As of 2021, Dante’s magnum opus has been translated into English (both in full and part) over 100 times, in a variety of styles (terza rima, blank verse in iambic pentameter, prose, dummy terza rima, quatrains, Spenserian stanzas, blank terzine, irregular rhymes, and many more). These translations, from 1782 till today, also come with a range of linguistic choices.
But which one would you feel most comfortable reading?
The best-known and most popular translations seem to be:
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1867)
Charles Eliot Norton (1901–02)
Laurence Binyon (1933–43)
Thomas G. Bergin (1948–54)
Dorothy Sayers (1949–62; translation completed by Barbara Reynolds after Ms. Sayers’s 1957 death)
John Ciardi (1954, 1961, 1970)
Mark Musa (1971, 1981, 1984)
Charles S. Singleton (1970–91)
Allen Mandelbaum (1980–84)
C.H. Sisson (1981)
Peter Dale (1996)
Robert Durling and Ronald Martinez (1997, 2004, 2013) (considered by many to be the current gold standard)
Robert and Jean Hollander (2000–07)
Anthony Esolen (2002–04)
Robin Kirkpatrick (2006–07)
Clive James (2013)
There are also some popular standalones, like Robert Pinsky’s Inferno (1995) and W.S. Merwin’s Purgatorio (2000).
One thing you have to contend with in many older translations, like the above-pictured Longfellow, are faux-archaisms, poetic diction, obsolete words, and Elizabethan language. This was a huge problem for me when I read Laurence Binyon’s translation, since I was constantly mentally translating it to modern English.
I would NOT recommend a translation in this style if it’s your first reading, unless you’re extremely familiar with that type of language. It’s one thing if you’re only reading a short poem, but stretched out over 14,233 lines, it can feel very distracting, and you may pay more attention to the dated language than the actual content. I missed quite a few things the first time around for that very reason!
Another thing to keep in mind when reading a translation by someone who was/is a poet in his/her own right, like Longfellow or Sayers, is that you’re not just reading Dante, you’re reading that translator’s poetry. They inevitably put their own creative spin on it, beyond just word choices and form.
Talk about night and day! Reading Mark Musa’s translation, pictured above, was almost like reading it for the very first time all over again, since it’s in plain English and not gut-loaded with words like havest, thine, doth, thy, ye, maketh, wouldst, wert, and e’er! I could actually focus on the details, not just the big picture. While there are some things he doesn’t translate accurately, I’ll take that any day over an edition trying to make Dante sound like the King James Bible.
And speaking of accurate translation, there can be such a thing as too nitpicky and word-by-word. Some people have criticised the Hollanders’ translation for this reason. Being too literal and exact all the time can result in stilted, dry language, just as being too poetic and using lots of faux-archaisms can obscure the meaning and sound confusing.
Sometimes a less than accurate rendering of a word or phrase, or a creative interpretation of it, is better at conveying its emotional or visual intention.
I highly recommend a translation with the original Italian on facing pages. It’s nice to compare, and if you’re interested in learning the language, it’s a great way to get some personally meaningful immersion. While it’s similar to reading The Canterbury Tales in Medieval English, you can understand a lot.
And if you already know some Italian, or a similar language like Spanish or Latin, you can gauge the accuracy of translation. There will be some words and phrases which were obviously rendered totally differently.
Many older translations use euphemisms for coarse language, leave it out entirely, or indicate it with a long dash. The lower we go in Hell, the earthier the language becomes. If you look at the original Italian, you won’t find words like filthy, rump, make wind, and excrement!
Although it is kind of funny how, when Agnèl the thief is being turned into a snake, the phrase “the member man conceals” is used. In the words of The Rap Critic, “Don’t you think it’s a bit late to start censoring yourself?”
It’s best to find a translation with lots of explanatory notes and supplementary essays, not just footnotes and intro summaries to each canto. My first translation lacked this, and since I wasn’t doing any outside study, it made it even harder for me to understand a lot of important details.
I put most trust in translations by scholars of Dante studies, Italian language and literature, Medieval history, and similar fields. Mere English professors and poets tend not to have the kind of depth required for a great translation and supplemental material. Their notes tend to be rather inadequate, even if the translation itself is pretty good.
Anthony Esolen also makes homophobic comments in his notes, in comparison to how Dante’s view of homosexuality is much more nuanced and sympathetic.
The consensus among most modern Dante scholars seems to be that terza rima is too complex to accurately reproduce in English. Sure many translators have done it, and made it sound nice, but there are necessarily taken liberties to ensure everything rhymes. E.g., words and phrases are inserted which appear nowhere in the original text, lines are put in a different order, word order is switched, forced rhyme schemes are employed.
The only times Dante’s terza rima works in English is when he rhymes Christ with itself, and in manna-Anna-Hosanna.
Blank verse in iambic pentameter and prose tend to read best. John Ciardi’s dummy terza rima translation is also highly-regarded.
Don’t make the mistake of just grabbing the first or cheapest translation you see at the bookstore or library. Compare and contrast a few to see which reads best for you, and which has the best supplementary material. It’s also nice to find an edition with Gustave Doré’s famous woodcuts.
This isn’t a one and done book. Many people have multiple translations, since they all bring something different to the story. If you read it years ago in a really old or bad translation, there’s no time like the present to experience this amazing otherworldly journey with a more modern edition.