Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Dante is NOT LOST.

On Monday, I began my first week back at university. I'm back at my alma mater, doing, predictably, an MPhil in Literary Translation. I believe, though I could be wrong, that it's the only such MPhil in the world.

It's odd, going back to college. A week ago, I spoke to a pensions advisor and registered for university in the same morning. Going forward? Backward? Hard to tell.

When I got there, though, I felt right at home. I'm having classes in the very same rooms in which I did my undergraduate degree, which certainly helps, but really, I've come to remember why I got into this lark in the first place.

It's all thanks to Dante. When I sat back down in Room 4097, I had a flash of my first day of second year: Dante in the original, with one year of Italian language classes under our collective belt. The professor, an amazing woman and force to be reckoned with, beloved of Italianists the world over, read the first lines of the Divina Commedia.

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

'And here, ladies and gentlemen, we will have to stop. Many of you will be reading the approved translation alongside your Italian. This is FINE, but in places, the translation, like all translations, lets us down.'

We were cowed. To begin with the greats so soon after beginning the language, to study under this professor, to be stopping already to question the legitimacy of a world-renowned translation. We were, we thought, completely out of our depth.

'Your translation will likely translate smarrita as 'lost'.                     This is wrong. When you're wrong, you're wrong, and                           THIS is WRONG.'

Just so that we're clear. Ahem. Dante, she went on to explain, was a true believer, and as such, he never lost The Way. He was human, and as we would learn, was more than aware of his own sins, so it is understandable that he would feel that he wandered, nay, strayed from the diritta via, but he was never lost. It was key that we understand this as we began to follow Dante through his journey.

*  *  *

Since the course began in earnest, we've been encouraged to keep a log; ideas and challenges met along the way (am trying to abandon the metaphor, really), themes we'd like to explore and the like. I propose, provided that it doesn't bore people to tears, to do that here. I figure that many of the experiences of a new translator will be common among a lot of Parkbenchers and others, so I'd really appreciate your feedback as I go along.

Something that grabbed me today was about dictionaries. Our lecturer commented on his difficulties in learning Arabic thanks in part to a lack of reliable dictionaries. This, of course, came from a francophile perspective. The French, of course, benefit from a mighty tradition in dictionaries. A glut of good dictionaries is a mixed blessing, he mentioned in an offhand sort of way, because it provides a seemingly endless supply of carefully attributed and explained near-synonyms.

This was something of a revelation. Of course I know about the French dictionary tradition and their importance in codifying and recording the development of the language, but I had never connected this to my constant use of my growing collection. Despite the fact that I have been studying French for the last seventeen years, I still find myself reaching for a dictionary more than I do for Italian,  nine years on.

Live and learn. And look it up.