Read the Best English Dante: A guide by Jordan M. Poss (Georgia, United States)|
Dante is fortunate among medieval authors in that there are many, many English editions of his works available. Unfortunately, however, the sheer number of translations available today makes it difficult to choose exactly which version to read. While there is no definitive English version of Dante's works--and never can be, given the constraints of translation from one language to another--there are some that come close. This list points out a few of them, and also critiques some of the other popular versions available.
To help with the process of comparing and choosing, I'm including a short passage from the beginning of The Divine Comedy (Inferno I, 1-9). Dante's original medieval Italian reads like this:
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta vie era smaritta.
Ah quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier rinova la paura!
Tant' è amara che poco è più morte;
ma per trattar del ben ch'io vi trovai,
diro de l'altre cose ch'i' v'ho scorte.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is generally credited with bringing Dante scholarship to America. His translation is good for the most part, but the language tends to be stilted in a typically 19th-century way. Definitely worth looking at as a poet's interpretation of another poet.
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightfoward pathway had been lost.
Ah me! How hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.
So bitter is it, death is little more;
But of the good to treat, which there I found,
Speak will I of the other things I saw there.
The first version of The Divine Comedy I ever read. Looking back, it's not quite literal enough for my taste, but its notes were good and it still stands as a very good introduction to Dante. Ciardi's translation is also more readable than many other, more literal ones. Available in one volume or three mass-market paperbacks.
Midway in our life's journey, I went astray
from the straight road and woke to find myself
along in a dark wood. How shall I say
what wood that was! I never saw so drear
so rank, so arduous a wilderness!
Its very memory gives a shape to fear.
Death could scarce be more bitter than that place!
But since it came to good, I will recount
all that I found revealed there by God's grace.
Very good translation that balances literalness with readability, with good notes and intriguing--and often grotesque--modern illustrations as a bonus. Another good translation for beginners, though the notes aren't quite as extensive. Also available in one volume from the Everyman's Library, nicely illustrated by Renaissance artist and early Dantisti Sandro Botticelli.
When I had journeyed half of our life's way,
I found myself within a shadowed forest,
for I had lost the path that does not stray.
Ah, it is hard to speak of what it was,
that savage forest, dense and difficult,
which even in recall renews my fear;
so bitter--death is hardly more severe!
But to retell the good discovered there,
I'll also tell the other things I saw.
My favorite translation to read. Esolen sticks to blank verse, using rhyme only when it presents itself naturally and departs from literalness only rarely. Very good, very readable. Notes are good but not at all exhaustive. Includes a few plates from Gustave Dore's illustrations of the Comedy.
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself in a dark wilderness,
for I had wandered from the straight and true.
How hard a thing it is to tell about,
that wilderness so savage, dense, and harsh,
even to think of it renews my fear!
It is so bitter, death is hardly more--
but to reveal the good that came to me,
I shall relate the other things I saw.
The most literal translation I've read, and my second favorite after Esolen. Musa translates Dante into a brisk, engrossing English that matches Dante's Italian very well. Excellent, detailed notes also make this a good edition for a beginner.
Midway along the journey of our life
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
for I had wandered off from the straight path.
How hard it is to tell what it was like,
this wood of wilderness, savage and stubborn
(the thought of it brings back all my old fears),
a bitter place! Death could scarce be bitterer.
But if I would show the good that came of it
I must talk about things other than the good.
Robert and Jean Hollander
Vies with Musa's translation for the best combination of a very literal but exciting translation and excellent notes--a joy to read. Eagerly anticipating the publication, next April, of their translation of Paradiso.
Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.
Ah, how hard it is to tell
the nature of that wood, savage, dense and harsh--
the very thought of it renews my fear!
It is so bitter death is hardly more so.
But to set forth the good I found
I will recount the other things I saw.
Very good six-volume translation with the biggest set of notes and commentary available. While I generally dislike prose translations of poetry, Singleton's Comedy was good enough to win me over and the plentiful notes are indispensable for the dedicated student of Dante.
Midway in the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost. Ah, how hard it is to tell what that wood was, wild, rugged, harsh; the very thought of it renews the fear! It is so bitter that death is hardly more so. But, to treat of the good that I found in it, I will tell of the other things I saw there.
Very similar in style and wording to that of the later Singleton translation, Sinclair's 1939 translation is another good prose version, but with significantly fewer notes throughout. Also like the Singleton translation, these editions are bilingual, allowing for close comparison with Dante's original.
In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost. Ah, how hard a thing it is to tell of that wood, savage and harsh and dense, the thought of which renews my fear! So bitter is it that death is hardly more. But to give account of the good which I found there I will tell of the other things I noted there.
While not a bad translation in its own right, Kirkpatrick's Comedy is less literal than Musa or Singleton's, less poetic than Esolen's, and less readable than Ciardi's. Fairly good notes, but a subpar translation.
At one point midway on our path of life,
I came around and found myself now searching
through a dark wood, the right way blurred and lost.
How hard it is to say what that wood was,
a wilderness, savage, brute, harsh and wild.
Only to think of it renews my fear!
So bitter, that thought, that death is hardly worse.
But since my theme will be the good I found there,
I mean to speak of other things I saw.
The first two volumes of Robert Durling's translation feature an impressive array of notes, but the translation itself is over-literal, resulting in a sometimes dry, boring read. What appears to be a complete, one-volume translation of the Comedy will be released in August 2008.
In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost.
Ah, how hard a thing it is to say what that wood was, so savage and harsh and strong that the thought of it renews my fear!
It is so bitter that death is little more so! But to treat of the good that I found there, I will tell of the other things I saw.
Dorothy L. Sayers
Good translation marred by an attempt to force a terza rima scheme on the English translation. Good notes, though. An unannotated selection of 19 cantos from Sayers's Inferno is available from the Penguin Epics series.
Midway this way of life we're bound upon,
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
Where the right road was wholly lost and gone.
Ay me! how hard to speak of it--that rude
And rough and stubborn forest! the mere breath
Of memory stirs the old fear in the blood;
It is so bitter, it goes nigh to death;
Yet there I gained such good that, to convey
The tale, I'll write what else I found therewith.
A handy single-volume translation of the entire Comedy. A good translation, though neither the most readable nor the most literal, with fairly good notes for a beginner.
Inferno I, 1-9:
Half way along the road we have to go,
I found myself obscured in a great forest,
Bewildered, and I knew I had lost the way.
It is hard to say just what the forest was like,
How wild and rough it was, how overpowering;
Even to remember it makes me afraid.
So bitter it is, death itself is hardly more so;
Yet there was good there, and to make it clear
I will speak of other things that I perceived.
Translation by famed modern poet Robert Pinsky. Good enough, but tends to be pretentious. Pinksy lays claim to a subtle terza rima rhyme, but he uses so much slant- and eye-rhyme that it can hardly qualify as rhyme at all.
Midway on our life's journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost. To tell
About those woods is hard--so tangled and rough
And savage that thinking of it now, I feel
the old fear stirring: death is hardly more bitter.
And yet, to treat the good I found there as well
I'll tell what I saw, . . .