forward erly for to ryse,
To take our wey, ther as I yow devyse.
But natheles, whyl I have tyme and space,
Er that I ferther in this tale pace,
Anyway, the translation of the Commedia that I’m using features Dante’s original lines on the left side of the book, facing the translation. I can’t read Italian, but I can pronounce it well enough to pick up the rhythms and the musicality of Dante’s verse — which are, and must be, absent in the English. It seems to me that even the best translation can only achieve the poetic equivalent of copying a Caravaggio using only three colors. You can convey some of the truth and beauty, but only to a limited degree. Can you imagine reading Shakespeare in translation? I can’t. So much is lost once English is abandoned.
I got to thinking yesterday: If a genie gave you the power to choose instant and total knowledge of an unknown language for the sake of reading a single book or work of literature in that language, after which knowledge of the language would disappear, which language would you choose, and which work of literature?
For me, there’s no question it would be Italian, and the Divine Comedy. What about for you? Why?