I have been intending to do this for months. The purpose of this post is to state the fact that David R Slavitt’s translation of Orlando Furioso which was published by the Bellknap Press in 2009 is very bad indeed. I do not normally draw attention to bad poetry or to poetry that I don’t like but I’m happy to make an exception on this occasion mainly because I spent 30 of the very finest English pounds (30) on acquiring it after a glowing review in the TLS.
My motivation for wanting to read this poem is straightforward, it seems reasonable that anyone with an interest in the Faerie Queen (me) should want to know a bit more about Spenser’s main sources and to ascertain whether he did “overgo” Ariosto.
Prior to Slavitt’s offering, the only readily available translation was the prose version by Guido Waldman although Rose’s 19th century prose rendition is available in a few obscure corners of the web. Slavitt acknowledges that Sir John Harington’s translation is the best but asserts that his version is aimed at making poetry more fun. It was at this point that I should have realised that there was a problem but I persevered and read the first ten cantos before giving up.
I don’t have a problem with translators taking risks with their task and I readily appreciate that each new translation creates a new poem and I am reasonably understanding of how difficult the task of translating poetry actually is.
I do have a problem however if that new poem turns out to be either inept in itself or to construct something that is far removed from the intention of the original. Slavitt, in his pursuit of fun and his quest to make Ariosto accessible to contemporary students, manages to attain new depths of ineptitude and to almost completely miss the ‘point’ of the poem.
Needless to say, my Italian is completely inadequate to glean any understanding of the original but I do have both the Waldman and Harington versions to hand and offer the final stanza of the second canto for comparison.
This is Slavitt:
And then? Is this the end? But Surely not.
The smaller twigs of the elm branch break her fall,
as you might have guessed, with all those pages you’ve got
in your right hand. So this cannot be all
there is, She doesn’t die here, but just what
happens to her after this close call
that leaves her on the bottom, stunned and hurt so,
we’ll get to soon, perhaps in Canto Terzo.
This is Waldmann:
The innocent damsel’s fate, however, was not as Pinabello wished, for as she tumbled from rock to rock, not she but the good stout branch was first to hit the bottom. There it snapped, but after affording her enough support to save her from death. She lay stunned awhile, as I shall go on to tell you in the next canto.
And this is Harington:
Yet great good hap the gentle damsell found,
As well deserv’d a mind so innocent:
For why the pole strake first upon the ground,
And though by force it shiver’d all and rent,
Yet were her limbes and life kept safe and sound,
For all his vile and traiterous intent,
Sore was the damsell mazed with the fall,
As in another booke declare I shall.
I don’t think that you need to be overly familiar with 16th century verse to recognise that Harington is much more faithful to the original and that Slavitt strays perilously close to doggerel. As well as personal disappointment I do have to ask why on earth Bellknap thought that this was a good idea. Slavitt’s efforts do not convey anything of the original and will only succeed in repelling those who are new to poetry.