How Do You Translate The 16th Century’s Bestselling Book, A Rhymed Italian Epic, Into English?

Ludovico Ariosto’s magnum opus, Orlando Furioso, has only been translated into English four times since 1900. After first appearing in 1516, this epic has become an indispensable entry in the Italian canon and remains one of the longest poems in European literature, numbering over thirty-eight thousand lines in forty-six cantos, telling tales of love, war, tragedy, and fantasy across continents, seas, and even the cosmos. In our Spring 2024 edition, we presented a daring translation by Steven Monte of one of the poem’s most famous episodes—a fantastical voyage to the moon, which demonstrates at once the ecstatic potentialities of poetry, the corruption of art by human vices, and all the ways by which the self can be lost.

In the following interview, Monte speaks to our very own Assistant Interview Editor Sebastián Sanchez about the challenges and delights of rendering the best-selling book of the sixteenth century into English.

Sebastián Sanchez (SS): Despite his influence on European literature, Ludovico Ariosto’s work is underappreciated in the Anglophone world. What drew you to translate Orlando Furioso?

Steven Monte (SM): The underappreciation is partly what drew me, but perhaps more than anything I wanted to translate the specific episode of Astolfo’s trip to the moon. Astolfo is my favorite character in Orlando Furioso, and translating one episode was plenty challenging. When I discovered that the most recent verse translation of the epic-romance—David Slavitt’s—did not include this famous section, I was even more motivated.

SS: Whenever I read an early modern text—I am thinking specifically of those by Rabelais and Cervantes here—I am surprised by its liveliness and audacity. Do you think Orlando Furioso has a contemporary relevance which might surprise new readers? 

SM: Absolutely. First off, as with the two authors you mention, Ariosto is funnier than twenty-first-century readers might expect. And again like those two authors, he is self-aware; the narrator often addresses the reader, or a subset of his readers, in a knowing and urbane way. Finally, Ariosto often feels modern in his depiction of female characters and gender relations. This last element is not so much present in the episode that I translate, which focuses on two male characters and is something of a spoof of Dante. But note the irreverent way in which Saint John discusses the entire epic tradition and the way in which other poets, like Virgil, misrepresented characters like Dido.

SS: How does one approach a work that has been translated so many times? What was it about extant translations that you wanted to develop on? 

SM: The most commonly used and cited modern translation is Guido Waldman’s prose version. David Slavitt’s verse translation leaves out the moon episode. Barbara Reynold’s complete Furioso achieves rhyme through a too-liberal use of inverted syntax, and some debatable compromises in literal sense. I knew I wanted to render Ariosto into verse, and I’ve strived to keep most of the rhyme and verse, almost all of the literal meaning, and most of all the original tone. In fairness to the earlier translators, I have translated only one canto’s worth of stanzas—and this took me a long time!

SS: In your translator’s note to the canto, you discuss the difficulties of navigating ottava rima in English. On a technical level, what were the most important things you kept in mind while reproducing this form? What advice would you give to translators seeking to be faithful to form in a historical text? 

SM: Famously, English is poorer in rhymes than Italian and other Romance languages. So ottava rima, which consists of an ABABABCC rhyme scheme, is tricky in English under the best of circumstances. Throw in Ariosto’s conversational style, which calls for a prose-like flow, and the translator is at a major disadvantage. On a technical level, I tended to follow three rules of thumb. First, start with the couplet and work backwards. Second, if needed, use slant rhymes (but avoid using them as the final a, b, or c rhymes). And third, make use of enjambments as Ariosto does (that is, mainly in the middle lines of the stanza, and in ways that do not jolt). These rules worked for me, and perhaps they would be useful to other translators. Then again, each form may require its own set of ad hoc rules.

SS: If the poem was to be translated into another form—outside of ottava rima or any equivalent, in something akin to Lattimore’s translations of Homer—what do you think would be most important for the translator to retain or transfigure? 

SM: This is a great question, as translating the entire work into ottava rima would be an enormous undertaking. I do think verse is important, and simply keeping the integrity of each line (a line-by-line free verse rendition) would go a long way toward conveying the sense and impact of the original. The other key element is diction and tone; so many translations go awry when the tone is off. In short: a line-by-line verse translation, in natural syntax and diction.

SS: The world of Orlando Furioso is an odd one—a fantastical reimagining of the eighth century written in the sixteenth century. The work is, in fact, a sequel to Orlando Innamorato by Matteo Maria Boiardo, so Ariosto was working with extant material, as was common for the time. What was it about this era that gripped the attention of so many Renaissance authors, leading to the popularity of chivalric romances? 

SM: Chivalric romances of one sort or another had been popular for centuries by the time Boiardo and Ariosto were writing. At the same time, though, the world that they were describing was vanishing. (In one episode, Orlando destroys a magic gunpowder-like device and sinks it in the sea.) So romances could be a way of evoking a better past and commenting on the present. The genre was also highly developed so that certain expected features (knights, ladies, magic, etc.) could be either imagined in entertaining ways or treated earnestly, as the occasion demanded. Finally, in Ariosto’s case, the rise of printing was huge: his romance was perhaps the best-selling literary work of the sixteenth century.

SS: Is there another work from this period or before that you think deserves more attention and even, perhaps, an updated translation? 

SM: In terms of narrative works, I think immediately of Ariosto’s successor in the epic tradition, Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered. In terms of lyric poetry, an anthology of sixteenth-century European poetry—perhaps one that enlisted several translators—would be fabulous.

Steven Monte is a professor in the English Department at the College of Staten Island. He has taught at the University of Chicago and at Yale University, from which he received his doctorate in comparative literature. His scholarly writing is mostly on Renaissance, Romantic, and modern poetry, including his books The Secret Architecture of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Edinburgh University Press, 2021), Victor Hugo: Selected Poetry in French and English (Routledge, 2001, 2002), and Invisible Fences: Prose Poetry as a Genre in French and American Literature (University of Nebraska Press, 2000). He has also published verse translations and his own poetry in a variety of journals, including The Paris Review, Boston Review, Literary Imagination, Think, and TriQuarterly. He lives and runs marathons in New York City.

Sebastián Sánchez is a Chilean-American poet and translator and Asymptote’s Assistant Interview Editor. They have most recently had their work published in Protean Magazine and the Oxford Anthology of Translation. They run a translation blog, de Rokha & Others, where they publish translations of Chilean poetry. Their translations focus on poetry published and written by Chilean women and queer people in the 70s and 80s during the dictatorship. These poets and writers (such as Soledad Fariña, Malú Urriola, Diamela Eltit, and Pedro Lemebel) used their position of social oppression and political repression to develop radically innovative forms of writing which expanded the possibilities of what language can do and are deeply underappreciated in the Anglophone world.


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