On the Merits of the Rose Translation

A few years ago our scholarship gala auctioned off a “Teacher’s Library,” in which each faculty member selected a work for the collection.  I was torn between choices–Chesterton’s Orthodoxy and Orlando Furioso.  Knowing how hard it would be to get a hold of a hard copy of a Rose Furioso, I (foolishly) hedged.  In my selection email I suggested getting Orlando Furioso if by a miracle the Rose were available, but otherwise go with Orthodoxy.

Old books on shelf
Rose’s Natural Habitat. Jackpot!

Much to my chagrin, at the gala the collection included both the Chesterton and the lamentably Rose-less Furioso in prose translation.  To add insult to injury, my inscription to the Ariosto tome referred to it as a pillar of masterful English prose or something like that.  Hopefully whoever won that auction doesn’t hold my gaffe against me.

Why am I so enamored of the Rose?  It is famously purple in its translation and adds a healthy dose of melodrama to the original.  For just about any other translation project I would shun it for this very reason.  What am I thinking?

Brandon told me to.  I swear he did an overview post on Orlando at some point in the last several years, but now all I can find is a 2012 post on Rogero and Bradamante.  I think his search function has broken under the weight of being one of the ooooold bloggers who did it way before it was cool (or maybe back when it was cool).  At any rate, he definitely used the Rose translation, and I was looking for a classic to get into, so I was inspired to do the same.

2 Rose is a wordsmith.  The man was tasked with translating 38,736 lines of poetry that had to rhyme in iambic pentameter.  I had a pretty advanced vocabulary and then I went to grad school.  It’s rare for me to read books with words I don’t know.  But Rose has crammed so many archaisms, rarities, and inventions into this poem that I found myself using the Look Up function on my Nook every day.  I loved that feeling.  I love learning words.

3 I love learning words and I hate post-Hemingway English syntax.  Give me latinate structures!  Give me irregular word orders that I must puzzle out and, in time, come to feel intuitively!  To my sentences shape want I, want and still more demand, sentences the heart to move and brain to wilt!  Or something like that.  On my first read-through of the poem, the roller-coaster of his poesy was an exhausting intellectual exercise.  I loved it.

4 It’s more of an adventure for my students.  My ERC nerds wouldn’t come to read J.K Rowling out loud on Friday afternoons.  The joy is in the labor, and the endless pauses for me to explain the words and the syntax.  It’s a puzzle, a Rubix, a training montage for beautiful English.  Explaining hight and dight, reminding them of the ten synonyms for helmet or the fifteen for horse, what sell and croupe are, how faulchion comes from falx–this is the game!  “And then Rodomonte burned Paris, and it was awesome” doesn’t get people together on a Friday.  This does (16.23):

What by weak herd, in fields of Hircany,
The tiger does, or Indian Ganges near,
Or wolf, by lamb or kid, on heights which lie
On Typheus’ back, the cruel cavalier
Now executes on those, I will not, I
Call phalanxes or squadrons, but a mere
Rabble, that I should term a race forlorn,
Who but deserved to die ere they were born.

5 Old things please me.  Getting out of our era gives us a much greater perspective on humanity and history.  Reading outside of our era takes practice.  It also, by custom and familiarity, becomes its own pleasure.  Looking at worn grave stones pleases me.  Pulling dusty 18th century tomes off the shelf of the university library pleases me.  Leaning on enormous elm trees pleases me.  There is both utility and enjoyment in reading the old.

So even as I dabble more in reading the Italian Orlando, and even though I like my correspondence formal and my equivalence not so dynamic, I raise a glass to Rose.  Well done, sir.


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