Letter from the Editors: Introducing “Untranslatable”


The Daily’s Grind section is launching ‘Untranslatable’, a new series about etymology, linguistics and self-expression around the world. Grind editor Matthew Turk shares background on the initiative.

Dante Alighieri has a fascinating life story, but he is perhaps best known for his epic poem the “Divine Comedy”. Now around 700 years old, the rhyme scheme Alighieri invented for the poem, terza rima, is devilishly difficult to replicate. Over the summer I opened an English translation by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to see for myself. The first three lines are classic, so familiar that I may have read them before:

Midway upon the journey of our life,
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward path had been lost.
“Inferno” I, lines 1–3

In Italian:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita,
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.
“Inferno” I, lines 1–3

Then, given enough time, my eyes began to fixate on passages – passages that confused and tensed me. As far as I could tell, they were grammatically correct – that is, I was technically reading idiomatic English – but I almost felt like I should have gone with Italian. 693 pages later, I concluded that I had read another language anyway.

Generally speaking, I advise our Daily editors to steer clear of verbose and compelling language, in the hope that one day clarity may become fashionable again. That said, there are nuances waiting to be disentangled from the noise. In particular, there is something to be said for the musicality of his language. Artistic expression gives access to the consciousness of another human being in a way that a particularly esoteric textbook on differential equations, for example, cannot. A chapter on Fourier transforms can convey a concept to the best of its ability, but it doesn’t speak to the reader in the same way as a poem by Maya Angelou, a romantic painting, or John F. Kennedy’s famous antimetabole: ” Not ask what your country can do for you; ask yourself what you can do for your country.” As American journalist Derek Thompson said, this very quote “balances repetition and variety in a way that feels slightly surprising when you reach the end of the sentence”. Words make you feel something, and therefore, they are memorable.

Lacking legitimate knowledge of the Italian language, I decided in the fall to attend a webinar on November 9 with Stanford professor emeritus Marjorie Perloff, Italianist Donatella D’Aguanno and American poet Mary Jo Bang, the third of which recently produced a new translation from Dante’s “Purgatorio”. The meticulous processes of translation and comprehension she described that day went over my head, but I still managed to come away with a lesson: a lot gets lost in translation. Not just from Italian to English, but from mind to mind, from time to time and from space to space.

Every mode of communication inevitably has its perplexing idiosyncrasies, and our biological ability to speak might just be an accident, but sometimes we wonder if we couldn’t do better. If not, then you might at least find some fun in how chaotic human achievement and culture can be. Yes, it takes a lot of nerve to translate 700-year-old Italian into 700-year-old English, but I’m sure Longfellow managed to retain the original verbiage that would still amaze me. For example:

And lo! towards us coming in a boat
An old man, hoary with the hair of eld,
Crying: “Woe unto you, ye souls depraved!”
“Inferno” III, lines 82–84

Surely Dante is known as Il Sommo Poeta for a reason. Was it because he wrote like that? Is it because the formality of language is no longer what it used to be? How, exactly, does this formality differ from time to time? From one culture to another? It’s the wonders of language and self-expression that the new “Untranslatable” series seeks to embody. Each iteration will focus on the richness of a single word or linguistic phenomenon in the world. As we parse out the details of this investigation, none of us will understand every word – but perhaps the greatest delight to achieve in this context is understanding each other better.

If you would like to contribute to ‘Untranslatable’, please submit or submit your work to thegrind ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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