There are several different things one can be aiming at in a verse translation, leaving aside the genre known as 'Imitation', in which poets like Samuel Johnson, Ezra Pound and Robert Lowell have done such marvellous things. A verse translation may aim to be an independent modern work in its own right. Or, I ought rather to say, this is what some famous and admired translations have in fact been. If you took Pope seriously as to the degree of fidelity required of a translator of Homer ('to copy him in all the variations of his style and the different modulations of his numbers ... not to neglect even the little figures and turns on the words, nor sometimes the very cast of his periods'), his own Iliad would give you rather a turn. Then again, a verse translation may plead to be read purely as a translation: as a compromise and a substitute, offered as such and hoping occasionally, by some good fortune of language, to reach transparency. (The transparency will, of course, be illusory, since the translator will of necessity be working within a different verse-form from the original; verse-forms do not transplant. But then, illusion is all any reader need ask for.) But thirdly, you can have a translation which is intended neither as a work of art nor as a substitute for a work of art, but as a form of exposition - in the way that you might teach rifle-drill with a dummy rifle. This is what Ezra Pound meant when he said of his brilliant and bizarre version of Guido Cavalcanti's canzone 'Donna mi priegha': 'As to the atrocities of my translation, all that can be said in excuse is that they are, I hope, for the most part intentional, and committed with the aim of driving the reader's perception further into the original than it would without them have penetrated.' Of these three new translations of Dante (not all of them quite new, for Allen Mandelbaum's was first published ten years or so ago), Mandelbaum's and Pinsky's belong firmly in the second class, whilst Ellis's, which makes a point of the modernity of its idiom, aspires perhaps a little to the first class.
LRB 22 August 1996 | PDF Download