This month, we're publishing a new verse translation of a Renaissance epic, a poem that inspired Borges, Calvino, Vivaldi, Hayden, Handel, Shakespeare, Spenser, Byron, and a host of others. Its significance in Western literature simply cannot be exaggerated. But Orlando Furioso ("Mad Orlando," sometimes translated as "The Frenzy of Orlando"), Ludovico Ariosto's sprawling sixteenth-century masterwork, lies strangely neglected (part of the reason has to do with the poem's extraordinary length; we've offered here just over half of the total poem, and the result is a book of 672 pages). David Slavitt's new verse translation, the first in thirty years, restores the impishness and the sheer comedic energy of Ariosto's poetic language, rendering the Italian courtier's ottava rima into an English as playfully outrageous as the original. Below is Slavitt's short preface to the poem, "the greatest cock-and-bull story in literature," in which he explains why Ariosto deserves our attention and why he needed a translation as merry and mirthful as the one he's now got.
Translator's Preface to Orlando Furioso: A New Verse Translation, by David Slavitt
In the early Renaissance, while the visual arts were traveling from Italy northward, there was also a reverse motion in which the telling of the tales of Charlemagne in the Chanson de Roland became popular in Italy. Luigi Pulci published Morgante Maggiore in 1482, and Matteo Maria Boiardo wrote two parts of Orlando Innamorato. (He died in 1494, with Part III only just started.) Ludovico Ariosto followed upon these two and published the first version of Orlando Furioso in 1516. The third and definitive edition, in 46 cantos, appeared in 1532, a year before Ariosto’s death. It has been said that Ariosto took Boiardo’s minuet and turned it into a symphony. It is one of the great monuments of Renaissance literature, inspiring Vivaldi (with Orlando Furioso), Haydn (with Orlando Paladino), and Handel (with Rinaldo, Ariodante, Orlando, and Alcina) as well as Edmund Spenser and Lord Byron, whose Faerie Queene and Don Juan are both enabled by Ariosto’s poem and tributes to it.
What makes Orlando Furioso particularly appealing to the modern sensibility is its sense of fun, its self-consciousness, its attitude toward a series of already established characters from the English Arthurian poems and the French poems about Charlemagne and Roland. Ariosto’s object is to have fun with this huge cast, with their characteristic scrapes and Perils-of-Pauline escapes, but also to find ways of making relevant observations about the trials of life and the ways in which stylistic conventions (courtly love, primarily) form our ideas and our behavior. It is also a great show-off piece, with its ottava rima stanzas that are easier in Italian than in English—but I do them anyway, because in English one can have rhymes that are more startling and impish than in Italian, as Byron shows us. This seems to me altogether in consonance with the spirit of the piece.
The great lesson this work can have for students, and the one that they probably need more than any other, is that poetry can be fun. Of all the "great works" of the Renaissance, this is certainly the most enjoyable—the greatest cock-and-bull story in literature, but dazzlingly accomplished and endearing. It was Italo Calvino’s favorite book; as Cesare Pavese observed, there is virtually nothing in Calvino’s work that is not redolent of a sapore Ariostense. Or, putting it quite another way, it is very long and if I hadn’t loved it, I wouldn’t have knocked myself out for years bringing it into English in what I take to be its original playfulness.
There are other English versions. The best is that of Sir John Harington, whose mother, Ethelreda, was an illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII. Sir John, a godson of Queen Elizabeth, is best known for having invented the flush toilet. Apparently he annoyed the queen, who could have banished him for life but, in a friendlier way, sent him off to translate Orlando Furioso, saying that he could return to court when the job was finished. She never expected to see him again. But he actually completed most of it, and his version is lively and witty, although not easy to get hold of. It is also rather . . . Elizabethan. More recently William Stewart Rose, a friend of Sir Walter Scott, did a much too romantic and respectful version that lapses, often, into Scottish. Guido Waldman and Allan Gilbert have versions in prose that are handy as trots but are not the poem. They were both useful to me, but are of no conceivable interest to a reader unless he or she is working along with the Italian text. Finally, there is a version in verse by Barbara Reynolds, but it isn’t funny enough, or sprightly enough. Ariosto’s poem is often outrageous, sometimes serious, but often quite silly, and it wants to be fun in English. The ottava rima stanza is inherently humorous. Excessive earnestness, I’m glad to say, is not a defect I’ve often been accused of.
What we have in this volume is slightly more than half of what Ariosto wrote—primarily because the production costs of an enormous and unwieldy volume (or volumes) would have made for a discouragingly expensive book, which would have defeated my purpose of broadening Ariosto’s Anglophone audience. It is also true that with nearly seven hundred pages here, most appetites will be satisfied.
Orlando Furioso: A New Verse Translation is Copyright © 2009 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.