In 1982, while I was a sophomore in high school, we began to read portions of The Divine Comedy. I recall complaining to my father that it was a very stuffy read, and that even when I could manage to stay alert through several lines, I could rarely decipher clearly enough what exactly was happening. When my father heard that, he reacted in a way that reflected his surprise and simultaneous disappointment – after all, this story-poem had been one of my father’s greatest literary joys, and he even knew entire cantos from it by memory.
He immediately asked how we were reading the text, realizing that there would be no way in which the class could be studying it in the original Italian. When I told him that we were using an English version, he wanted to see the book. After only a few glances, he already felt that much had been lost in the translation. He pulled out the edition which I was to rediscover twenty-three years later, and began comparing the lines.
One thing led to another, and soon enough my father embarked on a search for every English translation of La Divina Commedia that he could find. Although a few more modern ones existed than the classic Henry Wadsworth Longfellow translation we were using in our class, my father still felt that more could be done to preserve the feel of the original. He decided to do his own translation, maintaining the original meter, rhyme scheme, and meaning of the lines.
However, he soon realized that the task was difficult. Later, that it could more aptly described as monumental. Then, eventually, he was struck by the awareness that a perfect translation was impossible. Such difficulties exist in all translations, but are compounded in poetry because of the additional restrictions of meter and rhyme. He slowly began the undertaking, eventually completing “over 80%” of the Inferno, according to my last memory of discussing the subject with him – I must admit that I was not nearly as interested in the topic at the time as I am now. Regardless, during my father’s entire bout with glioblastoma multiforme, an incurable form of cerebral cancer, it never occurred to me to ask where he kept his notes and drafts of this work. Only in the months following his eventual demise did I recollect the project he had begun. So, when on March 14 I found two sheets of paper – 73 lines in all – of the translation my father had been doing, I was ecstatic. Looking over it, I believe that it holds up well to the other translations of those same lines that I have found, and in most cases feels even better – possibly because the meter is exactly matched.
These elements of meter and rhyme are an interesting quality of the poem. It is widely assumed that Dante Alighieri invented this form, called Terza Rima, precisely for use in The Divine Comedy. The entire work is divided into numbers of sections that have arithmetical and symbolic significance. The numbers of books, cantos, levels, and rings were all specifically chosen by Dante to fit a specific emblematic plan. Part of this scheme involves the iambic meter (eleven syllabic beats) of each line, and the fact that each tercet (three-line stanza) of the poem fits into a larger scheme of aba, bcb, cdc, ded, efe, and so on.
All of these technicalities aside, Dante’s masterpiece is full of beautiful imagery, storytelling, and is rich with metaphors and symbolism. It is a work that was powerfully critical of the contemporary politics of Italy at that time. Further, it was simultaneously pious with its treatment of the Catholic faith while being incendiary in its criticism of the secular concerns of the papacy. In fact, although Dante is still considered one of the most famous Florentines of all time, he was never able to return to Florence again after the publication of this work due to a death sentence issued against him by political opponents he had derided in his poem.
What follows are several sets of the same two tercets: first, the original lines by Dante, and then several different translations of the lines into English. Most are in poetic stanzas, although several have discarded the meter and rhyme. A few are in prose form, having abandoned the poetic form altogether. The lines come from the fifth canto of the Inferno, which is the first book of the Divine Comedy. At this point in the narration, Dante and his poet guide, Virgil, are walking through the Second Circle of Hell, where the Lustful are punished. The sinful souls are being blown about eternally in a perpetual wind, flying through the air in a sort of tornado. Among these damned spirits are famous historical and political figures, including some knights and their ladies.
In keeping with the spirit of all of these translations, I decided to do a version of these six lines myself, keeping the meter, rhyme, and meaning of the original as faithfully as possible. I must admit that the task is enormously difficult, and that if I were to spend an equal amount of time on each of all the lines of the work, I would never finish the translation before my own arrival at either Inferno, Purgatario, or Paradiso.
Volume I of La Divina Commedia
by Dante Alighieri
Lines 70-75 of Canto V
Dante Alighieri’s original lines (1314)
Poscia ch’io ebbi ‘l mio dottore udito
nomar le donne antiche e’ cavalieri
pietà mi giunse, e fui quasi smarrito
I’ cominciai: “Poeta, volentieri
parlerei a quei due che ‘nsieme vanno
a paion sì al vento esser leggeri.”
Henry Boyd’s translation (1785)
And still each coming ghost the poet nam’d.
To see this wreck of souls my heart recoil’d.
At length, “ O call that pair, thou spirit mild,
That skims so light before the blast untam’d !
“ Soon may’st thou know,” he cry’d, “ the tide of air
Brings to our lofty stand the hapless pair ;
Henry F. Cary’s translation (1805)
When I had heard my sage instructor name
Those dames and knights of antique days, o’erpower’d
By pity, well-nigh in amaze my mind
Was lost; and I began: “Bard! willingly
I would address those two together coming,
Which seem so light before the wind.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s translation (1867)
After that I had listened to my Teacher
Naming the dames of eld and cavaliers,
Pity prevailed, and I was nigh bewildered
And I began: “O Poet, willingly
Speak would I to those two, who go together,
And seem upon the wind to be so light.”
S. Fowler Wright’s translation (1928)
He pointed as they passed, until my mind Was wildered in this heavy pass to find Ladies so many, and cavaliers and kings Fallen, and pitying past restraint, I said, "Poet, those next that on the wind appear So light, and constant as they drive or veer Are parted never, I fain would speak."
John Ciardi’s translation (1954)
I stood there while my Teacher one by one
Allen Mandelbaum’s translation (1980)
No sooner had I heard my teacher name
Aldo Giorgini’s translation (1982)
(the whereabouts of only 73 lines of this translation are currently known)
As soon as I had listened to my teacher
naming the ancient knights and their fair ladies
I was swept by compassion and confusion
At last I spoke: “My guide, I would desire
to speak a word with those two swept together
so lightly on the wind that lasts forever.”
Charles Eliot Norton’s translation (1985)
Robert Pinsky’s translation (1994)
When I had heard my teacher tell the rolls
Mark Musa’s translation (1995)
After I heard my teacher call the names
of all these knights and ladies of ancient times,
pity confused my senses, and I was dazed.
I began: “Poet, I would like, with all my heart,
to speak to those two there who move together,
and seem to be so light upon the winds.”
Robert M. Durling’s translation (1996)
After I heard my teacher name the ancient
ladies and knights, pity came upon me, and I was
I began: “Poet, gladly would I speak with those
two who go together and seem to be so light upon
James Finn Cotter’s translation (2000)
After I had listened to my instructor
Name the knights and ladies of the past,
Pity gripped me, and I lost my bearing.
I began, "Poet, I would most willingly
Address those two who pass together there
And appear to be so light upon the wind,"
Anthony S. Kline’s translation (2004)
After I had heard my teacher name
the ancient knights and ladies, pity overcame me,
and I was as if dazed.
I began: ‘Poet, I would speak, willingly,
to those two who go together,
and seem so light upon the wind.’
Massimiliano Giorgini's translation (2005)
(only these 6 lines were translated)
Then after having listened to my mentor
mention the ancient knights and their fair ladies
pity took hold, I fell into a stupor
I began to speak: “Poet, I would be pleased
to converse with those two who fly together
and appear to float so lightly in the breeze.”