Bright arrogance #8

Intersemiotic Dante and expanded translation

Diagram of The Malebolge (from Alexandre Masseron's 1947 French translation of the Divine Comedy)

In the last column, I speculated that Mary Jo Bang’s translation of the Inferno was initially seduced by but ultimately rejected the more corrosive qualities of Flarf. However, in the baroque-brut line of Henrik Drescher’s accompanying illustrations, there seems to be a corrective, drawing us into visceral mess of hell’s innards, albeit with high artisanal flare.[1] These illustratings seem to outdo (or undo) Gustave Doré's engravings from his popular Dante volumes of the 19th century, in that they are at once more terrifying and more cuddly — open to being in an loose relation with the text they accompany. In contrast, Doré's engravings are so aesthetically overpowering that, existing in volumes that were kept around the house more as a marker of status than for reading, the illustrator’s name is more commonly associated with this Divine Comedy than that of its proper translator (Henry Francis Cary, who for the longest time, because of a C with an overgrown serif, I thought was merely “Gary” — like some anonymous Cher or Prince of a forgotten poetry scene). Drescher even apologizes to Doré in his image for Canto IX, but I can imagine this apology is rather for exceeding, than debasing him . . . ultimately, though, it’s another twist on that old-fashioned translator’s anxiety of infidelity, here in the register of the image. Although since Doré’s interpretation itself can hold no claim on the “original,” it may be an appropriately postmodern apology after all.


The Inferno, truth be told, is no easy reading. I’ve been attempting to read it through since I was twelve, and only did so finally with Bang and Drescher’s help.  Images provide another level of vernacularization, an entry point into reading, which even Dante may not have approved. Other translations of the Inferno have visualized the architectural schema of hell—there is a French translation that has some diagrams that could easily be in a math textbook; some versions find in it a rich opportunity for literary-visual collaboration (those of Mandelbaum and Moser; Pinsky and Mazur); Tom Phillips and Peter Greenaway have collaborated on text and video gesamtkunstwerks of it; Alejandro Crawford is working on a lavish video game version.  While such media-savvy updates seem to make the medieval Italian text more palatable to modern English readers, I don’t necessarily find the images and imaging “easier.” In fact, Doré’s and Drescher’s illustrations were not truly legible to me until I tackled the whole work. There is a more subtle informatics at play between image and text that might challenge the typical notion that the translation of a text into, around, or through “pictures” is merely a gesture of populist inclusivity, or that, if translation is secondary to the original, the image is secondary to the translation.

Roman Jakobson puts translation in three categories: the interlingual (translation between languages); the intralingual (English to English, from experiments like Legault’s to bargain-basement “understanding”); and the intersemiotic—which includes transpositions between different media and formats. He seems to imply that the intersemiotic is the superior mode—or maybe just the most realistic, all-encompassing one, since, for him “only creative transposition is possible.” Expanded translation works like the Dante installations of Joan Jonas or Stan Brakhage’s Dante Quartet or Robert Rauschenberg’s caustic rubbings touch the original only lightly, and, as in Jonas’ installations, create a network of associations rather than a strict illustration. One prominent feature of Jonas’ Dante III installation is video of her drawing with a piece of chalk attached to a long wooden stick. Images of chalked dogs’ heads, stacked Saturn rings, gyres, towers, quartermoons and pagodas roughly appear in many of the videos and are just as soon erased, to be drawn again. Using the technique that Matisse embraced after arthritis limited his drawing abilities, Jonas intentionally impoverishes the images, although their informatic sparseness enriches the intertextual experience. Many of these artists (Brakhage, Jonas, Phillips, Rauschenberg and Drescher) indeed work with the hand as a way to undo representation—so, while they embrace the presumably “pop” world of image, they, like Bang (who could have pursued a more Googlistic ventriloquism of Dante), keep the computer at arms length, and that is perhaps the point. Such works as Jonas’ Dante III, intentionally or not, challenge what Emily Apter calls the “informatic commensurability” of web translation—the ideological notion that everything can translated into anything else with ease. If everything is going to hell anyway, at least the hand-made hell slows the process.




1.In the process of returning Longfellow's translation of Purgatorio to the library, I notice the word "Illustrations" heading up a section, but see no images.  When we use "illustration" to denote image-additions, we are relying on a relatively modern meaning of that word.  In the case of Longfellow's book, the section "Illustrations" is a collection of prose essays meant to elucidate the poem—in the style of a Norton Critical Edition (if only critics were still called "illustrators"!).  Given that, according to the OED, illustration once meant enlightenment ("The person that receyueth suche illustracyon or lyght, is all quiete and restfull: bothe in soule & body") or nobility ("They have invested this their head [sc. the king] with all possible illustration. He concentrates the rays of many nations"), illustration as critical annotation implies more than mere commentary, but rather promises a sort of preternatural extension of the original in other words: "It is a figure called Illustration, by the which the forme of things is so set foorth in words, that it seemeth rather to be seene with the eies, then heard with the eares."  In this way, surpassing critical kibbitzing, the illustration promises a translation in its own right, not only from the original to the commentary, but from the written word into something that transcends writing itself (and this is the logophobic conceit, central to western thought, that Derrida unpacks in much of his work).

Longfellow's collocation of illustrations starts, aptly enough, with Thomas Carlyle's reflection on an "actual" image—Giotto's depiction of Dante—as a way to access paratextual biographical information; perhaps embellishing a little too purply (in one reproduction of this text, an editor has inserted a devastating "[?]" after "I think it is the mournfulest face that ever was painted from reality"), this "illustration" nevertheless extends the "translation" of The Divine Comedy beyond the bounds of face-value

Many volumes have been written by way of commentary on Dante and his Book; yet, on the whole, with no great result. His Biography is, as it were, irrecoverably lost for us. An unimportant, wandering, sorrowstricken man, not much note was taken of him while he lived; and the most of that has vanished, in the long space that now intervenes. It is five centuries since he ceased writing and living here. After all commentaries, the Book itself is mainly what we know of him. The Book;---and one might add that Portrait commonly attributed to Giotto, which, looking on it, you cannot help inclining to think genuine, whoever did it. To me it is a most touching face; perhaps of all faces that I know, the most so. Blank there, painted on vacancy, with the simple laurel wound round it; the deathless sorrow and pain, the known victory which is also deathless;---significant of the whole history of Dante! I think it is the mournfulest face that ever was painted from reality; an altogether tragic, heart-affecting face. There is in it, as foundation of it, the softness, tenderness, gentle affection as of a child; but all this is as if congealed into sharp contradiction, into abnegation, isolation, proud hopeless pain. A soft ethereal soul looking out so stern, implacable, grim-trenchant, as from imprisonment of thick-ribbed ice! Withal it is a silent pain too, a silent scornful one: the lip is curled in a kind of godlike disdain of the thing that is eating out his heart,---as if it were withal a mean insignificant thing, as if he whom it had power to torture and strangle were greater than it. The face of one wholly in protest, and life-long unsurrendering battle, against the world. Affection all converted into indignation: an implacable indignation; slow, equable, implacable, silent, like that of a god! The eye too, it looks out as in a kind of surprise, a kind of inquiry, Why the world was of such a sort? This is Dante: so he looks, this 'voice of ten silent centuries,' and sings us 'his mystic unfathomable song.'