May 25, 2009

Why do we uplift the reader of Dante and put stumbling stones in the way of the reader of Scripture

If you want to read Dante’s Divine Comedy in English translation, you have it good.  There are any number of outstanding translations to choose among.  You can expect, as a standard feature that most volumes you will choose among will present the text bilingually in the original Italian (although they sometimes republished as single omnibus volumes without the Italian, e.g., Ciardi, Mandelbaum).  All translations contain a running commentary (which in some cases is simply outstanding, e.g., Singleton’s commentary (Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso), and in some cases highly accessible to a novice reader, e.g., Robert Hollander’s commentary to his joint translation with Jean Hollander (Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso).  Editions almost always include diagrams and sometimes illustrations, in some cases by brilliant artists such as Barry Moser, William Blake (see also here), Gustave Dore, Botticelli, Salvador Dali (see also here and here), Giovanni di Paolo, and Sandow Birk.  And most important, editions are usually made by single translators or a team of two translators rather than a ecclesiastical committee with little ability to write English.  In many cases, translators are poets, with an interest in reproducing Dante’s effects in English:  e.g., Robert Pinsky, John Ciardi, Jean Hollander (Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso), Longfellow, Laurence Binyon, or even omnibus volumes that show the different styles of many different translators; as well as literal text translations; e.g., Singleton (Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso).

In contrast, unless you are reading a (the best of) scholarly or a Jewish translation or commentary of Scripture, you are probably reading work by a committee, diglots are the exception rather than the rule, and illustrations (if they are to be found at all) are insipid.

But even more wonderful is the tradition of Lectura Dantis.  This tradition dates back to 1373, when the Commune of Florence asked Giovanni Boccaccio to give public lectures on the Divina Commedia – each one an exposition of a single one of Dante’s 100 cantos.  Since then, we have been graced with many outstanding Lectura Dantis series, and in modern times we have been seen Lectura Dantis Newberriana, Lectura Dantis Romana, Lectura Dantis Scaligera, Lectura Dantis Turicensis, Lectura Dantis Neapolitana, and Lectura Dantis Virginiana.  One fascinating example of this series is the wonderful Lectura Dantis CaliforniaInferno and Purgatorio.  (We eagerly await Paradiso.)  The strength here is the collection of studies by individual scholars – each quite different in approach.  Not only do we learn something about Dante in the process, but we see the entire range of modern approaches to text.

Why do we have so many works and translations that take Dante seriously, while so much of contemporary Biblical scholarship and translation is mediocre?  I suspect it has to do with simple fact of audience:  in the effort to make the Bible as accessible as possible, we have tolerated scholarship designed to reach out to those without education; and a glance at the demographic figures for different denominations indicates that those denominations most eager to make a large show of studying Scripture are often the weakest in educational achievement; while perhaps most of those reading Dante have a strong taste for serious study of literature.  Our Bibles bear a curse:  being divine, they are treated as often as not with intellectual disdain; while the Divine Comedy, being merely great literature, can receive serious treatment.

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