Four Translations of Dante’s Inferno
January 15, 2015 11:28 PM   Subscribe

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita mi ritrovai per una selva oscura che la diritta via era smarrita Zappulla: Halfway along the journey of our life, Ciardi: Midway in our life’s journey I went astray Mandelbaum: When I had journeyed half of our life’s way, Hollander: At the midpoint in the journey of our life
posted by the man of twists and turns (28 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
The journey "into the woods" has been a starting point for storytelling that involves involuntary lessons and personal transformations for centuries. I've loved that Dante also used it to open up his epic trilogy for a long time.

I'm a huge fan of Ciardi's translations, but I seem to remember there was a new translation that came out not too long ago... Maybe the Clive James translation? [Canto 1] I remember reading about it and thinking I should buy a copy because it seemed to somehow capture something else entirely.
At the mid-point of the path through life, I found
Myself lost in a wood so dark, the way
Ahead was blotted out. The keening sound
I still make shows how hard it is to say
How harsh and bitter that place felt to me—
Merely to think of it renews the fear—
So bad that death by only a degree
Could possibly be worse.
On some level, I would long for a Dante translation that is similar to parallel Bibles, where you have the text running on the 2-page spread in various translations, so you can compare and contrast.
posted by hippybear at 11:40 PM on January 15, 2015 [6 favorites]

I think I know the inspiration for this post. The Mad Men episode "The Doorway." Don was reading the Ciardi translation, wasn't he?
posted by cwest at 11:51 PM on January 15, 2015

Hippybear: if you just want parallel texts, the Hollander translation is even available for free online in bilingual form! Or here, you can view everything from Italian/English to Finnish/German side by side. My first Inferno was Mandelbaum's bilingual edition, and yes, just incredible to be able to see (and to read aloud) the choices translators make.
posted by jetlagaddict at 11:55 PM on January 15, 2015 [12 favorites]

jetlagaddict: I'd rather have 4 or 6 or 8 English translations running in parallel in a single volume across the pages. I don't read Italian, but would find it illuminating to have multiple English translations for Dante running in parallel. I have a parallel Bible that has 8 different translations running across the page, and when I was involved with Christianity, I found it really helpful because I don't read Hebrew or Aramiac or whatever the source texts were written in. (Much to the consternation of some church teachers I encountered who held certain translations as being somehow more sacred than others.)
posted by hippybear at 12:00 AM on January 16, 2015

I am a Hollander advocate. Lovely work.
posted by chainlinkspiral at 12:58 AM on January 16, 2015

Middle aged, and got lost in a wood.
Dark ’n’ scary - the memory’s not good.
After three beasts surprised me
Good Ol’ Virgil advised me:
“Go to Hell!” - wow. Maybe I should?
posted by the quidnunc kid at 1:54 AM on January 16, 2015 [34 favorites]

"I don't read Italian"

Its actually pretty easy! It is like nothing but Latin roots. Read a first year textbook to get a handle on the helper words and the uncomplicated grammar, and really you can work your way through almost any written italian after that.

Obviously writing is harder and listening/speaking much harder, but if you just want to read it, its not too difficult to achieve basic competence!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:59 AM on January 16, 2015 [8 favorites]

I first read Longfellow's (IIRC, internet too spotty to search) translation with as many pages for explanations and the added context was very helpful. However, the translation itself didn't always work poetically. A couple of weeks later I came across Pinsky's version and breezed through it; he pays a lot of attention to sound and meter and it's a fantastic book.
posted by ersatz at 5:12 AM on January 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

> Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita mi ritrovai per una selva oscura

It was a dark and stormy night.
posted by jfuller at 5:21 AM on January 16, 2015 [6 favorites]

A timely post for me, as I'm currently reading Ciardi's translation of the Divine Comedy (nearly finished with the Inferno, so a little less than a third of the way through the whole thing). It's my first reading, so I can't offer anything in the way of comparison of different translations, but I appreciated this article.

Ciardi precedes each Canto with a summary of the plot, and follows each with footnotes, which are very helpful to understanding, but at the same time tend to break up the flow of the poem. I have a feeling once I finish I'll want to go back and read just the translated text itself, without the summaries or footnotes.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 6:54 AM on January 16, 2015

The Pinsky translation came out while I was in college (at St. John's in Annapolis), and he came to campus to lecture. Many folks wanted to talk to him about the translation and Dante, but he said something along the lines of "I'm a poet, not a Dante scholar." I still don't think he gave himself enough credit--it's definitely my favorite.
posted by hydropsyche at 7:38 AM on January 16, 2015

No mention of the author of this piece, Caroline Bergvall, anywhere in the post or comments? Come on.

(Yes I say author, but I wouldn't argue with anyone for choosing something more like editor or assembler. It's a gray area. At the very least the piece poses questions of authorship -- were the translators the authors, then? is transformation of text a re-origination? etc.)

Bergvall's work is amazing. She frequently works with layering effects, between and among texts and languages. Her book Meddle English is completely great, and a good place to start with her work.

Here's her page at PennSound -- good Lord there's a lot there.

My first exposure to her was this recording. NSFW audio.
posted by sleevener at 7:49 AM on January 16, 2015 [5 favorites]

Sorry, when I said "this piece" I meant the below-the-fold link, not the above-the-fold link.
posted by sleevener at 7:57 AM on January 16, 2015

Also, side note: Reading Dante. Highly worth reading.
posted by blucevalo at 8:07 AM on January 16, 2015

"When we turned thirty-five-"
posted by Iridic at 8:13 AM on January 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Hollander translation has been pretty favorably reviewed. I haven't started reading it because I'd rather have it in book form, but it's more or less next on my list.
posted by heyitsgogi at 9:12 AM on January 16, 2015

I wanted to use a quote from La Vita Nuova in our marriage vows; the most common English translation of the opening is: "In that part of the book of my memory before which little can be read, there is a heading, which says: ‘Incipit vita nova: Here begins the new life’." I found myself preferring the 24th-century English translation as featured on Star Trek: Voyager: "In that book which is my memory, on the first page of the chapter that is the day when I first met you, appear the words, 'Here begins a new life.'" Issues of artistic license aside, I thought it was a subtle way to include Trek in the ceremony without doing the vows in Klingon.

This is great, thanks for posting!
posted by mediated self at 9:31 AM on January 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

> No mention of the author of this piece, Caroline Bergvall, anywhere in the post or comments? Come on.

Likewise, no mention of the author of the first linked essay, J. T. Barbarese. I know I sound like a broken record about this, but come on, people, credit the authors you link to. It's common courtesy.

That said, I loved the essay, which I recommend to anyone interested in Dante. It's got brilliant insights, like this passage about the importance of style:
Zappulla's blank verse captures both the dignified despair and the inescapability of the lovers' situation. But Ciardi has consciously (and right down to the inversion) retained the contours of the very stilnovisti that Francesca goes on to condemn along with the elements of carnal desire that are its subject matter: the shape of our discourse embodies our situation; the way we speak issues from and exposes the fullness of our character. Our words indict us. For Dante a style is the body of a philosophical or moral principle, the incarnation of vision, and an absolute way of looking at things. What Zappulla gives is the estranging banality of Hell, the likeness in unlikeness, the sense of suffering made all the more unbearable by its near-perfect explicability and similarity to the suffering of the living. This is the Hell of Clive Barker and What Dreams May Come. But Dante's Hell is on the edge that separates surreality from sentimentality. What Ciardi gets, right down to the stylistic grace notes—each stanza's starting with the word love, for instance—is the tragedy of desire. We are always ourselves, right down to the words that speak us into being. Dante is never so convincing in fact than when he lets the damned bear witness to their crimes through the cold penal logic of which Hell is the final reduction. The logical or abstract clarity of the diagnosis is, as it were, more interesting to Zappulla than the aesthetic philosophy that Dante conceived to bring it to life.
As well as nice bits of snark like "Here and there Mandellbaum coughs up rhetorical furballs that are present in the original and that test the resourcefulness of the translator." Bravo!
posted by languagehat at 9:51 AM on January 16, 2015

> I don't read Italian,

To be pedantic with a point, you mean that you don't understand Italian when you read it. The point being, I once snapped up a cheap used copy of Orlando Furioso, and although I've only had a 10 week adult ed class in Italian I've still had fun reading from it just for the music and the rhythm of the words.

So I think you should try reading from it even if you don't understand more than two or three words per page. Italian is a great language for letting loose your inner ham, and if we weren't spread across the country I'd invite you and Eyebrows over to split a bottle or two of Montepulciano and take turns declaiming stanzas.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:00 AM on January 16, 2015

Its actually pretty easy!


My wife took a class on Dante with a bunch of Italians, who thought that it would be a gut course. It didn't turn out that way. She had an easier time of it than they did in part because she had had Latin. Italian is a deceptive language. Relatively easy to get along in, decidedly more difficult to master.

(This is in no way meant to discourage would-be readers of Dante in Italian. Absolutely you should go for it.)
posted by BWA at 10:40 AM on January 16, 2015

I never saw him cough up any furballs, but I was lucky enough to take a yearlong seminar on Dante from Allen Mandelbaum when I was in college. He was a brilliant, but strange, man. He usually wore a black beret, and smoked using a long, black cigarette holder (in the classroom -- though these were the days when you could get away with that sort of thing at Wake Forest, built on tobacco money). During his lectures, he often lapsed into other languages, which was odd at first, but eventually grew to be hypnotic. I estimate that I only understood about 60 percent of what he said in class, but that 60 percent was probably double the significance of whatever I was picking up in the rest of my classes -- combined. At the end of the year, I got him to sign my copy of his Odyssey, which had just been published. During the 10 minutes I spent in his office that day, he spoke Italian the entire time. He was always friendly, but one got the impression that he was engaged in the material world with the lesser part of his mind, with far greater resources simultaneously devoted to some arcane matter of Renaissance philosophy.

Best damn class I ever took. Grazie, Professore.
posted by Shoggoth at 10:52 AM on January 16, 2015 [5 favorites]

"All I want to do is sit on my ass and fart and think of Dante." (Beckett, supposedly)

I once attended a reading by Jean Hollander from Inferno. She mentioned that the origin of the project was when she took a fragment of the Sinclair/Singleton translation (a literal prose translation) and rearranged it into something iambic-ish. She showed it to Robert and he had to admit that it was pretty good. (Or maybe that story is in the New Yorker piece that heyitsgogi linked, I can't remember.) It's funny that if you put their versions of Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso side by side, you can see how the notes became the real impetus for the project.

I read the Esolen translation, a relatively new one (six years ago anyway), in blank verse with occasional rhymes. Towards the end of Paradiso he tried to increase the rhyming, and I think for the final canto he tried to apply the terza rima scheme throughout. Unfortunately I found the rhyming distracting -- each time I approached the end of a line I found myself wondering whether he was going to try to rhyme it, and whether he would pull it off or not. Pinsky tried to use slant rhyme instead (so I've read) and I'm curious if it worked. I sometimes wonder about translations of Dante into another language with more natural rhyming (e.g. French or Spanish) and whether it works better.

Anyway, great essay, it convinced me to try Ciardi the next time. Thanks for the post!
posted by Peter J. Prufrock at 1:52 PM on January 16, 2015

It was nice to see the Dorothy Sayers Pelican translation in there, which gallops along in a colloquial manner and which I read as a kid. Well, read Hell and struggled through the rest. There are drawbacks to reading a lot too early, one of which is shallow acquaintance with lots of things one couldn't possibly have understood at the time. I don't think I've ever seen the Sayers version praised, actually. But it is accessible.

Though the FPP is about texts, so many artists have illustrated the poem. Most famously Dore but also Botticelli, Blake, Dali and others. Both Dore and John Flaxman's curiously bloodless version are available cheaply from Dover Publications. (I can't remember at the moment whether these include the text or are all illustration.)
posted by glasseyes at 4:45 PM on January 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

Damn, should have mentioned Giotto.
posted by glasseyes at 4:51 PM on January 16, 2015

The other thing about reading Dante in Italian is, not only can you get plenty of translations printed left-side-Italian, right-side-English, but if you read it on a kindle or other e-reader, you can set your e-reader's dictionary to Italian-to-English and POKE WORDS YOU DON'T KNOW to find out what they are. I have been trying to increase my ability with Spanish and reading in a foreign language on the kindle is a whole other level of awesome! I'm willing to tackle much more difficult texts knowing that if I get stumped, I can just poke-poke-poke and figure out the sentence, instead of having to find a dictionary every three words and flip around.

My college assigned Dante in the required Great Books course, and moreover required an Italian/English version, and required you stumble your way through some of the Italian, whether you spoke Italian or not. They considered the poetry of the Italian that important to Western Civilization! But really with all the Latin roots, you could usually pick up the gist, and there was English right on the facing page to clarify. If 19-year-old dudebros can do it, you can do it!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:03 PM on January 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

The creepy professor in "The Secret History" said that you have to become a Christian, even if only for a few hours, to read Dante. Not sure if he was trolling.

Good to see Ciardi getting some love; I had the idea that he was on the outs, or that there was a faction who thinks his translation is too loose.
posted by thelonius at 1:41 AM on January 17, 2015

By the way, if there's anyone still following this thread (unlikely) and is also curious about translations of Dante to other languages besides English, I stumbled across this page. There are translations of the first canto of Inferno in German (many, actually), Spanish, French, and I even spotted one in Turkish. It's interesting to see who tried to maintain the terza rima scheme. Several Germans did, while the French and Spanish ones that I've seen didn't, though there's a 19th century French one by de Margerie in rhymed couplets. Unfortunately the dates of the translations aren't given, which would have been useful.
posted by Peter J. Prufrock at 1:34 PM on January 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

I would like to shamefully admit that I have just completed a "translation" of the Inferno into 35 limericks (one per canto, plus one).

Like the gentlemanly bagpipe player, whose virtue is to never display his vice, I will not post it here. Please thank me with gifts of money, voting #1, etc.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 7:38 PM on January 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

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