I’ve wondered for quite some time how Dante comes across in Italian. My curiosity was first piqued when I was reading Robert Pinsky’s translation of the Inferno a few years back. The Pinsky edition, published by the Noonday Press, featured the original Italian text on the left-hand side and the English translation on the right. A woman I worked with was a native speaker of Italian and I asked her how close Pinsky’s version was to the original. This woman, whom, I add, had never read Dante before, looked back and forth between the Italian and the English and said, “Oh, it’s O.K.” Her tone indicated how unimpressed she was by the translation. She then stared at the Italian, looking absolutely transfixed. After a few seconds, she said, sounding as if she was coming out of a trance, “That’s beautiful.” She then looked at me and said, “That’s just beautifully written.”
My curiosity was further piqued a couple of years later when I read a translation of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Il filostrato while researching a paper on Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. I had read a number of selections from a translation of Boccaccio’s Decameron right after finishing Pinsky’s Inferno, and I had been quite impressed by the grace and sophistication of Boccaccio’s sentences after they had been translated into English. While reading the translation of Il filostrato, I was astonished. Despite the works being translated by different people, I could immediately tell that they were by the same author. The writing style—the approach to sentence construction, the sophistication of the syntax—was identical. Boccaccio, it seemed, came across exactly the same regardless of the translator or what was translated. This was in stark contrast to Dante. I had scanned a number of other translations of the Inferno since reading the Pinsky and found that no two read alike. What was it about Dante’s and Boccaccio’s respective styles that created such a situation?
The answer, as I’ve discovered while working on the Inferno, Song I, is that Dante and Boccaccio are, stylistically, as far apart as two writers can be. Boccaccio’s language is very straightforward; he’s a very literal-minded writer. Dante, at least in the Commedia, is not. He blurs physical and metaphysical descriptions with abandon; he manages to be both literal and allegorical simultaneously. His writing, if one translates it directly into English, comes across as goofily arch.
In Italian, though, Dante makes it work and extraordinarily well. In my tutoring, one student I worked with had just a phenomenal sense of rhythm in his prose. His problem was that he crafted arguments very shoddily. For the longest time, he’d been able to get away with it; his prose style had allowed him to bluff his way past his teachers. But then he came to a teacher who was oblivious to everything but the quality of the argument. It was my job to help the kid get the arguments in his papers organized. Dante reminds me quite a bit of this student. His Italian allows him to get past a literal-minded reader’s dubiousness towards the mixing of the physical and metaphysical in his lines. When spoken aloud, the rhythms of the poem are so strong that they can transfix a listener who doesn’t understand a word of Italian. Dante employs a poetic form called terza rima: lines ten syllables long are organized into a rhyme scheme of ababcbcdcded and so on. The lines, aided by the heavy reliance on vowels in Italian words (and, of course, Dante’s extraordinary command of his language), barrel forth with a momentum unlike anything else in literature. (There are only three English-language writers who can generate rhythms with anywhere near the force of Dante’s: John Milton, in Paradise Lost and other works; Herman Melville, in the more ecstatic passages of Moby-Dick; and Henry Miller, during his better automatist flights in Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. And neither writer can manage it as consistently—or as elegantly.) Dante’s rhythms overwhelm an audience’s skepticism; the lines make one feel as if one is riding a never-ending wave.
(Terza rima is far more suited to Italian than English. As noted, Italian words rely heavily on vowels for their sound; English words are more notable for their consonants. Italian is melodic; English is percussive. As such, English sounds flatter than Italian; its rhythms are much less imposing. The most notable terza rima poem in English, Shelley’s "Ode to the West Wind," is lovely, but its tempos have nothing of the aggressiveness of its Italian counterpart.)
A translator of Dante can’t even hope to approximate the momentum of the original poem. Furthermore, a translator is faced with the problem of reader disbelief that Dante used terza rima structure to solve. A faithful translation of the poem is a near-impossibility; the task of rendering Dante’s lines in English pushes a translator’s ingenuity to its limits. Creative license is a necessity, which is why no two translations are alike.
While working on my own translation, I consulted the efforts of the three most accomplished American poets to try their hand at the poem: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Ciardi, and Robert Pinsky. Each takes a different approach. Longfellow attempts a line-by-line translation, relying on the language of the King James Version of the Bible (lots of thees and thys and thous, among other things) to aid the reader in the suspension of disbelief. The idea, I think, is that if the poem sounds appropriately dignified, the reader won’t balk at the constant shift between literal and metaphysical meaning in the lines. Longfellow provides the most faithful translation of the three, but, sadly, it is also the most pretentious. I didn’t much care for the Pinsky translation when I read it a few years ago, and, looking at it now, I think it’s an ambitious failure. Pinsky attempts to get the feel of terza rima across in his rendering by using rhyming and semi-rhyming consonantal syllables at the end of lines. The strategy backfires: The rhythms in his treatment proceed by fits and starts; the result is a homely, uncomfortable mess of a read. The heavy rewriting to which he subjects Dante’s stanzas compounds Pinsky’s failure. If one isn’t going to be faithful to the wording of the original poem, and one can’t provide an acceptable flow for the lines, then what’s the point? In Ciardi's translation, he takes considerable license with Dante’s wording as well (most of the more conspicuous flourishes in his treatment are original to him) but he makes the poem his own. The result is about three-quarters Dante and one-quarter Ciardi. The relationship of Ciardi’s translation to the Dante is a bit like the relationship of the Miles Davis-Gil Evans Porgy and Bess to Gershwin’s original. It’s not what the original creator intended, but it’s a damned fine piece of work. Ciardi even provides something of an approximation to the terza rima structure. The first and third lines of the stanzas (all of them tercets) are rhymed.
For my part, I have opted to forgo any attempt at approximating Dante’s terza rima. The poem is presented in three-line stanzas of free verse. I’ve remained faithful to Dante’s lines; each one in my rendering reflects, to a greater or lesser degree, the exact meaning of the original. None of the stanzas are reorganized for the purposes of clarity. This is the most faithful English translation I can muster.