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In the translation of individual words — idiomatic phrases having been rendered as far as possible by idiomatic equivalents — while careful to reproduce Dante’s quaint choices, when illuminating, I have not always thought it a part of loyalty to reproduce obscurities, when obviously due, in spite of his reported claim to the contrary, to the tyrannical exigencies of his rhymes; for though the latter may never have led him to say what he did not wish to say, they often forced him to say it less clearly.
In view, then, of the above and other similar frank criticisms of the work of my predecessors in the fascinating field of Dante translation, I have been guided by the following considerations, which are modestly offered in justification of the aims, if not of the results, of a slowly matured effort, which has enjoyed the rare help of being progressively tested by being read aloud in public during many years.That justification involves the expression of some theory as to the translation of Dante’s world-poem, itself implying a criticism, whether expressed or not, of competitors already in the field.The present translation, which is the result of over twenty years’ work with large classes in “Dante in English” at Brown University, was undertaken and continued with the object of meeting a need, which did not seem adequately met by the well known translations of Cary, Longfellow, Norton, or others more recent; it, therefore, frankly aimed at being in every possible way an improvement on its rivals old and new.Dante’s masterwork is a 3 volume work written in Italian rather than Latin.It embraces human individuality and happiness in a way which suggests the beginning of the Renaissance.Now the evolution and acquired associations of poetical forms having, as I believe, given the qualities of blank verse the nearest possible position in English to those sustained by terza rima in Italian, notwithstanding the rhymes of the latter, blank verse would seem to be the translator’s natural choice.
Being rhythmical and also metrical, it can supply the translator with the emotional and fusing element fatally lacking in prose; and being free from the artificial bondage of rhymes, or stanza schemes, which can only rarely prove happy under the restraints of dictated thought, it will release him from all temptation to disloyalty to the integrity of the original’s intellectual and spiritual message, or to any interruption of that formal continuity, which is a quality that blank verse and terza rima possess in common, in spite of the latter’s divisibility into terzine.
Where this seemed impossible or undesirable, simple typographical devices have been adopted, to keep up the useful parallelism to the eye, without detriment to the flow or metrical integrity of the English verse.
Again, in the translation the subject matter has been helped, I trust, by being divided into paragraphs, with the object of making the dialogue clearer, as well as of isolating and framing independent gems of thought, feeling or description.
Finally, before closing a preface to what I hope will prove to have, under the present circumstances of the world, something more than merely a scholarly import, I cannot forego the opportunity of recording the intense joy with which, as an American who, born in Rome and brought up in Florence, lived to become a lover not only of Dante the Poet, but also of Dante the Patriot, I appreciate the full significance of its date.
Nineteen hundred and seventeen will be remembered as the year in which, under the inspiring moral leadership of a Veltro-like, democratic King, Italy, robed in the symbolic colors of Beatrice, was about to attain that complete national unification and redemption of her people, of which Dante was, as he still is, the creative Poet-prophet, and one of whose results will be that, in Dante’s oft quoted words, Quarnaro’s gulf will again “bound Italia, and her border bathe;” and also as the year in which, in virtual alliance with America, she made her marvelous Latin contribution toward the universal attainment and preservation of that Liberty, personal, national and international, “for whose sake death did not prove bitter” to her sons on land or sea, or in the air, or even upon the snow clad sister summits of those Alps, “which o’er the Tyrol lock out Germany” from what has ever been the imperial garden of a World Culture, which, like its fairest single flower, Dante’s Commedia, is not only scientific, but human and divine.
For these reasons I cannot but feel that blank verse would be the medium that Dante himself would use, were he writing the same poem in English now, to say nothing of what he would do, were he translating it into that language.