Circling the Truth

Dante never read Homer, at least not in Greek. Neither have I, but scholarship in fourteenth century Italy was a bit more spotty than it is today. Translations of the Illiad were secondhand accounts of the Trojan war that figured Achilles as a pining lover rather than a super-powered hero; otherwise, the only references to Homer occurred in histories or epic poems like the Aeneid.

Claiming artistic kinship is part of the epic tradition. It took no small amount of confidence to write an epic poem (of course, no one writes them anymore), and situating yourself in relation to Homer, Virgil, Ovid, and Horace would, I think, help bolster any insecurities. The epic, after all, speaks for the whole of a culture or religion; Milton famously invoked the muse to help him “assert Eternal Providence/and justify the ways of God to men.”

And invocation is why we see Homer in the first circle of Hell, Limbo, and why Virgil guides Dante the Pilgrim rather than some nameless angel. Poets evoke the muse out of tradition, but since the advent of writing inspiration arises most often from other poets. The process of peopling one’s poems with long-dead poets allows these imaginative visions to breathe and speak in a way that must feel familiar to one who has absorbed their words on the page. Old words continue to find new life.


Mark Musa’s translation of The Divine Comedy is excellent. Because I will never read the poem in Italian, I am satisfied by the detailed footnotes and the English blank verse that evokes the heft of each line rather than its metrics. Still, I can’t help but mention the Translator’s Note. The subtitle is “On Being a Good Lover,” which is apparently what scholar Jackson Matthews advised translators to faithfully pursue. It’s true that a good translator must massage a text, coaxing out of it the vibrant, violent essence that needs feverish release.

This metaphor, however, is left unfinished. A good translator must be a good lover, but is he not also a pimp? (Or, if we wish to veil our language for the genteel, a procurer.) The translator loves the text but turns it out, allowing it to be enjoyed by others who will never know it quite so intimately.

(Check in later this week for the Processed Product Top 5 of 2014 list.)

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