Audra Mae: The River

Anybody want to recommend a Dante translation?

I've read the Inferno twice over the years, but not gone any further. I decided I really needed to read the rest of the Commedia and have been slowly making my way through this prose-with-facing-original translation by John D. Sinclair, which I had picked up at some used book sale a long time ago. The prose is good, and the commentaries are excellent. Nearing the end of the Purgatorio, in the commentary on Canto 29, I encountered the following pages.


So now I'm looking for another translation and am entertaining recommendations. I don't believe poetry can truly be translated, so my expectations are low (obviously, or I wouldn't have been reading a prose translation). Really, I'm just as interested in the notes and commentaries as the translation itself. I liked Dorothy Sayers's Inferno for that reason, although her actual translation has a poor reputation. I think the other Inferno I read was John Ciardi's, and I didn't care much for the verse. 


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I've read Anthony Esolen's translation two times, and I've really enjoyed it. Excellent notes too, and basic sympathy with Dante's vision.

Sayers has been criticized for trying to shoe-horn her translation into Dante's terza rima scheme, with awkward results. Esolen doesn't try to do this consistently, though he takes rhymes where they suggest themselves. In the final cantos of the Paradiso, he actually does achieve a pretty consistent terza rima, and the "special effect" works very well.

I've also heard very good things about the Hollander translation, but I haven't read it myself.

That defective book you're reading is probably a blessing in disguise. Reading Dante in prose (which is what I did the first time around) ought not to be done!

A high school English teacher took our class to see John Ciardi speak at the local community college and I am amazed that I remember the event except that he was quite a character. So that is probably why I still remember it. So I have a soft spot for Ciardi's translation, and it may be the only one I have read.

I have read parts of Sayers, Esolen, Ciardi, Longfellow (very little), and a couple of others. I liked the Esolen best overall, although I didn't read much because life happened.


Clive James did a translation a few years ago. Anyone here read it? The publisher's blurb up at Amazon says this about it:

In his introductory essay, James says that the twin secrets of Dante are texture and impetus. All the packed detail must be there, but the thing must move. It should go from start to finish with an unflagging rhythm. In the original, the basic form is the terza rima, a measure hard to write in English without showing the strain of reaching once too often for a rhyme. In this translation, the basic form is the quatrain. The result, uncannily, is the same easy-seeming flow, a wonderful momentum that propels the reader along the pilgrim’s path from Hell to Heaven, from despair to revelation.
David Bentley Hart reviewed it at First Things, and liked it, even though it has some shortcomings:
In the end, however, cavils aside, I think James’ Dante is a success, in precisely the terms he has dictated for himself. It is a long poem, and naturally it is not of uniform quality throughout; and since it is a translation it necessarily shows occasional signs of forced phrasing; and some of the easy unpretentiousness gets a little too easy and unpretentious for me. But for the most part the verse is delightful, its flowing diction often apparently effortless, its cleverness obvious but not flamboyant.

"That defective book you're reading is probably a blessing in disguise. Reading Dante in prose (which is what I did the first time around) ought not to be done!"

I disagree, because I do think it's literally impossible to translate poetry. Poetry is 50% music, at least, and irreproducible in another language. Actually this Sinclair edition is my preferred way of reading non-English poetry: original + straightforward English (prose or verse, doesn't really matter). It works pretty well with German and French, because I have a smattering of those languages, enough to get an idea of the music. It doesn't really work with Dante, though, as I don't know Italian at all. I thought listening to a few readings of bits of it would help, but it hasn't really.

Frankly--ok, let me warn you all to get ready to be appalled--I have no expectation of enjoying Dante as poetry.

Fwiw, here's Dreher on the translation issue. As you probably know, he published a book on the Divine Comedy last year.

"I’m partial to the Hollander and Musa translations, though if you get the Hollander, which is the academic standard, be aware that the notes are exhaustive — really overwhelming to the lay reader. That’s not a complaint, really, but it is to say that for someone coming to the text for the first time, they can be daunting. Mark Musa’s translation has more accessible notes — and it cannot be stated strongly enough how important it is to have good notes to explain references — but if you go with his translation, buy them separately; The Portable Dante gives you the Musa translation, but with a bare minimum of his notes. I’ve been impressed by the Durling/Martinez translation as well. Esolen’s is also good, but the style is not as simple as the others I’ve recommended. Be very careful with Dorothy Sayers. Her notes are spectacular, but she tries to make the English do things it can’t do, and the whole thing is a mess, at least to me. John Ciardi has a lot of Dante’s musicality, but I prefer the directness and lucidity of the more contemporary translations. The thing you have to keep in mind, though, is that you should choose the translation that sounds best in your ear. You will be spending a lot of time with that voice, so it had better be one that’s a good fit."

Sigh. I really didn't want to deal with trying to evaluate half a dozen translations. I was sort of hoping there was something close to a consensus favorite. I was trying to sample the Esolen translation on Amazon and had trouble locating it. Apparently it's a Modern Library book and other translations have been issued under that imprint. Someone else recommended Musa.

It's not that I don't think it's possible to make a decent English poem out of a great Italian one. It's that it won't be the same poem, and will almost certainly be inferior. As someone or other (Johnson?) said of Pope's Iliad "It is a very pretty poem, but it is not Homer."

I haven't read Dante yet but I have looked at several translations. Fwiw again, I'll probably end up going with either Esolen or Musa. I read parts of Mandlebaum's (sp?) years ago when I was in college but don't remember it enough to comment.

Here's the ISBN for Esolen's Inferno. It's for the paperback version, as the hardcover is apparently out of print.


Thanks. I'll do some looking around. Amazon's "Look Inside" feature is helpful. I'm thinking either Esolen or Musa, too. Esolen's notes are probably excellent. I read something in translation by Hollander once, maybe part of the Aeneid, and thought it was very readable. Or then maybe I'll read Sayers for the excellent notes and just put up with the translation. One wants not just notes explaining who the people are etc, but commentary from an informed theological perspective. I would miss a lot of what's in Dante without that.

I heard Esolen lecture on Dante once and it was fantastic. As Craig wrote above, he is largely sympathetic with Dante's vision and philosophy/theology -- knows it from the inside, so to speak.

I can see your point about translating poetry, Mac, but I'll stand by my preference for poetic translations on empirical grounds. Reading Dante in prose was, for me, drab. If the original poem is a symphony, a metrical translation is like a piano reduction, but a prose translation is like a mere description of the music.

Esolen's notes engage directly and sympathetically with the theology of the poem, which is for me one of the chief attractions of his version.

That's an interesting analogy--the piano reduction. On reflection, though, I don't think it holds for me. I'd say rather that any translation at all is less like a piano reduction than another composition entirely, following the same pattern of key, melodic construction, harmonies, tempo, etc., but a different thing and almost certainly inferior.

The picture that's forming here is of a need for multiple editions. :-/ One or more for the translations, one or more for the notes/commentaries.

I'm just now reading the Hart review that Marianne linked to (thanks, Marianne), and note this sentence: "No translator can ever satisfactorily render a poem of genius into another tongue." He's half-sold me on the James translation, which I have to say I would not even have considered otherwise.

I have always been fascinated by Sayers reason for translating Dante. She was running out the door to an air raid shelter and grabbed the first book that presented itself. It turned out to be the Divine Comedy, and reading it while the air raid was going on, she determined it was what the world would need to right itself after the war.

Of course, I don't think it helped much. She died before she finished the Comedy and it was completed by her secretary, Barbara Reynolds.

Some of the words that she was forced to use to fit the meter made me laugh.


I didn't know that. Either the origin of her translation, or that she didn't finish it. I do recall some pretty clunky stuff in the translation, though.

Googling around for opinions on translations, I found this New Yorker review of the Hollanders' Paradiso (it's actually a husband-wife collaboration). I haven't read the whole thing, but a few paragraphs in there's a comparison of a bit of Sinclair's prose and a bit of (Jean) Hollander's verse. The reviewer prefers the latter, but I don't know that I do. I'd call them fairly equal, really. In fact I prefer Sinclair's "sinks so deep" to Hollander's "deeply...immersed."

I think that when I was reading through Hell with a group of people, we were using 4 or 5 different translations, and sometimes read from others, so I heard bits from a lot of places.

If this conversation goes on much longer, I'm going to have to start reading the book. I just wish I didn't have to read all the way through Hell again, but I will have to.

At the moment Purgatory would seem singularly appropriate.


:-) I started with Purgatory after an interval of 20 years or so and didn't feel like I was missing anything, though maybe I was. I'm afraid it's just not possible to read Dante, at least in English, with the kind of pleasure that we get from Shakespeare. Not for me, anyway. I may as well admit that it's something of a chore, which is not to say there's no pleasure at all in it. But it's more intellectual than aesthetic.

Face it, Maclin, you're going to have to learn Italian. :)

Someone told me, and I guess it's true, that if you know modern Spanish, for example, you won't be able to read Don Quixote without help because the language has changed so much, and that it is that way pretty much across the board. However, supposedly Italian has not changed so much that you can't read The Divine Comedy.


I wondered about that. Just looking at it, it doesn't seem as far from modern Italian as, for instance, Chaucer does from modern English.

You may be right, Louise.

I wanted to post this on the 'Darkness at Noon' thread but it's closed. Was talking the other night with a friend who's an academic, and who's a fan of 'Darkness...' He recommended a similar book that he reckons is even better, 'The Case of Comrade Tulayev' by Victor Serge. I had heard of Serge before but was unfamiliar with the book.

Can't recall having heard of it.

Hollander's notes are good from a historical standpoint, but he is not religious, so he sometimes fails to make insightful theological comments.

Janet, yes, you are right--a friend of mine studied abroad in Italy and was able to read the Divine Comedy in the original.

Actually, Chaucer is not too inaccessible if you don't mind doing a little work along the way. It is very pleasant to read aloud. And very soon you realize that you understand much more than you thought you could.

True, but it is still work to a degree that Shakespeare isn't. I haven't read him since college. One of many things I want to get to but may not.

Teresa, I think that eliminates Hollander for me. The theology is a large part of the reason for reading Dante.

For notes alive to the theology, I think the two best options would be Sayers and Esolen.

Sounds very likely. I haven't had time to research any further.

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