The Meolopoeic Fidelity Of The First Stanza Of Wickert’s Translation Of Tasso’s “Liberation Of Jerusalem”

I am reading my way through Max Wickert‘s powerful modern verse translation of Tasso’s La Gerusalemme Liberata, a translation that is faithful to the original and at the same time immensely readable.

The dynamic opening stanza of the The Liberation of Jerusalem, its fidelity to the original combined with its its freedom from slavish literalism, the confidence and delight the translator displays in his own prowess all bode well for the rest of the poem:

Tasso

Wickert

Canto l'arme pietose e 'l capitano
Che 'l gran sepolcro liberò di Cristo.
Molto egli oprò col senno e con la mano,
Molto soffrí nel glorioso acquisto;
E invan l'Inferno vi s'oppose, e invano
S'armò d'Asia e di Libia il popol misto;
Che il ciel gli diè favore, e sotto ai santi
Segni ridusse i suoi compagni erranti.
I sing of war, of holy war, and him,
Captain who freed the Sepulchre of Christ.
Greatly he wrought by force of mind and limb,
and greatly suffered, nobly sacrificed.
Vainly did Hell oppose him, Asia grim
vainly combined with Libya, Hell-enticed.
Heaven favoured him and guided back, to fight
under his sacred flag, each errant knight.

I especially admire the way Wickert has worked the first two lines so that the Virgilian echo “I sing of arms…” can still be heard, but the infelicitous, almost comical phrase, “holy arms,” is avoided for the much more apposite, “holy war.” The line is made taut and sinuous by the repetition of “war”. Equally admirable is the decision to shift the word “Captain” to the beginning of the second line creating a melopoeic echo of the sound pattern and rhythm the second line of the original. Thus, in the opening two lines Wickert displays a regard for both the needs of an English translation and an acute ear for the sounds of the original

Wickert’s translation seems to have been made to be read aloud. I wonder if he is planning to release a recording of the poem being read. I must admit, it is something I would like to try and do myself…

DH

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