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A couple of years ago several things happened at about the same time, which changed my reading habits, perhaps even my life.

The first was the realization that it was likely I didn't have all that many years remaining, and if I was going read the great works of human thought which I hadn't gotten around to yet, I better get started.

The second and third discoveries were that new and very hightly recommended translations of Homer and Dante had been done relatively recently. So I made a little list and started reading, and in due course I got to Robert and Jean Hollander's translation of Dante's Inferno. I figured if I liked it I would continue on to Purgatory and from thence to Paradise. It turned out I loved their translation, and I wound up reading all three volumes, devoting an entire summer to the project.

I had in my possession three other Dante translations, one including some of the illustrations by William Blake, and had dabbled at reading parts of the Inferno over the years, but had never been really serious about it. But now I had a truly wonderful translation, and that makes all the difference. Let's compare the opening lines from the versions I have:

In the midway of this our mortal life,
I found me in a gloomy wood, astray
Gone from the path direct: and e'en to tell....
--Henry Cary

Midway the journey of this life I was 'ware
That I had strayed into a dark forest,
And the right path appeared not anywhere...

Midway the path of life that men pursue
I found me in a darkling wood astray,
For the direct way had been lost to view.

Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood
for the straight way was lost.

I was completely hooked by the Hollanders' very first tercet, and happily read straight thru that first Canto, and then proceeded on to the footnotes--which are even longer than the Cantos are. The Hollanders' writing method is based on the fact that Robert is a renowned Dante scholar and translator, and Jean is an actual poet. When you combine their skills you get accuracy, modern English, and lyricism. Lovely!

Furthermore this is the age of computers, and you can find all sorts of additional aids online. I would read a Canto or two every night, and take some brief notes about things I didn't understand or wanted to know more about. Then in the morning when I sat down in front of the computer I would do a search on the topics I had noted the night before. I also collected all the Blake illustrations, and for good measure found a web site that had Gustav Doré's illustrations in the appropriate places in Cary's translation. I would download the upcoming ones for my evening's reading every morning. For particularly thorny issues that required some discussion I had another resource, not available to most: my best friend had been working on a doctorate in Italian once upon a time, and had of course read Dante in Italian, and still had his Italian version and some memory of the sorts of issues that grad students were forced to deal with. So I would call him and get an expert consultation.

In his expert opinion what I am about to say next is absolutely anathema to any and all right thinking literary doctoral students: I just flat out don't like allegory and pretty much ignored it as I read the Divine Comedy. Below is an illustration that I hope will, if not excuse, at least obtain some understanding for my attitude. It is a photo of a purely allegorical statue, one that we are all familiar with, namely Justice, compared to what might be called a narrative or historical piece of sculpture, depicting Mary Magdalene in the desert near the end of her life:

OK, so it is probably cheating more than a little to compare some random modern public statue with the work of a sublime genius like Donatello, but I think it does make the point that to the modern mind historical narrative is much more emotionally engaging than allegory. Not to mention more interesting.

However even my expert agreed that Dante himself said there were 4 different levels or kinds of meaning in his poem, and that none of the greatest experts had ever managed to identify all four sorts for all the tercets in the Cantos. The four sorts of meaning are:

1. The allegorical--this was the one latched onto immediately by readers and commentators, since the Medieval Mind just loved allegory, and Dante was a Medieval writer. The Inferno was written 700 years ago, sometime between 1306 and 1315. This was before the Enlightenment, before the Renaissance, before the birth of anything we would regard as science--the science Dante knew was based on Latin translations of a bit of Aristotle, as interpreted by monks.

2. The historical or literal or narrative--this is the sense of the poem that I prefer to follow when reading it, as I like it and it is way more familiar to me than allegory. Even if the "facts" are made up, as is the case in novels (which hadn't been invented when Dante was writing), I readily enter into the "suspension of disbelief" state while reading and play along with the writer, pretending that I am being told a real true story, even though I'm not. Dante goes to great lengths to play this very modern game between reader and writer, doing all in his power to make his story "real" in this sense, and to me this is the easiest and most enjoyable way to read the poem. He is walking thru the woods, feeling really down, and meets the shade of Virgil, who guides him on a marvelous adventure. It is just as easy for me to follow this story as it is to read a contemporary sci fi or fantasy novel.

3. The moral--OK, I admit I don't really get this one very well, but I would suppose it would apply when one reads of the suffering of a soul in the story and applies the lesson to oneself and one's own life. There are some arresting ideas along this line that I did experience while reading the poem.

4. The anagogical--this is frankly incomprehensible to me. To quote Hollander: "...the anagogical sense is found only after the end of time..." I have no idea what that means, or how to apply it while reading. I suppose the old gospel song might have bearing here: "Further along we'll know all about it, further along we'll undstand why...."

These four modes of meaning in a communication were created by theologians to specify how the Bible was to be read and understood, and Dante explicitly says his poem is pretty much like the Bible. Dante did not suffer from any self-esteem issues.

Before I started Dante I had been reading the Aeneid by Virgil. I had discovered that Robert Fagles, whose translations of Homer I had just finished, had also translated this most important of Roman poems. I had read some of the Aeneid, even a tiny bit in Latin, and studied it kind of generally in the courses I took in Classics as an undergraduate, but never just sat down and read it cover to cover. Unfortunately I still haven't--I got about three-quarters of the way thru and ground to a halt during the war with the Latins. Turns out I just don't like Virgil. After Homer he seemed like a bit of a phony, not to mention something of a sycophant, sucking up to the Emperor Augustus.

I'm glad I got as far as I did in Virgil, since it really is pretty important to any reading of Dante. There's a reason Virgil is Dante's guide to the Underworld--a great deal of the structure and method Dante used for his poem is straight out of Virgil. If you don't want to read Virgil, that's perfectly reasonable, but you really should read at least a summary of his description of Aeneas' trip to the nether regions, which is in Book VI. Oh, and of course Virgil borrows his idea from Homer.... but we'll stop with Virgil. And next time we'll dive straight into Dante.

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Tue Feb 21, 2012 at 07:00 AM PST.

Also republished by DKOMA and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Thanks... (7+ / 0-)

    ...for an interesting post. I've read extended portions of the Inferno, but not the entire work (and I'm way deficient in Virgil).

    The translation I went with was Longfellow's, which is probably not the best but really resonated with me as poetry. Here's how he begins:

    Midway upon the journey of our life
    I found myself within a forest dark,
    For the straightforward 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.

    There are, in every age, new errors to be rectified, and new prejudices to be opposed. ~Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

    by slksfca on Tue Feb 21, 2012 at 07:20:12 AM PST

    •  Not bad.... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      myboo, Monsieur Georges

      I really believe translations of poetry are probably a lost cause though! Should you go with the original meaning, and forget the original "sound" (as in the rhythm and rhyme)? Torture your own language to follow the original, or try for the same degree of naturalness in your language that it had in the original language? But the Longfellow does sound OK to my ear.

      If your internal map of reality doesn't match external conditions, bad things happen.--Cambias

      by pimutant on Tue Feb 21, 2012 at 09:06:41 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Pimu I have read the entire story Inferno, (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Portlaw, Gorette

      Purgatorio and Paridiso. Italian was my minor in college. We read the whole thing in Italian and then would analyze each canto. My Professor was from Sardinia as well as a scholar of Dante's writings. At first I thought that I would not like it, but after the first Canto, I was in love with Dante's writings.  I still have all three copies, I highly recommend that one should really read it. Very enlightening.

      Another good Italian story is Immodest Acts by Judith C. Brown, it takes place during Renaissance Italy.

      Thank you for your diary, I am a big Dante Fan...

      •  Dante fans (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        I was also surprised by how much I liked Purgatorio. I got a bit impatient with Paradiso, because I really disliked Beatrice, but I was still hooked enough to read it all.

        I am also fascinated with Renaissance Italy, and have read quite a bit about it.

        If your internal map of reality doesn't match external conditions, bad things happen.--Cambias

        by pimutant on Tue Feb 21, 2012 at 11:28:21 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  how about Mandelbaum's translation-- (4+ / 0-)

    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,

    [I VERY MUCH appreciate your diary!  Ciao, bella.]

    My best guess was a reflection that did not look back, an image lost in every mirror.

    by Zacapoet on Tue Feb 21, 2012 at 07:48:54 AM PST

    •  Unfortunately I hadn't seen it (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      It looks like it would be a good one to try if one comes upon it in a used bookstore. Like the Hollanders it would have modern English and scholarly accuracy, and thus for some us, with a prejudice against "thee" and "goest" and such like, would be much more readable than the many older translations.

      If your internal map of reality doesn't match external conditions, bad things happen.--Cambias

      by pimutant on Tue Feb 21, 2012 at 09:13:20 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Dorothy Sayers' translation was my introduction (6+ / 0-)

    to Dante.

    I had read most of the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries and was shocked to discover that she translated one of "The Great Books."

    Also, as a Classical Civ major myself, I have to agree with you about Virgil; even if we're talking about Latin authors, Ovid is much better (and way more fun)

    •  Ovid (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      You know, I've been wondering who else I ought to add to my list of Classical authors I never got around to! Any idea who has a good readable translation?

      If your internal map of reality doesn't match external conditions, bad things happen.--Cambias

      by pimutant on Tue Feb 21, 2012 at 09:30:06 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I swear I'm going to (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Portlaw, Uncle Cosmo, Gorette

    read the Inferno this year!

    Now I need to go home and compare the various translations mentioned here to the John Ciardi, which is the one I have.

  •  I read the Ciardi translation in my 20s (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    pimutant, Monsieur Georges, Dbug

    which begins

    Midway in our life's journey, I went astray
    from the straight road and woke to find myself
    alone 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.

    Ciardi rhymed the first & third lines of each tercet, splitting the difference between free or blank verse & the original terza rima form, which is IMHO waaaaaay too demanding to carry off in faithful & flowing rhyme-poor English.

    Anyone who wants a further taste can find all of Canto I (with a bit of a gloss) here.

    The effort brought with it a bit of a story. In Canto XXIV & encountered the thief Vanni Fucci, who bleeds over into the beginning of the next canto:

    Al fine de le sue parole il ladro
    le mani alzò con amendue le fiche,
    gridando: «Togli, Dio, ch'a te le squadro!»
    --which Ciardi translated something like this (scusate, I didn't know I'd need the damn thing here at work today): "At the end of his speech, the thief made figs of his fists, & raised them to the sky, crying, 'Here, God, I throw these in your face!'"

    In a footnote Ciardi explained that "a fig" was made by sticking the thumb out between the first & second fingers in a fist, a thoroughly obscene gesture that, he reported, was common in Italy down to the present day.

    This seemed curious--I'd never seen anything like it in my extended famiglia italoamericana. I wandered into the kitchen where my mother (who FTR was born here & never visited the Old Country but whose parents & most of their friends were immigrants) was cooking & without thinking said, Mom, did you ever see anyone do something like this?

    She turned white as a sheet & screamed

    Where did you learn that?!!?!?!? You didn't learn that in this house!?!?!!?!!!

    (Eventually I managed to talk my way back into her good graces, but it wasn't easy or quick.)

    snarcolepsy, n: a condition in which the sufferer responds to any comment with a smartass comeback.

    by Uncle Cosmo on Tue Feb 21, 2012 at 01:48:55 PM PST

    •  Great story! (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Uncle Cosmo

      Yep, trying to rhyme the tercets as Dante does just doesn't make sense to me, precisely for the reason you state.

      too demanding to carry off in faithful & flowing rhyme-poor English.
      I think one ends up either torturing English usage to the breaking point, or betraying the meaning of the original Italian in attempting to carry it off. One of the advantages of the Hollanders' book is that it has the Italian and English on facing pages. My Italian is mostly non-existent, but I did study Latin once upon a long time ago, have been to Italy quite a few times, and there are lots of cognate forms of Latin rooted words in English, so I would sometimes take a stab at the Italian to compliment the translation.

      If your internal map of reality doesn't match external conditions, bad things happen.--Cambias

      by pimutant on Tue Feb 21, 2012 at 03:18:19 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  You know what they say-- (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        Traduttore, traditore! Poetry in particular (or should I specify the dense & multiply-connected variety that I consider the pure quill) is simply not translatable to more than a crude approximation.

        The best large-scale attempt at poetic translation I ever ran across was the 1967 English rendering of Andrei Voznesensky's Antiworlds.  (The link shows the cover of my paperback copy--yet another tome I foolishly left at home today...) English translators of Russian were paired with highly competent English-language poets--the translator would prepare a literal translation with a gloss to the more arcane wordplay & allusions & the poet would work from it to attempt to approximate the form & meaning of the original in an English-language "imitation." Still not all that close though...

        I'll have to look into the Hollander translation. Agreed, it is an advantage to have the original on facing pages (as in Antiworlds) --at least the reader has some chance to see some of what's going on in the original that's beyond the translator's skill...

        snarcolepsy, n: a condition in which the sufferer responds to any comment with a smartass comeback.

        by Uncle Cosmo on Tue Feb 21, 2012 at 10:10:38 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Just found your diary: rec'd and (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    jarbyus, pimutant

    hotlisted! I read Dante in college and would love to try the new translation which I'd heard about but lost track of (in my mind, that is).

    I love the breadth and depth of the literature diaries/series here now. What a great thing to be able to talk about our favorites especially!

    Plan to read this all later when I have time.

    "extreme concentration of income is incompatible with real democracy.... the truth is that the whole nature of our society is at stake." Paul Krugman

    by Gorette on Tue Feb 21, 2012 at 04:11:15 PM PST

    •  Lots of good books get suggested (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      I have found quite a few things turning up in the RBLers diaries and comments that sound well worth reading. It's nice to know that there are so many progressives with a taste for the classics, even for the outright antique. ;-)

      If your internal map of reality doesn't match external conditions, bad things happen.--Cambias

      by pimutant on Tue Feb 21, 2012 at 05:15:38 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Oddly my internet crashed at the exact moment (0+ / 0-)

    I was previewing my reply to this diary, so on the off chance you're still reading:

    I got about three-quarters of the way thru and ground to a halt during the war with the Latins. Turns out I just don't like Virgil. After Homer he seemed like a bit of a phony, not to mention something of a sycophant, sucking up to the Emperor Augustus.
    I'm mostly with you here, but my biggest problem is the hero himself: I can't think of a duller protagonist than pious Aeneas.  Gag me with a spoon.

    But.  There's a reason that Virgil is so highly considered in world literature; as Alexander Pope famously said,

    Homer makes us hearers, and Virgil leaves us readers.
    Virgil's Latin is just plain astonishing, and it's hard to convey in English.  Commenters love to point to the famous "Ilium fuit", which as about as terse a poetic invocation of Troy's destruction as language is capable of.  I don't even know Latin, but I know more direct quotes from Virgil ("Arma virumque cano"; "Audentes fortuna iuvat"; and though it's from the Eclogues, "Omnia vincit amor") than from any other ancient writer.

    Given what Dante set out to do, his choice of Virgil makes a lot of sense, especially when he turns reflective about the nature of language, as in his meeting with Adam in Purgatory.

    (I still don't like the Aeneid, though.)

    Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

    by pico on Wed Feb 22, 2012 at 12:10:00 PM PST

    •  Aeneas (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Is a pretty dull hero. My favorite part of the Aenied is the memory I have of a prof from the way deep South, wearing a Southern ice cream suit and acting out the parts about Aeneas and Dido. He was obviously in love with Dido and would never forgive Aeneas, no matter what.

      Perhaps if my Latin had ever been good I would like Virgil better. Or perhaps I ought to try reading some of his other things, those that would lack an unlovable hero and not have the pathetic groveling for Augustus.

      If your internal map of reality doesn't match external conditions, bad things happen.--Cambias

      by pimutant on Thu Feb 23, 2012 at 02:56:34 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

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