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Book Review: Orlando Furioso

Orlando Furioso: A New Verse Translation
Ludovico Ariosto, translated by David R. Slavitt
Belknap/Harvard, 2009

Translators disparage their predecessors only at great peril, for every translation stands as somebody’s favorite. Translators who disparage full-blown masterpieces of their art risk looking like fools. So may God’s eye be on David Slavitt, who nears these kinds of dangers from the moment he opens his mouth in the Translator’s Preface to his new version of Ariosto’s Renaissance masterpiece Orlando Furioso.

Ariosto’s enormous masterpiece (Charles Ross, in his Introduction to this present work, says Ariosto “never outdoes Dante – no one does,” but this is simplistic; Ariosto is in every way superior to the sacerdotal bore who birthed the Paradiso) was translated in 1975 by Barbara Reynolds, and her work is stunning, an incredible achievement. Slavitt says “it isn’t funny enough, or sprightly enough.” This is not only boorish but inaccurate – Reynolds is delightful company throughout, and Slavitt should recall that although Ariosto primarily wanted to entertain his audiences at the court of Ferrara, he also wanted to move them with fine sentiment finely phrased. In straining for the funny and the sprightly, Slavitt’s version (an abridgment, containing roughly half the length of the poem) far too often becomes something neither its author (nor those fine lords and ladies in his original audience) nor any but the laziest reader today would enjoy.

The Reynolds translation is accompanied by copious notes (Ariosto’s work, vastly allusive, benefits greatly from them) and glossaries; the Slavitt version has no notes and only the slimmest scrim of a glossary, but such appendixes are always secondary to the verse itself, and comparisons are inevitable. The poem is immense, and so examples abound, but we’ll pick just one: the moment when the pagan princess Angelica first confesses to the handsome young warrior Medoro that she’s in love with him (and with poor Orlando, who’s furioso over that very fact). Here’s Reynolds:

If of her longing she is not to die,
She must herself ask help without delay;
And well she knows that she cannot rely
On him she loves the needed words to say.
So, all restraint and modesty put by,
Her tongue, no less her eyes, dares now to pray
For mercy; from that blow she begs him save her
Which the fair youth, perhaps unknowingly, gave her.

And here’s Slavitt:

The girl understands what is happening perfectly well
and is beside herself. In desperation
she waives protocol and decides to tell
the youth what ails her, making a declaration
that he may choose to spurn (which would be hell
on wheels) or he could show appreciation
for what she’s done for him, or pity, or
even perhaps reciprocate and more.

There is a good deal more of this in Slavitt; people are dressed to the nines, they fall on their duffs, they “ad lib”. Everywhere in his version, there’s the air of horsing around with undergraduates (one couplet achieves its rhyme thus: “and in short order they approach Marseilles/and are happy after traveling all that weilles”). But the real difference is that the Reynolds version is poetry, where the Slavitt version is only disjointed narrative.

Slavitt calls the ottava rima stanza of Ariosto “inherently humorous,” but he seldom uses it in its pure form, opting instead for a loosey-goosey meter that sometimes succeeds in conveying Ariosto’s conversational moments but utterly fails to capture his lyrical side. This failure is abetted by Slavitt’s love of idiom and cliché – he’ll swerve a mile out of his way to hit a dated piece of slang, as can be seen in the fact that those mere eight lines contain four such turns of phrase.

The result is an Orlando Furioso that is purely for the moment. Most readers today are unfamiliar with Ariosto, which is monstrously unfortunate – his book is very long, yes (and no good service is rendered by abridging it – who these days would dare abridge the Commedia? But the Orlando Furioso is fair game?), but it’s also endlessly enjoyable. Readers who might otherwise be frightened off by the length and the verse might be tempted by Slavitt’s shorter (though still hefty) and more approachable version. If this happens – if peradventure twenty or even ten readers try Ariosto now who haven’t tried him before – then perhaps we can forgive Slavitt his sloppy liberties. His sins are many, but that would be a mighty atonement.

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