The Daily’s Grind section is launching “Untranslatable,” a new series on etymology, linguistics and self-expression around the world. Grind editor Matthew Turk shares the background behind the initiative.
Dante Alighieri has a fascinating life story, but he is perhaps best known for his epic poem the “Divine Comedy.” Now roughly 700 years old, the rhyme scheme that Alighieri invented for the poem, terza rima, is devilishly tricky to replicate. Over the summer, I cracked open an English translation by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to see for myself. The first three lines are classic, so familiar that I might have read them before:
Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself within a forest dark, For the straightforward path had been lost. “Inferno” I, lines 1–3
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, mi ritrovai per una selva oscura, ché la diritta via era smarrita. “Inferno” I, lines 1–3
Then, with enough time, my eyes started to glaze over passages — passages that confused and strained me. As far as I could tell, they were grammatically correct — that is, I was technically reading idiomatic English — but it almost felt like I would have been better off opting for the Italian. 693 pages later, I concluded that I had been reading another language either way.
Generally speaking, I advise our writers at The Daily to stay away from verbose, imperious language, with the hope that one day clarity could be fashionable again. With that said, some nuance waits to be disentangled from the noise. In particular, there is something to be said for the musicality of one’s language. Artistic expression grants access to the consciousness of another human being in ways that an especially esoteric textbook on differential equations, for example, cannot. A chapter on Fourier transforms may convey a concept to the best of its ability, but it does not speak to the reader in the same way as a poem by Maya Angelou, a Romantic painting or the famous antimetabole of John F. Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” As the American journalist Derek Thompson has said, this very quotation “balances repetition and variety in a way that feels softly surprising when you reach the end of the sentence.” The words make you feel something, and therefore, they are memorable.
For lack of any legitimate knowledge of the Italian language, I decided during the fall to attend a Nov. 9 webinar with Stanford professor emeritus Marjorie Perloff, Italianist Donatella D’Aguanno and American poet Mary Jo Bang, the third of whom recently produced a new translation of Dante’s “Purgatorio.” The meticulous processes of translation and comprehension that she described that day went over my head, but I still managed to walk away with one lesson: a whole lot gets lost in translation. Not merely from Italian to English, but from mind to mind, from time to time and from space to space.
Every mode of communication inevitably has its embarrassing idiosyncrasies, and our biological capacity to speak could have come from an accident, but sometimes you wonder if we could do better. If not that, then you could at least find amusement in how chaotic human achievement and culture can be. Yes, it takes a lot of nerve to translate 700-year-old Italian into 700-year-old English, but I’m sure Longfellow succeeded in preserving the original verbiage that would stupefy me all the same. For example:
And lo! towards us coming in a boat An old man, hoary with the hair of eld, Crying: “Woe unto you, ye souls depraved!” “Inferno” III, lines 82–84
Surely, Dante is known as il Sommo Poeta for a reason. Was it because he wrote like this? Is it because the formality of language is not what it once was? How, exactly, does that formality differ from one era to another? One culture to another? These are the wonders of language and self-expression that the new “Untranslatable” series seeks to embody. Each iteration will focus on the richness of a single word or linguistic phenomenon in the world. By parsing the details of this inquiry, none of us will understand every word — but perhaps the higher rapture to attain in this context is to better understand one another.
If you would like to contribute to “Untranslatable,” please pitch or submit work to thegrind ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.