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English is a wonderfully weird language with a huge vocabulary, but one with distinct “registers.” I am currently in the process of translating Dante’s Comedy, and this is the central insight guiding my work: We have a split-level language. This is because our language has both Latin and Anglo-Saxon influences. In English, anytime we want to use abstract terms, we draw on our Latinate heritage. Meanwhile, our Anglo-Saxon inheritance provides all those one-word, sometimes crude terms for bodily sensations and everyday lived experiences, like the names of kitchen utensils (spoon, knife, bowl) and family members (baby, cousin, kinsfolk). If you hit your finger with a hammer, you draw upon our language's Anglo-Saxon heritage: crud, crap, damn. Or worse. If you’re talking to a doctor, lawyer, theologian, or foreign relations expert, you use words of Latin derivation. You talk about indigestion, as opposed to tummy aches. We call our parents mommy and daddy, but when we talk to our psychologist, we refer to fraternal rivalry and infantile influence. 

In other words, all day long we are code-switching back and forth from an in-the-head language to one that is more in-the-body and in-the-pulse. While English contains the two levels within itself, Dante lived in a diglossic community: a language community that had a “high” language (Latin) and a “low,” everyday, bodily language (the “vulgar tongue”—for Dante, Italian). In diglossic communities, the low, the vernacular, is felt more in the body, while the high language is more in the head, more evocative of the careful thought of the mind. What Dante experienced in medieval Italy is analogous to what those in many parts of contemporary Italy experience—like in Sardinia, where a dialect is spoken at home and standard Italian is spoken at school. 

But it gets more interesting. In diglossic communities, different affective repertoires seem to regulate when we “code-switch.” Anette Pavlenko, a bilingual Ukrainian researcher, relates the wonderful story of when her little boy came home from school once. He had had a really bad day, and then, while he walked home in the rain, someone had yelled something obscene at him from a car window. The poor little guy showed up soaked and in tears. His bilingual mother took her boy into her arms and said to him: “I feel zhalko tebia bednogo (sorry/pity for you poor [soul]).” She switched from English to Russian, a “code-switch ‘across the feeling boundaries.’” While she started out speaking in English, saying “sorry” felt to her like a polite acknowledgment of his problems, and thus distancing. Switching to the Russian zhalko, which is used in expressions of sorrow, pity, sadness, and compassion but not in apologies, “allowed me to convey that I am indeed feeling bad about his dreadful day.” 

We find similar instances of code-switching in medieval Latin sermons. There are examples of homilists who preach in Latin but code-switch when they needed to express the urgency of something: “now pay attention,” they will say in Italian. When preaching about the Crucifixion, they code-switch to Italian to describe shouts of the people: “Crucify him, Crucify him!” In order to get at heightened emotions, they felt the need to code-switch into that more embodied feel we get from using the vernacular.

It is this type of bi-level feeling we have to bring to Dante. We need to realize that Dante is constantly code-switching from a classical in-the-head way of speaking to one that is more in-the-blood and in-the-nerves. Take one example in which Dante is talking to his old “teacher,” Brunetto Latini. In this passage, Brunetto laments the political circumstances that will lead to Dante’s exile. Here we have a Florentine talking to a Florentine, a situation in which two home-town boys, meeting in a foreign land, are likely to slip back into “local” ways of speaking—just like my friend Sue slips back into her Italo-Connecticut dialect when she goes home. Dante has his teacher use all kinds of fun vernacular abbreviations: “a ca” (for “a casa”), local names for plants, and many deictic expressions for the gestures of pointing and nodding. Brunetto is using the high rhetorical genre of denunciation, in which Dante had years of practice in Latin. But when he uses it in Italian, he gains access to a new level of embodied passion:

And if I had not died within such brief hours,
Knowing heaven’s generosity toward you,
I would have encouraged your great work.
But . . . ingrate repugnant wicked people . . .
Who came down from Fieseole, in days of yore,
And still smell of rock and dirt,
Will make you their enemy, because you do them good,
And will be the cause that amid the bitter sorb apples
You will not be able to harvest sweet fruit.

I chose to translate this passage with lots of monosyllabic words of Anglo-Saxon origin to capture Latini's “low,” in-the-pulse way of speaking here—words like “dirt” and “rock.” Damnation in the vernacular is so much in the heat of veins and the bones and marrow of the body.

In his On Vernacular Eloquence, Dante associates Italian with home, kinship, and the body. The lingua vulgaris is “that which we learn without any formal instruction, by imitating our nurses.” Nursing is related to speaking the homely, comfortable language of kinship. For Dante, it is maternal and soft. A warm hug with your mother. In contrast, Latin is a “language, at one remove from us, which the Romans called grammatica. . . . Few, however, come to complete ease of mastery of it, though, since knowledge of its rules and theory can only be developed through dedication to lengthy course of study.” It is hard. Rule-based. And, for Dante, paternal. Disciplined.

But then Dante did the unthinkable: He translated a mystic pilgrimage to the stars (a perfect subject for Latin) into the language of the flesh and body and mud and blood. For this reason, we need an English translation that tracks what it feels like to read the Comedy: a translation with verses that illuminate the mind, but also with words and rhythms that stab because they are rooted in the nerves and body. Let's tear Dante out of the “classics” category and make him feel risky and daring and dizzying, all over again. 

Jason M. Baxter teaches Great Books at Notre Dame and is a curriculum consultant for St. Thomas More Academy in South Bend, Indiana. He is currently translating the Divine Comedy for Angelico Press. 

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Image by The Met on Wikimedia Commons licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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