"Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura." Sounds simple to translate. The second line of the poem takes us immediately into mystery.
Is it a dream-vision? Or a supernatural transportation? Does Dante, after he sees at its long end a hundred cantos later "the sun and other stars," come back from his divine journey to tell us? Of course, in one sense, for by the third stanza he notes how death might be closely allied to the retelling of his hellish pilgrimage, so bitter its relation again to us. Yet, I've always loved the ending of the final entry. Like, I don't know, the Matrix trilogy in its own metaphysical difficulties brought on by storytelling that winds up far from where it began, time-travel and alternate histories and fantastic visions confound our reality, and bewilder our senses as we try to account in a linear fashion what by its very nature eludes clarity. Or at least the predictability of our routine, from which dreams and fiction alike take us away into the mystic. Or so we hope.
As with the Matrix, I imagine if I tallied box-office returns, critical raves, or purchasers of the last DVD in the trilogy, you get less payback the more you proceed with the unfolding story. While the Wachowsky brothers earn less of a place on the shelf of immortals than our Florentine bard, at least by my reckoning, it's a lot more exciting to revel in the flaws of our foes and the torments we love to hiss than it is to sidle near the likes of Bernard and Francis in their awesome elevation into the empyrean. Most of us can relate better to villains than saints.
Therefore, I find fewer translations of Paradiso on my shelf, if slightly more of Purgatorio. As my doctoral dissertation covered that liminal concept in Middle English, the few who dared then to feign interest would mumble: "Is that in Chaucer? Is it like Dante?" I had to tell them respectively "not much" and "yes and no, as the English did not know of Dante directly, except perhaps for Chaucer himself." My professor and second advisor at UCLA, Henry Ansgar Kelly, averred that the greatest English poet of his century read Dante as part of his diplomatic mission to Italy, and probably was the first of his nation to learn the Italian vernacular, at least from that inevitable medievalist qualifier, "extant" evidence.
What brought me to take down ten, count them, renderings of the Inferno into our clunky demotic? Getting ready to send Alan, imprisoned up in Tehachapi, as I wrote about on our Christmas visit, a complete one-volume version with notes and commentary of Dante, for I feared him laboring through a plain-text, no help version he had of the Inferno-- agony for me would be stuck in a cell with no footnotes to a difficult text, but then I am no Protestant-- my eye fell at random on a sentence.
I had flipped open C.H. Sisson's translation from Oxford UP in its handsome edition, with lovely diagrams and charts, and David Higgins' introduction and notes. I had been double-checking that sufficient apparatus existed to help Alan gain elucidation. Higgins remarked: "The forest scene of Cantos I and II, constructed and elaborated with allegorical purpose, is given no geographically identifiable setting, unlike the location of Hell and Purgatory." You'd think, by our expectations, that the opposite might occur-- the terrestrial locale might be very recognizable, while the otherworldly directions might be far more uncharted.
"Yet here, in the forest of sin, an intrusion of the real dimension of space and time occurs, with a reference to a precise hour and season, as the ahistorical events of the opening cantos (I, II), give way to a historical journey through the Beyond, beginning with the Gates of Hell (Canto II onwards). The forest depicted here is a psychological or spiritual state, whereas Hell for Dante and his medieval public is a real location, under the earth." (p. 502)
Higgins reminds us of the medieval reversal: the otherworld more real than our own. This happenstance paragraph encouraged me to ponder how the second line of the Inferno might be rendered, and if a dream or a frustration, a vision or a panic, might dominate "mi ritovai."
"I found myself obscured in a great forest" C.H. Sisson. This depicts a visual element, as if the narrator is becoming blurred as well as the location that takes over his senses. There's an existentialist horror I sense within this erasure.
"I found myself astray in a dark wood," Seamus Heaney puts it. As I am less of a Heaney acolyte than many Irish lit crit types, I may confess this version, as is usual, seems to press too much of this interpreter upon the line. "Astray," as in Mad Sweeney, may however help shorten the explanation for an impatient modern reader. Heaney does have a knack for doing this, honed I am sure as a teacher of many.
"I found myself in dark woods," offers Robert Pinsky. Only he pluralizes the forest. Nicole Pinsky's notes explain the "tangled and dark" yet vivid elements of the first canto, and how their enigmatic meanings defy easy categorization. "Challenge and mystery" both sum up the quest: "The path Virgil suggests, and to which Dante agrees, is one where meaning will come in irregular pools and flashes, with effort, in a setting of uncertainty until the journey is done." (p. 377) Certainly a fitting metaphor for all of our life's directions.
"I found myself within a shadowed forest." Allen Mandelbaum's version, with Barry Moser's disturbing pen-and-wash drawings, has long been a favorite. Mandelbaum takes away a bit of the shroud, shadow and not dark. He also lightens slightly the moment of awareness-- or is it confusion?
"I woke to find myself in a dark wood" comes from Dorothy Sayers. She conveys a lively quality throughout. Her comradeship with the Oxford Inklings, Charles Williams and Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, somehow echoes in her own spirited presentation.
"I woke to find myself alone in dark wood" John Ciardi. With one added word, he gets at the bewilderment. It reminds me of that lapse when you awaken from a vivid dream-- from where and into what?
"I came to myself within a dark wood." John D. Sinclair edges closer to my preferred rendering-- less a dream-vision's commencement, more a psychological jolt. He also notes, by the way, that without the committment to the whole venture, those who end with the Inferno reduce Dante's excursion to what would have been for him "meaningless melodrama." His prose version is rather stodgy with "dost" and "thou" for our tastes, but it keeps a stately, formal medieval register lacking in all the others I've sampled, if they are less than a tenth of those attempted into English over the long centuries. (The first complete translation came only with Henry Cary in 1814, although Chaucer refers to Dante in the "Wife of Bath's Tale" and paraphrases a bit of the Purgatorio, the basis for Professor Kelly's claim.)
"I came to myself in a dark wood." Robert M. Durling's recent Oxford edition may not have earned as much acclaim to date, but it gives, in its bulk, a nearly line-by-line scholarly yet clear commentary, and there Ronald L. Martínez notes a "traditional translation is 'I found myself.'" Yet, these editors favor the prefix ri- as an intensifier of "the inward nature of the event." I agree. They also observe that this line hints (as will line 11) at a dream-vision that begins with an awakening. They add that early illustrations gave a "'sleeping' poet-as-author" at the start of the tale.
As for me, I remain torn between the introverted and allegorical representation of the "selva oscura," as part fallen world, part sectarian strife, part existential exile. Mandelbaum typically hits the target: "It is the dark wood of life on earth when lived in sin; it is Dante's interior wood; and it is the wood of political darkness, of Florence, of Italy, of papal corruption, of the absence of imperial authority." (p. 334)
"I came to my senses in a dark wood." H.R. Huse's firm translation, the one I used in college when assigned this text, I was not expecting much from, such is its humble reputation. Yet, it comes in second on my list. I like its sharp, abrupt alertness; it resembles Sayers, a rough contemporary: a clipped tone that I admire.
Finally, over the sea, Belfast poet Ciaran Carson, attempting to capture his harsh city's rhythms and territorial divisions that echoed Guelf vs. Ghibelline, conveys: "I came to in a gloomy wood." This cuts the forest down to size, better suiting an Irish setting, in both the murky terrain and the hungover mood.
Art: Gustave Doré is inevitable for its haunting "mezzo cammin" in the middle of the way, but by now, no fault of his own, too familiar. I opted for Angelo Tracciata-Melunghi's "Virgilio," from his blog, in Italian. Not a wood but more of a hint of a wood, in a more arid and cheerless place even than a shadowed forest? It feels more medieval, as well as more Muslim, and certainly Mediterranean. We follow our guide into the labyrinth and towards the minotaur. It puts us into Dante's sandals. Lastly, I cannot copy another fine illustration, but see on Flickr this from Patchwork Bunny.