Ariosto in translation

I have been intending to do this for months. The purpose of this post is to state the fact that David R Slavitt’s translation of Orlando Furioso which was published by the Bellknap Press in 2009 is very bad indeed. I do not normally draw attention to bad poetry or to poetry that I don’t like but I’m happy to make an exception on this occasion mainly because I spent 30 of the very finest English pounds (30) on acquiring it after a glowing review in the TLS.
My motivation for wanting to read this poem is straightforward, it seems reasonable that anyone with an interest in the Faerie Queen (me) should want to know a bit more about Spenser’s main sources and to ascertain whether he did “overgo” Ariosto.
Prior to Slavitt’s offering, the only readily available translation was the prose version by Guido Waldman although Rose’s 19th century prose rendition is available in a few obscure corners of the web. Slavitt acknowledges that Sir John Harington’s translation is the best but asserts that his version is aimed at making poetry more fun. It was at this point that I should have realised that there was a problem but I persevered and read the first ten cantos before giving up.
I don’t have a problem with translators taking risks with their task and I readily appreciate that each new translation creates a new poem and I am reasonably understanding of how difficult the task of translating poetry actually is.
I do have a problem however if that new poem turns out to be either inept in itself or to construct something that is far removed from the intention of the original. Slavitt, in his pursuit of fun and his quest to make Ariosto accessible to contemporary students, manages to attain new depths of ineptitude and to almost completely miss the ‘point’ of the poem.
Needless to say, my Italian is completely inadequate to glean any understanding of the original but I do have both the Waldman and Harington versions to hand and offer the final stanza of the second canto for comparison.
This is Slavitt:

And then? Is this the end? But Surely not.
The smaller twigs of the elm branch break her fall,
as you might have guessed, with all those pages you’ve got
in your right hand. So this cannot be all
there is, She doesn’t die here, but just what
happens to her after this close call
that leaves her on the bottom, stunned and hurt so,
we’ll get to soon, perhaps in Canto Terzo.

This is Waldmann:

The innocent damsel’s fate, however, was not as Pinabello wished, for as she tumbled from rock to rock, not she but the good stout branch was first to hit the bottom. There it snapped, but after affording her enough support to save her from death. She lay stunned awhile, as I shall go on to tell you in the next canto.

And this is Harington:

Yet great good hap the gentle damsell found,
As well deserv’d a mind so innocent:
For why the pole strake first upon the ground,
And though by force it shiver’d all and rent,
Yet were her limbes and life kept safe and sound,
For all his vile and traiterous intent,
Sore was the damsell mazed with the fall,
As in another booke declare I shall.

I don’t think that you need to be overly familiar with 16th century verse to recognise that Harington is much more faithful to the original and that Slavitt strays perilously close to doggerel. As well as personal disappointment I do have to ask why on earth Bellknap thought that this was a good idea. Slavitt’s efforts do not convey anything of the original and will only succeed in repelling those who are new to poetry.

10 responses to “Ariosto in translation

  1. Vance Maverick

    My Italian’s at least good enough to vouch for the sense of Waldmann’s gloss. The Slavitt is simple malpractice.

    • What I still don’t understand is how this particular piece of malpractice got to be published and managed to receive a glowing review in the TLS. Or is this a common occurrence?

      • Vance Maverick

        I wonder if it’s less “malpractice”, after all, than false advertising. Could Slavitt have set out to write a humorous free variation on Ariosto (free like Pound’s Propertius or Logue’s Homer, but with a tone more like Don Juan), then found himself having to sell it as a translation? The mystery of its reception would remain.

      • Unlikely, my original post didn’t do justice to the full horror-

        simply fear. She does not make excuses
        but with a twitch of the reins of her horse vamooses

        This isn’t humorous, it’s just bad and the second redundant ‘of’ just makes it worse. This is not by any means an isolated example, he overflows with this stuff.

  2. Vance Maverick

    Humorous in intent, I hasten to add. That couplet is as grim as one could imagine.

  3. There are indeed issues with the translation of OF, beginning also with the decisions about what to cut; the Belknap version is just barely over half.
    The best translation in poetry is still that of Barbara Reynolds, in prose that of Allan Gilbert. On a connected subject my own version of Ariosto’s prose came out last year: ‘My Muse Will Have a Story to Paint’: The Selected Prose of Ludovico Ariosto (Toronto 2010). The Erbolato is a little masterpiece that deserves good readers. Dennis Looney

  4. Thank you Dennis, the Reynolds is now on order- I can’t understand why I missed it and I’ve just located most of “My Muse..” on Google books.

  5. Which is the best translation – Waldmann or Harington?

  6. Slavitt’s translation turns the whole poem into a snide parody. I don’t think Ariosto was another Cervantes, spoofing the whole account.

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