Monday, January 25, 2016

Doing Justice to the word: Paradiso 6-7

Paradiso 7 might present some interpretive difficulties, but there can be no argument that its opening tercet offers a song, sung by Justinian, that speaks in two tongues:
“Osanna, sanctus Deus sabaòth,
superillustrans claritate tua
felices ignes horum malacòth!”
Interestingly, it's common among translations of this canto to keep these lines as they appear in the original, rather than translate them. Translations are offered in footnotes - here's Grandgent's version:
"Hail, holy God of hosts, doubly illuminating with thy brightness the happy fires of these kingdoms."
As with many other poetic effects throughout the Commedia, a reader here has to work to bring out the sense, translating from two languages. We will want to ask why, at this point in the poem, Dante chooses to force us to become translators. What is it about translation that makes it relevant here?

Before getting to that, we might note that the first words of Justinian in Paradiso 6 speak of Constantine's transfer of the capital of the Roman empire to Constantinople -- a move that in Justinian's view went contro' al corso del ciel -- "against the course of the heavens."

The words speak of two different things: moving backwards, from West to East, reversing a course that tracks the actual sun in the sky as well as going against the the will of Heaven, which was interpreted to endorse a westward path of the Roman people from Troy to Italy.

Benvenuto da Imola, writing around 1380, offered this:
Justinianus narrat tempus sui imperii, conversionem et opera: et primo vult dicere quod romanum imperium jam steterat in Graecia ducentis annis et plus post translationem factam per Constantinum quando pervenit ad manus suas.
Justinian tells the story of his reign, conversion and deeds: and he first wishes to say that the Roman empire had already been located in Greece for more than 200 years after the transfer (translationem) made by Constantine when the empire came into his hands.

Benvenuto uses the term that was both proper and customary to describe what Constantine did. The noun form, translatio, derives from the verb transfero: "to carry over, carry across." However, it took on a broader meaning, as both the online etymological dictionary and Wiktionary note:

trānslātiō f ‎(genitive trānslātiōnis); third declension Translation, in the broadest sense: the process of transferring or carrying something over from one thing to another; in particular:
  1. Translation of text from one language to another
  1. A transfer from a literal to a figurative meaning; a metaphor (compare the Ancient Greek μεταφορά with the same senses)

The use of "translation" for the relocation of Constantine was common enough that Gibbon and other English writers spoke of "the translation" of Rome. And Justinian is clear from the outset that Constantine's act was a mistranslation -- "Rome" did not easily, or successfully, translate into Constantinople.

We have remarked before upon how the Commedia often does, through its poetics, something analogous to what it is saying, or an acting out of its thematic statement. Here the poem seems to be reinforcing through these cues the suggestion that, at this moment of the Paradiso's development, translation is deeply relevant. What Justinian does in canto 6 is to find the workings of Justice in history. But also in his own life, the decision to give coherence to Roman Law came after he abandoned Monophysitism, the belief that Jesus had a single nature that was either purely divine, or a synthesis of human and divine:
And ere unto the work I was attent,
One nature to exist in Christ, [una natura in Cristo esser] not more,
Believed, and with such faith was I contented.
This thread -- of duality, of two, not one -- marks the figure of Justinian, seen for the last time after his dual-lingual song:
Così, volgendosi a la nota sua,
fu viso a me cantare essa sustanza,
sopra la qual doppio lume s'addua;
In this wise, to his melody returning,
This substance, upon which a double light
Doubles itself, was seen by me to sing. . .   (Par. 7. 4-6)
Justinians's song is double, and sings of double illumination. At the same time, the two languages are musically harmonious, and fit the rhythmic and rhyming scheme of Dante's terza rima. As he said towards the end of his speech in Canto 6:
Diverse voci fanno dolci note;
così diversi scanni in nostra vita
rendon dolce armonia tra queste rote.
Voices diverse make up sweet melodies;
So in this life of ours the seats diverse
Render sweet harmony among these spheres  (Par. 6. 124-26)
Justinian says here that diverse voci (voices, but can also mean words, vows) and scanni (seats, positions, hierarchic statuses in the Empyrean) produce harmony in, of, and by the heavenly spheres (music as formal proportion is a subset of Justice). But to say as much is merely to allege. To clarify that just translation can in fact take place, is another thing. This performance occurs in canto 7 when Justinian incorporates two languages into the structure of a third, Dante's Italian terza rima:
“Osanna, sanctus Deus sabaòth,  
superillustrans claritate tua  
felices ignes horum malacòth!”
Note that in accomplishing this harmony, Justinians's song preserves the differences between Latin and Hebrew. The poem acts out, formally on the plane of language, what is at stake, theologically and politically, in the speech of Justinian in canto 6:
Theologically: Each tongue retains its integrity, like the two natures of Christ, yet they harmonize into a single intelligible poetic structure. 
Politically: The Hebrew words have to do with order, an order more militant than natural: sabaòth signifies "armies," and malacòth, "kingdoms" -- a vision of different and distinct kingdoms and powers, but under one God. 
Formally: The poetic accomplishment occurs in bringing Latin and Hebrew under the control of Dante's form -- his Italian syntax and the rhythm and rhyming structure of his terza rima. 


We might even suggest a historical analogue, as the Old Testament and Roman tongues are carried over into Italian as the inheritor of the two peoples chosen by God to bring about the central act of redemption.

And it is here that the entire burden of translation is brought to bear. When Justinian and his cohort vanish like velocissime faville, it is left to Beatrice to describe the descent of the Verbo di Dio:
fin ch'al Verbo di Dio discender piacque 
u' la natura, che dal suo fattore
s'era allungata, unì a sé in persona
con l'atto sol del suo etterno amore. 

Till to descend it pleased the Word of God

To where the nature, which from its own Maker
Estranged itself, he joined to him in person
By the sole act of his eternal love.   (Par. 7. 30-33)
The salvific act of history is a translation performed by the Word of God. The Trinity - Verbo/Fattore/Amore - is at work here in this atto, culminating not so accidentally with line 33. The duality of the man-God both is a carrying over of God into man and an opening of a way for man to cross back over to God. But as both Justinian and Beatrice strive to make clear, this elaborate transference not only must be just; it must do justice to be a true translation.

To see that this is the case, it execution must in turn be translated, i.e., read. Dante's doubt has to be dispelled through a clarity that sees how the sacrifice of Jesus was both just and unjust. Those executing him justly in his dual nature in turn had to be punished with the destruction of Jerusalem and the diaspora of the Jews. The Good News of the crucifixion, harrowing of Hell, and resurrection has a residue, an after-echo, that is bad news for the formerly Chosen People.


To translate is a sacrificial act of liberation. To break old bounds while yet preserving them; a disruption that frees so that something impossible, just now, can be, and can be spoken. The new, as in the New Adam, is the Old Adam carried over. A new tongue.

The sparks and fires of this scene should recall the tongues of flame of Pentecost. Fire descends, contrary to its nature, bringing with it a power of translation in which the Word becomes intelligible to all tongues.

The Commedia approaches this central redemptive act of human and divine history through the double lenses of Justice and Translation, at work in the dual kingdoms of Jerusalem and Rome. It is in the act of interpreting how Justice is rendered that the singular complexity claimed for the Redemption becomes intelligible. But how intelligible is it, as of yet?

Dante, Justinian, and Beatrice might feel that the destruction of Jerusalem, like the fall of Troy, was the necessary co-efficient of just human salvation. If some readers are left with an unsettling sense of something not quite square about this judgement, some frayed or still trembling loose end that occasions reiterated harrowing acts of injustice throughout human history, this would not come as a surprise. Doubt asserts itself. Further work is needed if one is to possibly get it right. To translate well, in the end, is to find le mot juste. I don't know about anyone else, but I'm not there yet.

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