Refractions, Ideas in Translation

March 16, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

In a global society, we are bound to read many works in translation. Quality literature from around the world is being produced at an increasingly fast pace. In fact, it is impossible to keep up with the literature in one's primary language, let alone international texts. This proliferation of material presents an opportunity for anyone interested in translation. More than simply studying translations, students often find it a valuable exercise to attempt a translation. Experiments in translation can be extremely difficult, but also very rewarding.

Language is ever-evolving. As such, translations continue to change. Take, for example, Dante. He wrote The Divine Comedy in the 14th century. From the beginning, Dante's verse clearly demonstrated mastery, but for years, it was available in the original only. It was not until 1802 that the full text had been translated into English. Since then, it has been translated into English more times than any other language. In fact, since 1802, there are now more than 100 full translations (this does not include translated portions, which number too many to list). Translators such as W.S. Merwin, Robert Pinsky, Dorothy Leigh Sayers, Charles Eliot Norton (Great Books version), and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow have provided very different versions of the same primary text. Why are there so many versions? Should we be satisfied with any one of these translations, or attempt to read a number of them?

Unless one is a scholar, there is very little reason to read a number of translations of the same text. However, when selecting the text you want to read, you might browse a variety of them. You may find one that sounds better to you than the others, or that contains more helpful notes, for example. In other words, when reading classics, it is a good idea to know who the translator is and what type of style they use.

On the other hand, one reason to read a variety of texts is to demonstrate the ways in which language evolves. For example, terms that Longfellow used may carry very different connotations now. The word gay, for instance, has evolved into a variety of meanings which may complicate a contemporary translation, particularly for younger readers. Rhyme schemes, cultural norms and style will illustrate some very different tendencies.

Working in the 1980s, André Lefevere proposed the idea that translations should be viewed as “refractions”. By this, he meant that the translated texts have been (re)produced in a way that aligns with some sort of ideology. In the same way that classics have been rewritten for young children, for example, translators also rewrite texts in a way that ensures success. More importantly, this “refraction” then becomes the “norm” for people who are unfamiliar with the content. In other words, a one time reader of Dante's Divine Comedy will only have access to their version. This will be their “norm”. It would surprise most readers, however, to find that the translations differ radically not only in word choice, but in the eventual meanings as well. Some versions have more supplemental notes than text and other versions leave it to the reader to do the research. Using the term “norm” in this case feels very misleading, and would be better represented by the idea that the texts we read in translation are, in fact, “refracted”. Susan Bassnet explains how some translations of Dante's “Inferno” completely miss the mark, unbeknownst to the reader. She writes, “The problem they share, here, of course, is that these lines are deliberately written in a particular style and are consciously ambiguous in their structure. It is not only the character of Francesca that emerges from these lines, it is also an autobiographically framed moral statement about the role of the writer. This aspect of the text has disappeared. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the courtly love ideal and the medieval notion of sin and repentance have ceased to have meaning, except as intellectual curiosity itself” (73). In other words, as the culture evolved away from the ideals of courtly love, Dante's statements about authorial intention also lost importance and were, therefore, missed or avoided in translation altogether.

In other instances, Lefevere demonstrates that, at times, translators elect to leave out sections which will be unsuccessful to target audiences. He claims that the first translators of Bertolt Brecht intentionally missed the mark, but that introduction opened the door for following translators (213). Once Brecht's name gained popularity, translators had more room in which to push the envelope and add foreign elements back into the text. When dealing with a common name, the text gains a sort of authority. Familiarity simultaneously elevates a work. Older texts, then, have an even stronger authority. The names Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dante or Homer carry a certain stigma or prestige that may allow a translator more leeway than in tackling contemporary literature. In addition, these texts discuss ideas of continued importance and relevance that they deserve the attention they receive. Translators struggle, then, to create a language that effectively communicates old ideas to the dominant power sources and ideologies.

Because culture continually evolves, these pieces of literature will also continue to evolve. It is worth noting, however, the structures at play in them may demonstrate more about our the target society than the original text. It is not merely about poetic diction or mimicking the original (which is extremely difficult in itself), but in presenting a successful text to a new, and probably unfamiliar, audience. In April, we will host a discussion about a handful of Chaucer translations. Though the Middle English is fairly readable, there are a wide-range of translations which offer a variety of readings. It is worth our while to understand the ideologies behind them.

To join in April's Quarterly Discussion or for more information, email

Bassnett, Susan and André Lefevere. Constructing Cultures: Essays on Literary Translation. Multilingual Matters Ltd., 1998.

Lefevere, André. “Mother Courage's Cucumbers.” The Translation Studies Reader, Third Edition, edited by Lawrence Venuti, Routledge, 2000, pp. 203-219.

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Dante's Position

November 10, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's blog.

In an attempt to better understand how we orient ourselves in life, I turn to Dante.

In The Divine Comedy, Dante begins nearly every canto by determining his location. This works twofold as it locates the reader as well as the narrator. The reader first meets Dante in a dark wood where he is surprised by a scary and threatening creature. Afraid, he stands and explains, “Midway in the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost. Ah, how hard it is to tell what that wood was, wild, rugged, harsh.... I cannot rightly say how I entered it, I was so full of sleep at the moment I left the true way”. From the very beginning, the reader understands that this is not the average journey through rugged mountains, but something more existential, something personal and revelatory. This journey which promises to take Dante through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven is a spiritual journey. In other words, Dante's internal path was lost and this is his attempt to find his better self.

I can absolutely see how, politically speaking, he had lost his way. Born in Florence in 1265, Dante participated in and witnessed the devastating results of political and religious factions that tore apart his community, family, friends and city. The Guelph faction supported the Pope, whereas the Ghibelline faction supported the Holy Roman Emperor. Guelph families tended to be aristocratic or wealthy, whereas the wealth of the Ghibelline party was focused in agriculture. Therefore, Dante was born into a great deal of political strife that ripped apart the seams of Florence, and medieval Italy. In this growing divide, he witnessed all manner of sin, even from those leaders who were sworn to pursue truth. Dante turned his growing disillusionment with politics and religion into The Divine Comedy in which he lambastes all sinners. Many of the people he places in hell are of high religious orders. He spares no one on this journey – himself included.

How does one locate the self within society? How do we find direction that comforts and guides us? Dante clearly relied upon the church – but the moral depravity of some church figures made him question his own leaders. It is in this state of mind that he enters the dark forest. Lucky for Dante, his idol Virgil comes to rescue him. Virgil has been sent, of course by Beatrice. First of all, I love the idea of the reverse fairy tale – Beatrice saves Dante and not the reverse. And second, I love that they physically lead him to Heaven through the use of dialogue and his own two feet. Though he regards Virgil and Beatrice in a highly idealized state, they do, for the most part, make him earn the light.

Of course, this virtual tour of heaven and hell comes with constant reminders about navigation. Dante orients himself by using: stars, terrain, height and depth, light and dark, and of course, Virgil and Beatrice. Location is of great importance to everyone in the work. Dante introduces each figure by understanding what region and family they are from. This technique, of course, would have resonated with his readers. There is a mathematical precision to his work which relies upon place, date, astrology, religion and symbolism.

Sight is of extreme importance in this orientation. Dante seeks approval before approaching shades (in the "Inferno" and "Purgatorio") and lights (those in "Paradiso"). Both Virgil and Beatrice make eye contact as a way of acceptance or rejection. The juxtaposition of eye contact is made stronger in the Inferno, in which people are often backwards, upside down or sumberged in some pit. In "Paradiso", Dante always looks to Beatrice for approval and receives it from her glowing eyes. She smiles often, unlike those in the painful regions below. As he reaches the highest realms of Paradise, joy also heightens, reflected in the constant orientation towards light. We see how this light acts as a compass in the following few examples:

“And now the life of that holy light had turned again to the Sun which fills it, as to that Good which is sufficient to all things. Ah, souls deceived and creatures impious, who from such Good turn away your hearts, directing your brows to vanity!

“And lo! Another of those splendors made toward me and by brightening outwardly was signifying its wish to please me. Beatrice's eyes, fixed on me as before, made me assured of dear assent to my desire.” (Par., Canto IX)

“[F]rom the heart of one of the new lights there came a voice which made me seem as the needle to the star in turning me to where it was” (Par., Canto XII)

“Let him imagine, who would rightly grasp what I now beheld (and, while I speak, let him hold the image firm as a rock), fifteen stars which in different regions vivify the heaven with such great brightness that it overcomes every thickness of the air; let him imagine that Wain for which the bosom of our heaven suffices night and day so that with the turning of the pole it does not disappear; let him imagine the mouth of that Horn which begins at the end of the axle on which the first wheel revolves – all to have made of themselves two signs in the heavens like that which the daughter of Minos made when she felt the chill of death; and one to have its rays within the other, and both to revolve in such manner that one should go first and the other after; and he will have as it were a shadow of the true constellation, and of the double dance, which was circling round the point where I was; for it is as far beyond our experience as the motion of the heaven that outspeeds all the rest is beyond the motion of the Chiana.” (Par., Canto XIII)

This last passage is particularly difficult for the modern reader unfamiliar with astronomy, mythology or medieval Italy. The notes supply the fact that Wain = Big Dipper, the Horn = the last two stars of the hornlike Little Dipper (Ursa Minor); the daughter of Minos was Ariadne whose crown was turned into a constellation; and finally, Chiana is a river in Tuscany.

In this short paragraph alone, we have a number of orientations that may challenge us. I wonder if these navigation points would have challenged Dante's contemporaries, or only those of us so far removed from the middle ages? In other words, is this work meant to challenge everyone, to unsettle and unseat us, make us uncomfortable with our own knowledge? Regardless of our astrological awareness, I think his point is that, even in connecting with the light, even after visiting with Virgil and Beatrice, forward movement requires a lot of self-evaluation. While it is easy to use GPS in day to day navigation, Dante reminds us how fruitful it can be to focus on points of importance. Our moral compass may depend upon the ways in which we search.

In The Divine Comedy, we are left with the shadow of Dante, much like the shadow of the Argo: “A single moment makes from me greater oblivion than five and twenty centuries have wrought upon the enterprise that made Neptune wonder at the shadow of the Argo. Thus my mind, all rapt, was gazing, fixed, motionless, and intent, ever enkindled by its gazing. In that Light one becomes such that it is impossible he should ever consent to turn himself from it for other sight; for the good, which is the object of the will, is all gathered in it, and outside of it that is defective which is perfect there” (Par., Canto XXXIII).

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Code of Law

June 2, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Reading through the list of punishments in Dante's Inferno had a very visceral effect on me. I was thinking about the type of lifestyle that would lead one to create such insane punishments. After putting a little bit of thought into systems of punishment, I decided (squeamishness aside) to investigate other ancient texts that include codes of conduct. Today's blog discusses three of these ancient documents: first, Hammurabi's Code of Laws, then Assyrian pillars and writings, and finally I return to Dante's Inferno.

Hammurabi's Code of Laws is probably the most famous first set of laws. Though it may not have been the first in actuality, it is an example of an an early record of cohesive law. The necessity of these laws indicates two things to me: first, that populations are beginning to seek larger communities in which an unbiased law would, at the very least, be helpful; and second, that creating a universal law seemingly assists the public more than the ruler. Of course, living within a known set of rules is preferable to living with chaos and unknowns. A set law attempts to restrict the ruler from arbitrarily changing their minds, while also outlining neighborly conduct. This, in turn, benefits the ruler because structure would enable them to successfully integrate outsiders into his own kingdom.

From this code comes the famous quote “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. In other words, Hammurabi's code is known as a retaliatory code, one in which the punishment attempts to equal the crime. A few examples* of his crimes include:

2 - If any one bring an accusation against a man, and the accused go to the river and leap into the river, if he sink in the river his accuser shall take possession of his house. But if the river prove that the accused is not guilty, and he escape unhurt, then he who had brought the accusation shall be put to death, while he who leaped into the river shall take possession of the house that had belonged to his accuser.

110 - If a "sister of a god" open a tavern, or enter a tavern to drink, then shall this woman be burned to death.

127 - If any one "point the finger" (slander) at a sister of a god or the wife of any one, and can not prove it, this man shall be taken before the judges and his brow shall be marked. (by cutting the skin, or perhaps hair.)

142 - If a woman quarrel with her husband, and say: "You are not congenial to me," the reasons for her prejudice must be presented. If she is guiltless, and there is no fault on her part, but he leaves and neglects her, then no guilt attaches to this woman, she shall take her dowry and go back to her father's house.

143 - If she is not innocent, but leaves her husband, and ruins her house, neglecting her husband, this woman shall be cast into the water.

Many of Hammurabi's laws deal with property (land, goods, or slaves). At times strict, and at times generous, they define concrete rules for living among a wide variety of people. This would have been crucial to the success of a kingdom which incorporated many conquered peoples. In my mind, however, the punishments of the accuser or the accused would often end in death, so it seems most wise to avoid accusation altogether.

Fast forward a couple hundred years, to the height of the Assyrian empire which is known for its strength in war. Their vast military specialized in diversity such as: archers, foot soldiers and cavalry. The Assyrian society was known for military exploits and techniques that destroyed walled cities. They gained nearly all of their capital by sacking and looting other cities. Their art and writings coupled strong, gruesome language with brutal pictures in order to boast of their success and also to warn opponents away. Without a coherent law, however, they simply relied on fear and intimidation. Perhaps due to a lack of regulated legal codes, the Assyrian kings found themselves fighting more uprisings than new lands. The uprisings eventually put an end to this regime. Yet, their tablets describing torture and military practices remain.** It is noteworthy to add that the Romans may have incorporated some of the Assyrian warfare model.***

Fast forward a bunch and we arrive at Dante's Inferno. (Yes, I am skipping many many things all of which deserve mention. For another time, perhaps.) I do not claim that Dante knew of Hammurabi or of the Assyrian legacy, per se. However, Dante participates in this conversation by writing another code – although this time, in a narrative form, independent of historical fact. His writings include punishments which fit the crime, much like Hammurabi's “eye for an eye”, and some of which are brutal tortures reminiscent of Assyrian tablets. For example, in the sixth bolgia, Dante punishes hypocrites by having them wear a beautifully ornate cloak of lead. The exterior's weight makes movement unbearably painful. Or in the ninth bolgia, those who caused riotous discord are disemboweled and slit down the middle to echo the rifts they caused in life.

Dante's narrative is another way to chart an incredibly complicated political time in which the Church was divided among itself. In fact, Dante's political ties sent him into exile. In his circular narrative, therefore, Dante inserts members of all walks of life, including church leaders, politicians, merchants, family and friends. He then describes punishments for all of their supposed sins which effectively mapped Dante's view of virtue in the 14th century. It also established a very visual text of punishments for sin. Because strong images create strong memories, these texts demonstrate a way in which graphic punishments and threats have changed or shaped cultures and belief systems.


*All laws quoted from the Avalon Project:

and for more on Hammurabi's Code, visit:

** Find a few samples of their artwork here:

*** For more on warfare, read here:

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Discussion of Dante's Inferno

May 5, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Enjoy Liszt's “Dante Sonata” while reading today's journey into hell.

I spent a few hours last week discussing the various virtues of Dante's Inferno. I could spend endless hours discovering the ways in which one gains knowledge of virtue through sin in Dante. His brilliant and horrific punishments both captivate and repel. Clearly, Dante thought deeply about the idea of judgment and what it means to live an honorable life. I am not sure that the answer is as clearcut as we would like for it to be, however. As Dante struggled to navigate the religious division of his times, he placed popes and clergy in this dark narrative. This real-life divide, which would have affected his family, neighbors and community, may be one reason that he deals so harshly with people who have caused other schisms. Either way, it demonstrates that, for Dante, virtue is not necessarily tied to the church, but only what is right in the church. In this sense, the Inferno leads the reader to a path of divinity.

In Dante's Inferno, the reader listens to Dante's questions and Virgil's answers in a descent through the many circles of Hell. (I have often wondered how we are participating? Are we a fly on the wall?) For this discussion, we focused on the Malebolge section, which descends into the darkest realms of Hell. Virgil guides as Dante observes and questions. In nearly every section, Virgil gives concise, straightforward answers meant to keep Dante on the right path (and on time!). Hell includes a hodge-podge of mostly male unrepentant sinners. These people come from all walks of life, some mythic and some from Dante's own life. While they witness absolutely horrific punishments (dreamed up by Dante and meant to match the crime), Dante expresses sympathy, anguish, and horror. Virgil rejects all of these emotions, claiming that those who have sinned must be punished. In Canto 29, Dante identifies a family member, and Virgil reprimands his emotional response. He says, “Be no longer broken/ Thy thought from this time forward upon him;/ Attend elsewhere, and there let him remain”. This lack of mercy or emotion confuses me, however. If this is an educational journey, why are we to completely disregard or remove emotion? Is emotion a hindrance on the path to virtue?

Our wonderful discussion enlightened many aspects of this educational journey. Yet, in addition to the question above, I have a few more questions that bear contemplation, and so I list them here. Feel free to add to the discussion!

First, why does Dante mix real-life figures with those of mythology? Is he trying to do more than write an instructional guide to virtue? Is this a work of art which he intends (or hopes) will rival those of Ovid and Virgil? If so, why is Virgil his guide? More than that, isn't it a bit problematic that pride is a sin, and yet, Dante wants to broadcast his own genius?

In partial answer to a discussion of genius, I think that Dante attempts to deal with this idea of pride and genius in Canto 26. In a beautiful section of the Inferno, Dante recounts Ulysses' actions and ambition. As a punishment apparently fit for the overly ambitious, flames continually devour Ulysses. Whereas Dante thanks God for his ability and genius, Ulysses ambitiously pursued knowledge, wisdom and virtue on his own. Perhaps this inclusion of Ulysses is meant to instruct Dante on how to avoid arrogance. So, what is an appropriate amount of pride, and how must it be demonstrated in order to avoid the flames of Dante's Inferno?

Secondly, in Canto 25, Dante uses very little dialogue, which stands out when compared to other sections. Generally speaking, each canto relies heavily on dialogue between Dante and Virgil. A lot of information is transmitted through this question and answer pattern. In fact, it is an efficient use of space considering the fact that the reader meets people from all walks of life (and myth). Dialogue offers a nice, succinct style of filling in the details. In Canto 25, however, Dante describes mythological beings in such a way that might rival literature from antiquity. Was that one of the goals when writing the Inferno, or did his pen get away from him here?

Third, what is the relation of sinners to those who punish sinners? All sorts of beasts mete out punishment. Where do these beasts come from and, in being relegated to live in Hell, are they in a sense also being punished for some fault of their own?

And finally, is there an element of witness that makes sin that much worse? In walking this cavernous dark hole, many of the sinners ask Dante to remember him. I wonder why? Do they want him to remember the crime, or the man before the crime? Do they want to be remembered for greatness, even if it is their sin which causes them to be great? What is it about witness that allows an entrance to memory? Is the reader also participating in this act of witness? Is memory an important element of education, experience, knowledge or something else?

I will have to leave the answers to someone else. I look forward to future discussions on Dante, but greatly thank those who took the time with me last week. Our upcoming July Quarterly Discussion will focus on Plutarch. Email for more details and information.

Sites that I found useful while reading Dante's Inferno:

- The Paris Review runs through each Canto with a little wit, humor and information:

- An introduction into Dante's Worlds by Dr. Guy Raffa:

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