Wednesday, 28 November 2012

In A Dark Wood

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.
Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier rinova la paura!

Those are some of the most famous words ever committed to paper: the opening lines of Dante's Inferno.  Amazingly, given they were written in the early 14th century, they are immediately understandable to anyone with a bit of basic modern Italian.  Chaucer's English?  Not so much.

Longfellow did a decent translation:
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.

But you'll notice the "music" of the Italian has gone, as well as the rhyme scheme ("terza rima", ABA BCB CDC, etc.), which was Dante's own invention.

Many have tried to render The Inferno into English, but most have failed.
In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself astray in a dark wood
where the straight road had been lost sight of.
How hard it is to say what it was like
(Seamus Heaney)

Oh dear, Seamus, Seamus....

Robert Pinsky's version is highly rated by some:
Midway on our life's journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost.  To tell
About those woods is hard -- so tangled and rough

And savage that thinking of it now, I feel
The old fear stirring: death is hardly more bitter.
But, in the end, Italian is a very different language from English, with many times more rhymes.  You would go mad, trying to translate the sense as well as sticking to the rhyme scheme.

Which makes me wonder whether photographs have national identities, too, even though on the face of it they don't need translating.

Addendum at 17:30:  

Thought I'd let Google Translate have a go:
In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself in a dark wood
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Ah, how to tell what a thing it is hard
this forest savage, rough, and stern
that in the very thought renews the fear!
 Not at all bad!   Scarily so, in fact.  I wonder if it's been pre-primed to be "Dante ready"?


Zouk Delors said...

Andante in avanti...

Taking my cue from your comment* at BSA M20 Motorbikes (Nov 25, below - but perhaps more proper to La Règle du Jeu, Nov 20), I tried putting this through Google Translate a few times, using the output from one translation as the input to the next. After 3 or 4 iterations it settles down to:

In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself in a dark wood
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Ah, you know that something is difficult
this forest savage, rough, and stern
that in the very thought renews the fear!

An intriguing question arises: is ANY text so treated BOUND to settle eventually, and if so, after how many iterations at most?

I think it must settle eventually, if only because there's only a finite number of permutations of n elements from the finite set of vocabulary items available, but that would also include the possibility that it settles not to a single text which appears at the end of each and every cycle, but instead a series of texts which appear and reappear in the same order ad infinitum.

On the other hand , who's to say there isn't SOME text which, so processed, would generate a set of output texts as random as the expansion of an irrational number?

Anyone out there clever enough to work this one out?

Ah, yes, something is indeed difficult! Well said, "Dante".

* "It used to be fun to put a poem into Google Translate, and translate it back and forth a few times. It was like playing Chinese Whispers."

Mauro Thon Giudici said...

Hi Mike, you raise an interesting question in paralleling language matters with photographic ones. I did a lot of thought on this. Comparing to your Dante's study I would say that in landscape photography, it is a bit the inverse. While the metrics may be easily shared the meaning is related to distance from the viewer. John Berger has an interesting piece about this in his "An other way of telling".

Mike C. said...


The surprising thing is how good Translate is now, even with poetry -- it used to give quite funny results, but now it doesn't (mostly), not least because its vocab range and idiom-recognition algorithms have improved.

If you've got the GT app on your smartphone you've effectively got a "Babel fish" (but in your pocket, not your ear).


Good to hear from you again -- it's been a while! Does this mean a return to blogging? (Yes, a quick check says it does).

I'm still thinking about whether there are national characteristics in photography. The Bechers and the "Dusseldorf School" might be an example.

Test cases where a photographer established in one national tradition does serious work elsewhere are available -- Koudelka in Wales, Eggleston in France, Kenna in Japan, etc. Not sure they tell us much.

However, see my post on the "middle east" exhibition at the V&A museum -- art culture is pretty trans-national these days, like Macdonalds...


Mauro Thon Giudici said...

Mike, seen from an Italian POV that of the national tradition does not apply that much. I would speak of schools instead. In such a case the Beckers are a case worth to study. But I wont say that there is some resemblance in their students except for a, somewhat, frozen fish posture in framing :) (Dusseldorf school). More a way of thinking visually. Even to make sense of the way photography goes on Internet, in its glocal way, schools seem more appropriate.

Mike C. said...


I don't disagree, and normally steer away from any talk of national stereotypes.

But there does seem something rather German about, say, Struth/Gursky, and something very English about Martin Parr, doesn't there?

It's not a point I'd want to labour, though, and it doesn't lead to any astonishing insights (Germans are serious and grandiose, the English are class-conscious and humour-obsessed, etc.). Italians, of course, are far too diverse to classify...


Zouk Delors said...

Then again, put your above remark through Basque a few times and you get:

"It is amazing how good it is to poetry, and the results used to a very funny, but it is (mostly), and, at least, it is not because the language-recognition algorithms to improve vocab."

So, although that's not really a fair trial, not exactly a Babel fish; but nevertheless a useful tool worth having, and bound to improve xx going forward xx (how d'you do that crossy out thing?) in the future*.

PS Babel fish is an ironic name, isn't it, considering the builders of the eponymous tower failed thru LACK of mutual comprehension.

*Did you know, Google Translate gives Italian "per il futuro" for "going forward".

Mike C. said...


For Basque, I'd say that is sensationally good... Last time I was in the Basque Country, I bought "Le basque pour les nuls", thinking "How hard can it be?". I quote:

A Basque noun is inflected in 17 different ways for case, multiplied by 4 ways for its definiteness and number. These first 68 forms are further modified based on other parts of the sentence, which in turn are inflected for the noun again. It has been estimated that, with two levels of recursion, a Basque noun may have 458,683 inflected forms.

Life is too short... Hand me that babel fish.


Zouk Delors said...

Phew! No wonder it never really caught on! English is WELL much easier, n'est-ce pas?

Mike C. said...

English? It never gave me no trouble.

Correction: I mistyped "noun" rather than "noun-phrase" in the above. I have no idea what difference that makes, or why recursion comes into the picture. It starts to get bonkers when noun endings change according to things like who is the presumed audience of a statement, real or imagined.

Basque even looks like a made-up language. I expect ETA will blow up my car now.


Zouk Delors said...

Doubtless the leader of the cell tasked with monitoring your every utterance is even now pressing the Zuba to revoke the 2011 cessation of armed operations in the face of the threat posed by your blog*.

Although I love the idea of implying an audience by inflection (is there a special one for talking to yourself do you think? Who would be the implied audience for your blog if you had to do that in English?), I think its really just a measure of the lack of dispersion of the tongue, as languages which spread tend to simplify. Innit?

PS what you doin copying chunks out of Wiki, longhand? Doesn't it cut n paste? Easier AND more accurate!

*Ez luke zaila da zure autoa aurkitu egin behar izanez gero.