Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Inferno by Dante Alighieri

Source of book: I own this. All three versions. I also gave away a version illustrated by Gustave Dore (to my brother), but I sort of wish I still had it. Yes, I am a nerd. 

I would have to classify this book as more of a project than an ordinary read. I read three completely contrasting translations for comparison, although I only read every word of the Robert Pinsky translation, and probably only read about a quarter of the Melville Best Anderson poetic translation. I limited myself to the first part of the complete Divine Comedy, the Inferno.

I can probably consider this to be part of my ongoing project to read the great epics. I read the Iliad and the Odyssey when I was in high school. I read the Aeneid in my 20s, and read Paradise Lost in 2010. Dante would be a logical next step.

Dante wrote his work in the early 1300s, during a time of political turmoil in Italy. It was considered a bit of a revolutionary work at the time because he wrote in the vernacular Italian, rather than Latin. It is considered to be one of the great literary works, influential long after its time. The work was originally entitled simply Comedia, or Comedy. This referred primarily to its happy ending, not its humor. It was later referred to as the Divine Comedy, although Dante himself never gave it that name.

Dante drew on a variety of sources for his conception of hell, purgatory, and paradise. Medieval theology, foreign to us, spelled out many of the concepts. Dante further drew on Aristotle’s conception of the three levels of sin: incontinent sins, where a person is seduced by his own lusts and appetites; violent sins; and sins of fraud, the worst of all. He must add in two categories of his own to reflect Christian theology: the heretics, who are punished in flaming coffins; and the mere unsaved, who reside in Limbo, outside of the gates of Hell proper.

He also makes references to figures of history and myth, in particular biblical figures and those of Greek and Roman mythology. He also incorporates a large number of contemporary figures – in essence, he is able to revenge himself on his enemies by placing them in hell and detailing their crimes.

Perhaps the most significant influence is that of Virgil. In the Aeneid, Aeneas travels to the underworld in a rather strange and haunting episode. Not only does Dante draw from many elements of this story, he chooses “Virgil” to be his guide through Hell.

Unfortunately, I do not know Italian, so I was unable to read it in the original. One of my versions has the Italian text, and I could make out some words here and there, which helped when determining which translation was closest to the original.

To understand the issues facing the translator, it helps to understand Dante’s poetic form, terza rima. This form consists of three line stanzas, with an interlocking rhyme pattern. The rhyme would be diagramed like this:




This is not that challenging in Italian as there are fewer total sounds, and many more words rhyme. English, by comparison, has a great diversity of sounds, perhaps because we have stolen words from many languages, and a rather few of them actually rhyme. Most famously, for example, nothing rhymes with “orange”.

The translator, then, has to balance the demands of terza rima with a need to accurately translate the text itself. There are a number of approaches to this dilemma. The translations I read are vastly different in their approach to the translation, and result in completely different reading experiences.

Poetic Translation by Melville Best Anderson

This book is the most attractive volume of the three. A Heritage Press boxed hardback from 1944, I found it used for a ridiculous low price. At least it appears to have been read at some point, unlike many of my used hardbacks. The illustrations in this volume are an important feature. For the first time, it printed William Blake’s engravings. I would have bought this for that alone. (Side note: I saw Blake’s original illustrations for Paradise Lost at the Huntington Library last year. Simply amazing.) 

 The Whirlwind of the Lustful, Illustration by William Blake

Anderson’s approach to the translation is a rigid adherence to the terza rima form. The rhyme is exact, and he keeps each tercet intact. In the original, each tercet contains a complete thought, with few exceptions. Anderson retains this division, and makes an attempt (to the degree possible) to keep each line intact. The advantage of this technique is that it reads as poetry. The form and the cadence remain intact throughout the entire work. The disadvantage is that such rigidity requires that the rules of syntax and the natural flow of the language must be significantly bent. Thus, instead of reading in natural language like the original, it reads rather obscurely. The language seems artificial, stilted; and it is difficult to follow the story if one does not already know what is happening. 

Prose Translation by H. R. Huse

In contrast, the translation by Huse is strictly prose. This well-made paperback Rinehart Edition was also found used for a low price. Huse translates line for line, but without worrying about either rhyme or rhythm. His lines are of uneven length, and occasionally include extra words in brackets as an explanation of a reference. This is not to say that it is completely without a poetic feel. The story itself, and Dante’s use of words, lend themselves to poetry even within prose. However, it is clearly not true poetry in this translation. On the positive side, the narrative itself is very clear. It is easy to follow the narrator’s adventures, and any unclear passages are clearly explained by notes. There are no illustrations in this edition.

The Robert Pinsky Translation

This hardback was a Christmas gift from my lovely and thoughtful wife. I have admired and enjoyed Pinsky’s own poetry, and even more his writings on poetry. (His Classic Poems series on is amazing. In addition to a group of well educated readers who regularly comment, Pinsky himself takes part in the conversation.) Pinsky takes an interesting and somewhat novel approach. While preserving the terza rima form, he takes liberties both with the definition of “rhyme”, and with the divisions of the tercets. First, he uses approximate, rather than strict rhyme, preferring that the consonants, rather than the vowels agree. This may not sound promising, but Pinsky has a real gift at preserving the poetic flow. The rhyme remains clear, the lines read well, and one rarely notices the technique itself. Secondly, Pinsky chooses to break up the original tercets. His tercets may contain portions from the prior and subsequent tercets. An original grouping may be expanded or condensed as determined by the translator. The advantage of this technique is that Pinsky can preserve the natural flow of the English language, particularly where the meaning requires additional words, or often fewer words to express the thought. The disadvantage, of course, is that the compact thought of each original tercet is lost.

Pinsky’s translation is illustrated by Michael Mazur, who has provided a deliciously dark and atmospheric set of monochrome prints. 

 A sinner in the frozen lake gnawing on the head of his enemy from life. Illustration by Michael Mazur

As can be seen, the translation process is a question of compromises. No approach is perfect. However, I found that, after a few pages of each, I was primarily reading the Pinsky translation. Unfortunately, he only translated Inferno, so if I choose later to read the two remaining sections, I will have to rely on another translation.

Inferno, the first section of the Divine Comedy, is divided into 34 sections, entitled “Cantos”. A quote from Canto III, the inscription on the gates of Hell, gives an excellent comparison of the three translations.


“Through me the way is to the city of woe;
Through me the way unto eternal pain;
Through me the way among the lost below.

Justice commoved my high creator, when
Made me Divine Omnipotence, combined
With Primal Love and Wisdom Sovereign.

Before me nothing was of any kind
Except eterne, and I eterne abide:
Leave, ye that enter in, all hope behind!”

Note the perfect rhyme and complete thoughts, but also the strained syntax.


“Through me you go into the city of grief,
Through me you go into the pain that is eternal,
Through me you go among the people lost.

Justice moved my exalted creator;
The divine power made me,
The supreme wisdom, and the primal love.

Before me all created things were eternal,
And eternal I will last.
Abandon every hope, you who enter here.”

Here, the meaning is clearer, but there is little of poetry.


“Through me you enter into the city of woes,
Through me you enter into eternal pain,
Through me you enter the population of loss.

Justice moved my high maker, in power divine,
Wisdom supreme, love primal. No things were
Before me not eternal; Eternal I remain.

Abandon all hope, you who enter here.

In this case, the quote takes up only seven lines, but the poetry remains.

Another quotation from Canto V is illustrative. Minos, the demon who sorts the souls that arrive in hell into their appropriate levels, signals the level by the number of times he curls his tail around himself.

There Minos stands and snarls with clamor grim,
Examines the transgressions at the gate,
Judges, and sends as he encircles him.

Yea, when the spirit born to evil fate
Before him comes confessing all, that fell
Distinguisher among the reprobate,

Seeing what place belongs to it in Hell,
Entwines him with his tail such times as show
How many circles down he bids it dwell. (Anderson)

There Minos stands, horrible and snarling,
Examining the offenses, judging,
And sending down as he girds himself –

I mean that when an ill-born soul
Comes before him, it confesses wholly,
And that discerner of sin,

Seeing what place in Hell belongs to it,
Encircles himself with his tail as many times
As the degrees he wants it to descend. (Huse)

                        Minos the dreadful

Snarls at the gate. He examines each one’s sin,
Judging and disposing as he curls his tail:
That is, when an ill-begotten soul comes down,

It comes before him, and confesses all;
Minos, great connoisseur of sin, discerns
For every spirit its proper place in Hell,

And wraps himself in his tail with as many turns
As levels down that shade will have to dwell. (Pinsky)

I find this to be both the most clear and the most graceful account of this scene. I am particularly fond of the phrase “connoisseur of sin”, which is a direct parallel of the original. Pinsky seems to be able to draw out these delicious phrases from Dante’s original without losing the piquancy of the original idiom.

Dante goes on to describe the sights and sounds of Hell, in this case, the punishment of the sins of incontinence. Again, the translations have completely different flavors.

And now the notes of woe begin to smite
The hollow of mine ear; now am I come
Where I am pierced by wailings infinite.

I came into a place of all light dumb,
Which bellows like a sea where thunders roll
And counter-winds contend for masterdom.

The infernal hurricane beyond control
Sweeps on and on with ravishment malign
Whirling and buffeting each hapless soul.

When by the headlong tempest hurled supine,
Here are shrieks, the moaning, the laments,
Here they blaspheme the puissance divine. (Anderson)

Now I begin to hear the sad notes of pain,
Now I have come to where
Loud cries beat upon my ears.

I have reached a place mute of all light
Which roars like the sea in a tempest
When beaten by conflicting winds.

The infernal storm which never stops
Drives the spirits in its blast;
Whirling and beating, it torments them.

When they come in front of the landslide
They utter laments, moans, and shrieks;
There they curse the Divine Power. (Huse)

And now I can hear the notes of agony

In sad crescendo beginning to reach my ear;
Now I am where the noise of lamentation
Comes at me in blasts of sorrow. I am where

All light is mute, with a bellowing like the ocean
Turbulent in a storm of warring winds,
The hurricane of Hell in perpetual motion

Sweeping the ravaged spirits as it rends,
Twists, and torments them. Driven as if to land,
They reach the ruin: groaning, tears, laments,

And cursing of the power of Heaven. (Pinsky)

Throughout the Inferno, Dante pairs the sin with the punishment. For example, all sexual sin is punished by continual movement. The merely lustful are blown about by endless winds, the sodomites must continually walk to avoid being immolated by falling flames, and the seducers and pimps are driven along by a devil with a whip.

In the first category are Francesca da Rimini and her lover, Paolo. As with many of the characters, Dante as narrator shows them great sympathy, while Dante the poet condemns them to Hell. Francesca and Paolo, despite their brief appearance, are memorable for their comparative innocence. Tchaikovsky wrote a symphonic poem to depict this episode, using swirling chromaticism to depict the winds that drive the lustful.

Another great example of this comes from Canto VII, where the narrator begins to truly comprehend the evil of sin and its consequences.

Justice of God! Who is it that heaps together
So much peculiar torture and travail?

How is it that we choose to sin and wither? (Pinsky)

Of the translations, only Pinsky emphasizes the role of our choice. The others focus on the consequence of sin, but not its voluntary nature. “How is it that we choose to sin and wither?” Just an amazing line.

I also loved the punishment for the sullen in Canto VII: they are now submerged in a bog, unable to appreciate the daylight they scorned.

The suicides are described in Canto XIII, which I feel contains some of Dante’s best writing. The Canto begins with the word Non, that is, “Not”. Dante and Virgil enter a wood, with “The leaves not green”, “The boughs not smooth”, and “No fruit”. This repetitive use of non is then echoed by the use of cred (“believe”).

I believe
My guide believed that in my belief the voices
I heard from somewhere in the grove

Came somehow from people who were in hiding places –

Indeed, the souls of the suicides are imprisoned in the trees themselves, as Dante finds when he inadvertently breaks off a branch.

One shoot of a mighty thornbush – and it moaned,
“Why do you break me?” Then after it had grown
Darker with blood, it began again and mourned,

“Why have you torn me? Have you no pity, then?
Once we were men, now we are stumps of wood:
Your hand should show some mercy, though we had been

The souls of serpents.” As flames spurt at one side
Of a green log oozing sap at the other end,
Hissing with escaping air, so that branch flowed

With words and blood together – (Pinsky)

The suicides are classified as violent sins – violence against one’s self. In the same class are the sodomites, those violent against nature. Two things struck me here. First, one particular soul claims that his “fierce wife” drove him to sodomy. I’m not sure Dante believed him either. Second, if Dante is to be believed, the Catholic Church has a long history of transferring and protecting pedophiles.

Moving on to the sins of fraud, Dante and Virgil must hitch a ride to the next level on the back of Geryon, a creature from Greek mythology, and a symbol of fraud. He is described thus:

“Behold the beast with the pointed tail
That can cross mountains and break through walls;
Behold the one that infects the whole world!” (Huse)

“Behold the beast with pointed tail, whose guile
Doth mountains cleave & valls & weapons rend;
Behold him who doth all the world defile.” (Anderson)

“Behold the beast that has the pointed tail,
That crosses mountains, leaves walls and weapons broken,
And makes the stench of which the world is full!” (Pinsky)

Another dilemma faced by the translator is how to convey the meaning of the original. This is particularly problematic when translating idioms. If I were familiar with Italian, I’m sure I could have found a few idioms that were perplexing. Even the casual reader, though, can appreciate the difficulty of translating the word merda. In the original, this is a vulgarity, and a rather offensive one at that. However, translators have generally tried to soften this word, or make it more highbrow. Whether this stems from a prudish sensibility, or from a snobbish view of literature, it is inaccurate and fails to reflect the true potency of the original work.

While sexual sinners are punished with motion, it is the flatterers that have to roll in the shit. This section is where Anderson’s poetic translation struggles.

I saw one head so smeared with ordure all,
If clerk or layman ‘twas not evident.  (Anderson)

When asked about the reason he was condemned, a flatterer replies, “To this has plunged me down the sycophance / Wherewith my tongue was never satiate.” I think this misses the clarity and impact of the word “flattery”. Pinsky’s version packs a punch:

Searching it with my eyes,
I saw one whose head was so befouled
With shit, you couldn’t tell which one he was –

Layman or cleric.
“Down here is where my flatteries , that store
With which my tongue seemed never to be cloyed,
Have sunk me.”

Also in this section of fraudulent sins is a character to appear later in a Puccini opera: Gianni Schicchi. This character impersonated a recently dead person, in order to make a new will. Schicchi takes the opportunity to give himself a bit off the top of the estate. Dante shows him no sympathy, unlike Francesca and others. Puccini, however, turned the entire episode into a rather hilarious comedy. The most famous aria from that opera is O Mio Babbino Caro. (Roughly translated as “Please do this for me, Daddy”, this was a request at a wedding I played at. The irony was delectable.)

Dante stands at an interesting junction between ancient and modern. He looks to the past, but also toward the future in literature. We now take for granted the image of devils in Hell with pitchforks. It is in the Inferno that we have the imagery appear, complete with burning pitch. Later, Dante anticipates an element of modern horror: the transformation. While Ovid wrote of transformations, typically performed by the gods, Dante goes one step further and makes the transformation spontaneous and internal, stemming from one’s own defects. His picture of a man turning into a dragon, and vice versa, is a chilling vision.

Dante also envisions the arguments put forth by Machiavelli in The Prince. Political cunning is punished as a fraudulent sin. Where Machiavelli would condone and encourage the making of meaningless promises that will never be fulfilled, Dante condemns these politicians to the eight circle of Hell.

The very pit of Hell itself is reserved for those who are treacherous. Interestingly, the center of Hell is not hot, but cold. The sinners are submerged, to various degrees, in a lake of ice, not fire. In the center is Satan himself, locked in place at the waist, and fanning his wings, which creates the chill.

Dante here uses a parody of the Trinity by depicting Satan as having three faces colored yellow, black, and red; symbolizing impotence, ignorance, and hate, respectively. The mouths chew on Judas Iscariot, Brutus, and Cassius.

Two final word pictures bracket the pit of Hell.

                        Here it was something less
Than night and less than day…(Pinsky)

And, as Virgil and Dante pass through the floor of Hell at the center of the earth, and ascend to the other side, the section concludes with the word stelle. In fact, the other sections close with this word as well, giving a feeling of unity and eternal vision to the greater poem.

And following its path, we took no care
To rest, but climbed: he first, then I – so far,
Through a round aperture I saw appear

Some of the beautiful things that Heaven bears,
Where we came forth, and once more saw the stars. (Pinsky)

1 comment:

  1. Haven't read this. I found your post very entertaining and enlightening. I think the wedding song request ("Please do this for me. Daddy") is hilarious!

    The temporary housing we are in has the most boring and interesting combination of books available to its "vacationing tenants." They have a copy of The Iliad right next to a Nicholas Sparks novel which I find mildly humorous.