Dante and Dylan? Translating the translator (part 2)


“Translating the Translator” continues with a brief master class on translation. Andrew Frisardi describes some of the choices he made in translating a key moment (and key poem) of Dante’s “Vita Nova.”

What influenced his choices? Many things, it turns out. He wanted to preserve the meaning of the original, capture a feeling of breathlessness and joy … and follow the example of Bob Dylan.


Read on,  friends.


Here are three versions of the opening lines of “Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore” —the third is yours. [Note: The three excerpts appear at the very end of this post.]   I wonder if you’d discuss a few of the choices that you made in comparison to what the other two poets, J.G. Nichols and Dante Rossetti, respectively, have done in their versions. The most immediate ones, for me, were your decisions not to use the words “ladies” or “intelligence” in the opening line.

I used “women” instead of “lady” or “ladies” to distinguish other women from Beatrice. Only she is Dante’s “lady,” donna in the Italian, which comes from domina in Latin: female lord. Donna, then, was a term of respect, as in Bob Dylan’s “Lay lady lay” (which in any case would sound awful as “Lay woman lay”!).

At the same time, the word donna simply means “woman.” In order to heighten the contrast between Beatrice and the other women in the Vita Nova, I generally reserved the word “lady” for her, “woman” for the others. Dante’s original uses donna for both Beatrice and the others, but I felt that too much of the old-fashioned-sounding “lady” would be, well, too much. After all, he uses the word donna over 200 times in that short book. Neither “woman” nor “lady” in current usage carries both senses of donna, so I divided them up.

Your opening line is so different from the others.

I spent a lot of time trying to get that famous first line of the poem right. “Intelligence” in Rossetti and Nichols translates intelletto, which means intellect, not intelligence. In Dante’s time phrase avere intelletto meant “to understand”—the poem opens with “Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore,” literally “Women who have intellect of love.” In any case, “intelligence in love” is not what Dante is saying. It has nothing to do with being smart in love, which would be trite compared to what he is talking about.

Also, the phrase intelletto d’amore, intellect of love, is a translation of the Latin phrase intellectus amoris, used by medieval theologians to refer to the union of knowledge and love—this union being one of the main themes of Dante’s writing from start to finish. One theme that the stilnovists [Editor’s note: see part 1 of this interview], especially Dante, harp on about is that love and beauty carry real knowledge, not just sentiment. This poem’s opening phrase conveys this meaning in a very compact way.

In the end you decided against using the word “intellect.”

I felt I could not use “intellect” in this line without killing the poetry’s resonance. “Understand the truth of love” brings together the essential elements of Dante’s meaning, while making the phrase completely accessible to any contemporary reader, without having to know the theological background. It’s more lyrical, in short.

Above all in this poem, which is my own personal favorite in the Vita Nova, I aimed to convey, through the poem’s cadence and sound, a sense of the joyous quality of the original. In the lines you quote, there are a lot more enjambments [line breaks in the middle of grammatical units] than there are in Rossetti’s or Nichols’s. I did this to create breathlessness in speaking the lines, as one way to simulate joyful speech.

This poem’s your favorite—and Dante’s, right?

vita nova coverIn that passage in Purgatorio where reference is made to the dolce stil novo or sweet new style, mentioned, Dante is recognized by another, earlier Tuscan poet (one of the poets Dante and the other stilnovists blew away with their virtuosity) precisely as the man who wrote “Women who understand the truth of love.” So we know that Dante himself held this poem very dear, and considered it a milestone in his development.

Fluidity and melodiousness, along with openheartedness or joie de vivre, are the signature characteristics of this poetry. So that is what I aimed for above all in this poem, and in a few others in the Vita Nova that are especially representative of that stage of Dante’s writing.

What translation project are you working on now?

Dante again. This time his philosophical-allegorical treatise the Convivio, which he wrote in 1304-7, about ten years after the Vita Nova, while he was in exile. Convivio simply means “Banquet”; Dante says it’s meant to be a banquet of knowledge for those (such as civic leaders) who are hungry for philosophical knowledge but whose social obligations don’t leave them enough time to seek it out.

Like the Vita Nova, the Convivio is a combination of prose and poetry, although much more prose in this case. And also like the Vita Nova, it is written in the Florentine vernacular, a highly unconventional choice at that time, when philosophy was always written in Latin. Dante probably stopped writing the Convivio, which is unfinished, so he could write the Divine Comedy.


What do you think?
Three versions/excerpts from “Vita Nova” by Dante

Ladies who have intelligence of love,
It is my lady I would speak about.
I cannot hope to make her praise complete,
But if I speak it will relieve my mind.
I say, when I consider her perfection,
Such is the sweetness that Love makes me feel
That, if my boldness did not flag and fail,
My speech would force all men to fall in love.
(J.G. Nichols)

Ladies that have intelligence in love,
Of mine own lady I would speak with you;
Not that I hope to count her praises through,
But telling what I may, to ease my mind.
And I declare that when I speak thereof
Love sheds such perfect sweetness over me
That if my courage fail’d not, certainly
To him my listeners must be all resign’d.
(D.G. Rossetti)

Women who understand the truth of love,
I want to talk with you a while about
my lady—not because I could run out
of words and ways to praise her, but to set
my mind at ease. Her worth is so above
the rest, I feel such lightness in my heart,
that if speech didn’t stammer I’d impart
new love to those who are not lovers yet.
(A. Frisardi)

6 thoughts on “Dante and Dylan? Translating the translator (part 2)

  1. Clever and contemporary translation. Pleasant and elegant. Enjoyed comparing the three translations and, again, comparing each to the original. Good job indeed.

  2. Thank you, ofglassandbooks. And thanks, Nick, for the interview. I’ve enjoyed contributing to your lively and interesting blog.

  3. Indeed! We need the good will and the skill of people like Nick in this fascinating community of bloggers to mastermind moments of magic, and of course the willingness of magicians themselves to take part!

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