A couple of years back I bought a Chinese translation of Dante’s Commedia without really reading it at the bookstore — this is what you get when books are cheap. As it turns out, I really should’ve flipped through it a bit first, because the translation sucks sucks sucks like an Electrolux. It’s literal, unbeautiful, downright clumsy in most places, occasionally flat-out wrong, and — most criminally of all, to my mind — unrhymed. Now, a number of English translations (of the Divine Comedy and other poetry) don’t rhyme, which is fair enough — English is a fairly rhyme-poor language compared to Italian. Dante’s poetry is also particularly different to translate into verse because of its interlocking terza rima structure, which John Hollander describes nicely in his Rhyme’s Reason:
The unrhymed middle line, in the tight schema
of tercets spinning out a lengthy text
(Dante gave us this form, called terza rima)
Rhymes, after all, with the start of the next
Tercet, then helps set up a new unrhyme
That, sure of foot and not at all perplexed,
Walks across blank space, as it did last time.
(A couplet ends this little paradigm.)
So it’s hard to keep up in English — not that that’s stopped plenty of translators, from Seamus Heaney to Robert Pinsky to Ciaran Carson to Dorothy Sayers, from giving it their best college try.
Chinese, of course, is much more rich in rhymes than English — I mean, you have to be fucking well trying not to rhyme in Chinese — and so one would expect a Chinese translator to encounter approximately zero difficulty in carrying over the rhyme scheme. And you might expect that someone going to the trouble to translate a major work of world literature would themselves have some literary inclinations, and that they might try to make their output beautiful. Unfortunately, in the case of 黄文捷 Huang Wenjie’s jive-ass translation, you would be dead wrong on all fronts.
I found this out in the context of a post I’m trying to write for my Chinese blog about stars. I’d been thinking of using the last lines of Dante’s Inferno, which go:
…salimmo sù, el primo e io secondo,
tanto ch’i’ vidi de le cose belle
che porta ‘l ciel, per un pertugio tondo.
E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle.
This isn’t particularly hard stuff: I can make it more or less rhyme in English without even trying:
…we went on then – he first, I following,
until I saw the things of beauty Heaven bears
through a round opening.
Whence came we forth, and once more saw the stars.
Compare the tin-eared Huang Wenjie’s version:
Here’s a dead literal translation for non-Sinologues:
Him in front, me behind, we climbed together
Until through a round hole
I saw some beautiful things displayed on the sky’s dome
Then we walked out of there, and again saw dense stars filling the sky.
Not different, perhaps. Not wrong. But it’s written in a completely unpoetic register: it sounds more like narration or a “what I did on my summer vacation” paper than a poem. (To me, at least. Native speakers?) Huang doesn’t even attempt to make it sound old-fashioned, or indeed give it any weight at all beyond the somewhat poetic word 苍穹 (“sky’s dome,” or more literally “azure vault”). Can I think of a better translation into Chinese? Not right now — I’m on a deadline — but for Christ’s sake, I shouldn’t have to! Does anybody know of any Chinese translations of the Commedia that don’t suck, or is Huang’s the only game in town?
[Update] My girlfriend informs me that there are two other translations, one of which – by 田德望 Tian Dewang – sounded promising. From the description she found online:
Mr. Tian Dewang spent 18 years on each book of the Commedia, finally finishing the state-funded project at the age of 90. He considered the translation of the Commedia his life’s greatest work.
Unfortunately, Tian went and translated it into prose, not poetry, which raises the question of exactly what was taking him so damned long. Maybe his eyesight was really, really bad, or something. Here’s his opening:
Halfway through life, I found that I had lost the right road and gone into a darkened forest. Ah! to speak of the tangled, treacherous, hard-to-pass-through forest is such a difficult thing! Just thinking of it makes me feel scared again.
This guy is (or was) a professor at my alma mater of Beijing University, so I can assume he’s no slouch when it comes to scholarship and talent. But again, I ask — WTF? Various places online describe his version as “the most authoritative Chinese-language edition of the Commedia.”
Really? Really really? Because that’s kind of sad.
There’s also the translation of 钱稻孙 Qian Daosun, who put parts of the Inferno into a poetic style similar to the ancient 楚辞 Elegies of Chu. His opening:
which – because it’s not like I have lots of overdue projects to be working on instead – I’ll translate back into old-fashioned English as
Having trod Life’s road half-way,
I found me in a darken’d Wood
For I had lost the right Path, and was in disarray —
— To tell it e’en now bestirs the blood!
That forest savage and o’ergrown
Whose merest memory inspires dread.
Anyway, Qian seems to have the right idea. But his version’s partial and he was doing this in the 1920s or 30s, so presumably he’s long-since dead. And what few bits he did translate are apparently out of print, which means that if I want more I’ll probably have to make a trip to the National Library. Rat-bastards!