We’re at that spooky time of year again, around both the time of Halloween and elections. What a perfect time for a new edition and translation of Dante’s Inferno to come out, with its depictions of ghouls and demons, doomed souls of those whose love was tragically misplaced, and Satan himself embedded in a frozen lake in Hell’s innermost circle. With the new Penguin Classics edition of Dante’s Inferno, translated by Robin Kirkpatrick, the question arises that confronts anyone who is thinking of purchasing a copy of any work of great literature, such as the collected works of Shakespeare, the Bible, or any previously published work of literature is re-published: ”What is it that makes the new edition different enough, or special enough, to make me want to buy it?”
For anyone who may not be at all familiar with the plot of Dante Aligheri’s Inferno, in a nutshell it involves the narrator’s descent, while still alive, into the circles of Hell. The reason for this descent is a matter of speculation which translators aren’t in complete agreement with. From the very beginning of any version of the Inferno, then, if a consumer is trying to decide which version is best for his/her needs, one is confronted with differences in translations and opinions. The ghost of the poet Virgil, who authored the Aeneid, serves as Dante’s teacher and guide as he travels each of the nine circles of Hell and ten areas called, in Robin Kirkpatrick’s edition, “Rottenpockets,” though I prefer “Badpockets” (the Italian is “Malebolges”). He has to do this in order to escape from the Inferno and eventually attain salvation.
Robin Kirkpatrick’s translation has notes at its conclusion on each segment or Canto, while other editions, such as the one co-translated by the husband and wife team of Robert and Jean Hollander, have notes at the end of each Canto. Another way some translators have approached notes is Mark Musa’s in The Portable Dante, which contains not only the Inferno, the first book in Dante’s trilogy The Divine Comedy, but also the other two volumes, Purgatory and Paradise, and other writings of the great poet. Of these three ways of handling notes, I favor the Hollanders’, though Musa’s is a close second, and Kirkpatrick’s third.
Which one of these is the better translation from the Italian? This is extremely subjective, and I am not an expert in the Italian language by a long shot; but it is useful to have the Italian side-by-side with the English, to compare various versions, and to have at least one good Italian dictionary to check on the definitions of some words. Also, artistic and poetic license should be taken into consideration concerning a translator’s choice of one word or phrase over another, and the translator’s desire (or lack of same) to maintain Dante’s rhyme scheme in English or to go with an unrhymed, more directly “accurate” translation.
Now, for the answer to the above question. While none of them is perhaps completely “accurate,” due to each translator trying to follow his/her versions of how strictly to adhere to Dante’s rhyme scheme, and influential translators’ past versions which each admires or not, I will say: it really depends. While considering the versions in their totalities, I prefer the Hollanders’ (which is heavily influenced by Musa’s version); but, when taken Canto by Canto and line by line, at times I liked Kirkpatrick’s or Musa’s better.
For one example of the sometimes fairly large differences between the three, Canto V has one of the most famous scenes in the Inferno, where Francesca and Paolo, two historical lovers, are in Hell together. Auguste Rodin immortalized these lovers and many other people Dante describes in his sculpture of The Gates of Hell. This immense sculpture also contains the original versions of The Thinker and The Kiss, as well as Adam, Eve, and Ugolino. A book is the undoing, the falling into sin, of the lovers, the reason why Paolo kisses Francesca. Kirpatrick translates: “This book was Galehault--pander-penned, the pimp!” The Hollanders’ version is: “A Galeotto was the book and he that wrote it.” And, Musa’s: “Our Galehot was that book and he who wrote it”. The words implying that the book was written by a pimp, a panderer, are only in Kirkpatrick’s of these three, and are not in the Italian.
There are many good to excellent aspects of Kirkpatrick’s translation, however, that in my opinion make it still an extremely good version. I liked, for the most part, his translation of Canto 33, which contains the tale of the historical Count Ugolino, imprisoned in a tower called the Starvation Tower with his children and grandchildren in the dark. The ask him to eat them to keep himself alive, and Kirkpatrick does a good job of filling the lines with pathos: “Father, for us the pain would be far less/if you would choose to eat us. You, having dressed us/in this wretched flesh, ought now to strip it off.” Though he does not want to succumb to the temptation, Ugolino eventually does eat them, when the children themselves die of starvation.
What relevance does a work of literature written in the early 1300s have for people living in 2006? Plenty. The words of Dante are eternal, much like the gates of the Inferno (Hell) itself, which Dante writes about in Canto III: “e io etterno duro,” or in English: “And I endure eternally.” Shakespeare, Milton, the Bible, and Dante are all at the summit of man’s literary achievements. They hold vast depths of meanings that touch their readers in many ways. If you question Dante’s relevance, look to his influence on the lives and art of Michelangelo (who carried two books with him always--the Bible and the Inferno) and Rodin. Read T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, Ezra Pound’s Cantos, or Matthew Pearl’s The Dante Club. If you’re looking for an edition that has the Italian and English side-by-side, is a pretty good translation, and don’t mind if the notes are in the back of the book, I would recommend Robin Kirkpatrick’s edition highly.