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Dante's Canzoni (New Original Translations)

October 13, 2017

 

We are glad to announce a new project of fresh translations of Dante Alighieri's Canzoni (songs), the father of the Italian language and Italian Renaissance. They will now be regularly posted in installments on thechainedmuse.com.While there are many translations of Dante's Canzoni, all of which contribute something meaningful to the understanding of Dante, many were done by translators who were forced to make too much of a compromise between maintaining the integrity of the idea and also following the original Italian rhyme scheme and musicality. For this reason, one seldom succeeds in doing justice to Dante's poetry. Moreover, no matter how well Dante is translated, because of the fact his poems are born out of the innate musicality of Italian itself, and inextricably woven into the fabric of the Italian mode, one rarely gets a true glimmer of those hidden jewels, which are like pearls shining deep down from the bottom of the ocean floor. In sight of this, it was deemed an appropriate project to attempt not only an English translation of Dante's poems, but to attempt to render them into new authentic English poems.

 

 

Voi che ‘ntendendo il terzo ciel movete

 

Unmoving mind, who moves the third heaven,

Won’t you please listen to my inquiring heart

And its thoughts so strange I tell no other.

The heavens propelled by your loving art,

Who only with the angels is called even,

Has thrown me in such a state of bother

That only with you or the holy father

Can I speak and be heard truly.

Thus I ask for your most divine ear

To share with you this thought of love, of fear,

Of how my soul suffers unduly

As strange thoughts and songs from a spirit fly,

Which draw their force from that sphere on high.

 

The only life to my fast failing heart

Is a gentle thought that would always

Find its way to heaven’s highest peaks,

Where a glorious lady sits with starry fays,

Whose message ever made my soul depart

Saying “There lies the sweet salvation my heart longs for.”

But now my heart for mercy must implore,

For there appears a new strong thought which chases

All loveliness away and leaves me there,

Where on some strange new lady I must stare.

It says: “Let he who would see heaven’s graces

Let him then gaze into this lady’s eyes,

If he can bear the pain of seething sighs.”

 

So contrary to every other thought, it destroys

The humble one that ever did console

Me, of a lady in heaven divinely crowned.

Thus my soul weeps loudly decrying its dole

And says: “Oh Lord! What wicked guile this thought employs!”

See how the other now so quickly flies! Found

No more, to some new master now forever bound.”

Looking into my eyes she sorrowfully cries

“Why didn’t you heed my stern warning?

But I replied ‘Despite the man whose soul is burning

From her deep gaze every other thought flies.’

To no avail were those dire warnings sent

For look on her they did, and met their end.”

 

“Oh! But you are not dead, you’re only lost

Sweet soul, besieged with pain and hopeless fear.”

So spoke a gentle loving spirit from afar

“For this most loving lady you hold so dear

Has so transformed your very life and earthly post

That you can only weep, so helpless as you are.

But look! How bright, so steadfast like a star

She shines, as she walks with such celestial bearing -

Think to call her your lady.

Thus soon you’ll see, if you choose not to be deceived

You’ll see what true wisdom and daring

Can offer you. You’ll say: “Dear Love, my true

Master, here lies an angel, servant only to you.”

 

My song, I know that there will be but very few

Who truly understand your every way,

So different and lofty is your heavenly speech.

Therefore, if by some chance you happen to stray

Among those who won’t understand, who only imbue

Your words with foolish thoughts, what then you cannot teach

With words, then you need only gently say

“Notice the beauty that veils my every way."

 

 

*See here for notes on the poem and to compare with other translations.

 

 

Amor che ne la mente mi ragiona

 

Love, who within my mind now sweetly discourses,

Sings of the reasons why the lady I desire

Moves every thought and feeling I have to some higher

Land, where my weak intellect now wanders.

Her every word seems to issue from heavenly sources

Such that whoever would her words receive, like fire

Would feel themselves consumed and say “None have power

To tell what sights, what thoughts, what great wonders

Are found in this soul, who every earthly thought sunders

And leaves one wandering, longing to tell

Even the smallest part of what they’ve heard -

Which yet our human speech has not a word;

And which transfixes us in one fell

Swoop. Thus whatever shortcoming or defect

My verses may succumb to as they tell the tale

Of my sweet lady, it is not her virtue derelict,

Nor any shortcomings of her above,

But of those who wish mere words would capture Love.

 

The sun in all its worldly revolutions

Never does shine upon something so virtuous

As when its golden rays fall upon her, impervious

To mortal stains. As she casts love’s shadow

All gaze upon her above who seek salvation

For all those who fall in Love and meet those numinous

Eyes, can’t help but find her aspect so wondrous.

A place which each of Love’s servants hallows.

Whoever walks within her shadow follows

The trail of virtue and delight unknown,

Exceeding what our mortal nature could conceive.

Her soul which does receive

This saving immutable grace from heaven flown,

Displays its power in each smallest gesture

For such things are felt with each sweet tone

That all who see or hear find early rapture:

Their hearts are flooded with desires from on high

Which take their flight in the form of wrenching sighs.

 

On her descends the same virtue divine

As it so graces angels who fly to earth;

And to any woman who questions her worth

Follow each of her gentle arts and learn

For wherever she speaks with speech so fine

She inspires in each who tread the earthly turf

To shun all the pestilence and all the dearth

Of this world, proving how she can spurn

All baseness, as she did from heaven learn.

So effortless her acts that each which sees

Her move must then believe in grace divine;

Her every gesture a heavenly sign.

So it’s said, her eyes are deeper than the seas,

Virtuous all that which women with her share

And fair all that resembles her true beauty,

Thus no mortal can doubt her true duty

For in this our faith is ever raised

From its low place, and thus eternally praised.

 

Appearing in her aspect is Paradise

Which makes itself and all its joys directly known;

That is within those eyes I’ve seen it shone,

Left by Love, who chose his rightful dwelling.

She seizes every thought like streams that turn to ice,

Or as the blinding sky where Helios keeps his throne

Passed earthly sights, and over the horizon flown.

And thus, since every sight is met with blinding

Light, I content myself to give a humble telling,

Forever burning like the sun or stars,

Orbiting our minds like celestial cars

And shattering each vile thought with thunderous quelling.

Yet let those who by her beauty feel ashamed

Let them find in such radiance compelling

Proof of the humbleness that can be gained,

Whose ways have the power to tame each perverse

Thought, as he who wrought the universe.

 

My song, you seem to contradict a sister

Of yours, who speaks in such a different way,

For while one says she speaks disdainfully you say

She is humble, with an angels grace.

Despite our fate, which the stars oft' temper

You know the sky is clear as day,

Which never turns its back on us though sights betray

Our confidence, as mortal eyes can oft deface

And seem to blur dear heaven’s hidden  trace.

Refrain from thinking thus some steadfast truth

Believing such things are as they seem;

For in this way you need not helplessly scream

Or let the fear which swims within your soul be proof

Of some bad star possessing you --

Rather go speak with her and stay aloof

So that you may without hesitation be true

Telling her: “My lady, only this I pray,

I’d like to sing of you through life’s winding way."

 

 

Translation © David B. Gosselin

 

*See here for notes on the poem and to compare with other translations.

 

 

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