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220px laurence binyon by william strang

For a long time we have had translations of the Divine Comedy that were not useful in propagating either its light, or its understanding. With the present version of the Purgatorio, interpreted by LAURENCE BINYON, we come to a new milestone in the spreading of Italian culture.

I can repeat all the praises published in the Criterion that came out when the translation of the Inferno was published; but I have to add some others. Developing his technique further, Binyon’s description of the Earthly Paradise achieves a splendor and clarity never before attained. I think this can be said not only with regard to translations of Dante, but about the corpus1 of translations into English of any author.

I say this without diminishing the glory of such a corpus. We have had magnificent and “opaque” translations. They form a very rich part of our poetry, albeit overlooked by some or even by most historiographers of our literature. Golding translated Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which Shakespeare studied and followed; and when Shakespeare took a passage from it in order to transform it, he did not better it. His transformations did not go beyond Golding’s language. If Gavin Douglas, who signed off as “Bishop of Dunkel and uncle of the Earl of Angus,” had (in the 1500’s) translated Homer instead of Virgil, we would not lack an Odyssey in English worthy of the original Greek.2

But in these masterpieces by Golding and Douglas the creative element is equal to or superior to the interpretative part. The poetry that results no longer needs the original. It forms a whole unto itself, and more than serving as an interpretation of the original, it can work as a commentary, of a special kind. I therefore call them “opaque.”

Binyon triumphs in a different manner, he triumphs by way of a honesty that from time to time attains [the level of] ingenuity. His version of Dante gives me a clearer sense of the original. I say it gives to me3:if you will forgive a personal anecdote. An awakening has occurred in England in the field of translation. W.H.D. Rouse has restored our sensibility regarding the narrative element of Homer. Quite a few others have worked for a wider comprehension of foreign literatures, but Binyon has produced a kind of work special to himself, and to refer to it I use the word “transparent” in its fullest sense. His is a translation that allows for the original to be seen. It’s like a window with panes of glass, so clean that you do not perceive them, to the extent that you get the impression of open air. It has value, it seems to me, not only for the English, but can also serve Italian readers who are too used to certain Dantean phrases and who fall asleep on their texts out of too much familiarity.

My generation in America suffered from the prejudice that in order to understand Dante it was necessary to suffocate in a heap of commentary. For my part, at the age of seventeen I was distracted by the abundance of commentary and notes, and lost altogether the continuity of the poem. Binyon, with a proem of half a page or less per Canto, has demonstrated most firmly the falsity of this prejudice. Sometimes, even without this proem, the Poem comes across clearly and intelligibly in his version.

A photograph betrays a painting, but an X-ray photographic examination reveals secrets of the painting that escape the naked eye. I offer this analogy, which is not exact but suggestive, to indicate the interest that an Italian admirer of the Divine Comedy could find in a foreign translation.

But if the divine Poet owes Binyon his new garment, Binyon owes Dante nothing less than his salvation. Dante has dragged him out of a dark limbo. Let me explain myself. When I arrived in England in 1908, Binyon, not exactly painfully [“precisamente dolente”], was giving himself to a rhetoric encumbered by [“ingombro nella”] the Miltonian Baroque.4 He worked seriously on his verse, but his method offended at least those of us who were at the time quick-thinking young people. The dead dialect of the English poetry of the second half of the 1800s persisted in his poetry. But on the other hand, he was not dazzled by the meretricious fashions of 1890, he had too much good sense to get drunk and as a good pater familias, he did not seek out heaven in Paris barrooms. He entered prosaically into the British Museum where he (officially) curated Chinese and Japanese art. This was good discipline for his eye. He had the frankness to say to me one day, regarding one of my poems, “I could never write something of the sort. I cannot do anything quick.”5 His plays on classical subjects and perhaps even biblical ones, walked with lead feet. But he pronounced, on another day, a maxim that is amazing for a young American: Slowness is beauty.

In the twentieth century? Sky, sea and earth! He, a civil servant, had no need to sell his writings, he was not forced to overproduce in order to fight poverty. He would nearly disappear from literary life, but wrote a valid commentary on Chinese art in his monograph The Flight of the Dragon.

Four years ago, I read in an American magazine an attack so stupid on Binyon’s version of Dante that it made me curious. The Chicago critic displayed such an idiotic ignorance of the nature of the hendecasyllabic verse in Dante that I wanted to know what Binyon had done.dragon flight

The imitators of the Imagist movement could not comprehend that the “rules” enunciated by my group in 1912 were by necessity general rules, and that it is not always advisable that they be applied to the poetry of 1930; [it was] even less necessary to use them in the presentation of poetry from 1300.

Binyon’s style poses the problem of proportions. His Italian friends say that he found “the tone of the Dantean voice.” It would not be my exact definition, but let it go at that.

Some of his English colleagues say that terza rima “is not English.”

But even though I would not have made use of the phrase “tone of voice,” there is the tone of mind: sobriety, clarity. The Canto XVIII of Purgatorio is not exactly food for children. It is, in fact, incomprehensible for anyone who has not studied at least a little medieval philosophy.

And as for the terza rima, Binyon achieves beauties that he could not have attained without struggling to adopt this form, in which he achieves a most English flavor with words such as coppices, or highlander for montanaro. He does not reach a Homeric simplicity, because Dante does not have this kind of simplicity. He does not achieve the syntactic pace of Maupassant’s French prose, because the criteria of that prose did not exist in Dante’s poetry.

The defects of his version are superficial. I do not see them except in small inversions, which could be most easily be made to disappear in a new revision that the poet already intends to undertake as soon as he will have completed the version of the entire poem. Some defects have already disappeared between the first and final drafts that were sent to the printers.

Certain scholastic words such as intention, essence, remain difficult to digest, that is, they have to remain in English out of necessity, just as in the original, subject to educated commentaries, abbreviations or compendiums of scholastic Christian doctrine, or of the “secret language,” and they will never give up their full meaning on first encounter.

But without doubt Binyon has already achieved a triple strike. First: true poetry, in his happiest pages. Second: a sense of continuity and comprehensibility of the poem. Third: a help to scholars, and I believe we can include Italian scholars amongst these. But in any case I would say that every Dante Society, every class dedicated to the study of Italian poetry in any foreign university should make use of this version to facilitate the comprehension of the Commedia. I wish I had had such a faithful guide in my youthful confusion. How many wasted hours would I have saved!

Each era of great literary re-awakening has or feels the need for a new examination of the classics, and not only those in its own language, but also those of world literature. The Renaissance reexamined Greek poetry. The English Elizabethans translated from Latin. Today we feel the need for such an examination, in the harsh light of our times, with regard to the hierarchies of critical values belonging to other centuries.

Binyon needs to be examined with an eye to proportions, amidst the mannerisms of 1890 and those of our vorticist criticism, applying the criteria of prose. 

That is, our demand for a simple and natural ordering of words. But he illuminated critically the position of the volgare or Dantean style with regard to the Petrarchan style, and explains for the first time, perhaps, to many non-Italian readers, why Italy tolerated a general decadence, the total descending curve of poetry in Italy since the century of Dante and Guido Cavalcanti. I remember one of your most distinguished critics, who after three years of struggle, defended Petrarch to me by saying: “sometimes one wishes to eat a cream-filled chocolate.”6 Decadence begins when attention turns to the ornamental element and moves away bit by bit from meaning. In Dante (and in Guido) meaning is most precise; see Canto XVIII of Purgatorio if you are in any doubt.

The idiom of Binyon’s version is the one appropriate to translating a poet to whom meaning mattered much more than ornament. The defects are like the shells of a nut left on the table after a magnificent dinner. 

*Copyright © 1938 by Ezra Pound. Translated by permission.



  1. E.P. uses the term “complesso,” which can be translated as “complex” in the sense of “whole,” but I have opted for “corpus” to give a clearer sense.

2. Gavin Douglas came from a powerful Scottish family, the Earls of Angus (a region between Perth and Aberdeen). His translation of the Aeneid called Eneados was written in Douglas’s vernacular, Middle Scots and was completed in 1513. Douglas became Bishop of Dunkeld, a small town north of Perth, in 1516.

3. This strange phrase is the “personal anecdote.” I have translated it literally, and it is as obscure in Italian as it is in English. I have inserted italics to emphasize what Pound probably meant to emphasize through an Italian idiom that was here probably too idiosyncratic.

4. This sentence is badly composed in Italian. At the heart of the matter is the imprecision of “non precisamente dolente,” which could be read as “not exactly dolorously” or “not with a precisely dolorous [mentality],” and the strange usage of “ingombro nella,” which I presume Pound is using adverbially as something like “encumbered by,” which is in and of itself an uncomfortable phrasing.

5. Cp. “I cdn’t do that. Never can do anything QUICK” GK 124—rephrased here.

6. Pound had already reported this anecdote, regarding the Italian critic Attilo Momigliani, in his Criterion article (published in April of 1934) on Binyon’s translations of the Inferno.


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