Why you should read The Divine Comedy in Italian

Note: Many of these points can be tweaked to apply to foreign language works in general.

While I doubt many people learn another language simply to read one book, there really is no experience quite like reading a work in its original language. And if you’re a Dantista, be you autodidactic like I am or professionally trained with a Ph.D., odds are good you’ll want to read the Commedia in Italian. Who cares if it’s not widely seen as a “useful” language like Spanish, French, German, Arabic, or Chinese? You should learn a language because you genuinely want to, other people’s opinions be damned.

However, one need not become fluent in Italian prior to reading or rereading the book, take formal classes, or do self-study. All one needs to do is get an edition with side-by-side Italian and English. Maybe you want to read each canto in English first, then Italian, or vice versa. Or do it tercet by tercet. Maybe even be bold and read the entire book in Italian first, or just listen to someone reading it in Italian.

This is what personally meaningful immersion is all about, something many foreign language teachers don’t understand. It’s easier to learn a language if one truly enjoys it instead of treating it like an obligatory academic requirement. While I studied Italian my senior year of high school, and studied the very similar Spanish for seven years, starting to read and memorize the Commedia in its original language has already begun working wonders on my language skills. I recognize verb forms and cognates, and can match Italian words with their English translations.

The more you immerse yourself in a language, the more you begin to naturally understand. After a certain point, you’ll rely less and less on the English side or looking words up. And then one day, you find yourself speaking, reading, and/or writing in that language as though you were always fluent.

Even the best translations will never be 100% accurate to the Italian original. E.g., Dante uses a lot of R sounds to evoke the feeling of dried, twisted tree branches in the Wood of the Suicides, and he uses many L sounds to evoke the running water near Geryon. It’s impossible to translate that into English without taking multiple linguistic liberties.

Another example is Canto XII of Purgatorio, where four tercets in a row start with the word Vedea (I saw), the next four start with the poetic one-letter word O (no translation needed!), and the next four start with Mostrava (showed, depicted, displayed). In many manuscripts until about the late 18th century, the letters U and V were printed or written interchangeably. Thus, Dante is spelling out the word uom (man, in the old-fashioned generic sense to refer to all humans).

Some translators have ambitiously risen to the challenge and spelt out MAN in English, with phrasing like “My eyes beheld,” “Ah,” and “Now was shown,” but again, that requires linguistic liberties. All translations (of any book or poem) do this to some degree, but it just looks and feels more impressive and emotional in the original.

When you have a side-by-side edition, it’s easier to discern when and where the translator took liberties, even if you’re not fluent in Italian. It’ll be obvious when entire big sections of lines are invented, when things are put in the wrong order, and when words are translated inaccurately. E.g., some translators translate the line “And like one with laboured breath” as “like a swimmer with laboured breath,” or simply as “And like a swimmer” in Canto I of Inferno.

I understand the reason for this, given the following lines where Dante compares himself to being released from the perilous waters of the deep to the shore, but again, it’s not helpful if you’re serious about learning Italian and having an accurate of a translation as possible.

Since starting my memorization journey in March, I feel much closer to Dante. He’s always been the only one of my fave writers who’s always felt like a dear, personal friend instead of just someone I deeply admire and/or would love to spend a few days talking with, but reading and learning his words in his native tongue made our suprarational connection even stronger.

When you read a book, story, poem, or play untranslated, you’re reading it exactly as the author wrote it, not someone else’s presentation of it in another language. So many words and phrases can’t be fully expressed in translation, and it just feels more emotional, evocative, expressive, beautiful, haunting, intense. Something is always lost in translation.

While you can understand many things and learn a lot of Italian from reading the original, it’s still in Medieval Florentine Tuscan, not modern standard Italian. Granted, modern Italian is strongly based upon Florentine Tuscan due to how many literary lights used it, but they’re not one and the same.

Open a new document, set the language to Italian, and type out a canto. You’ll see which words are flagged as misspellings and autocorrected, and which words pass recognition. Most of the differences aren’t that great, and if you already know Italian, you can figure out what a lot of the unfamiliar words mean based on context and similar spellings.

Basically, it’s equivalent to reading The Canterbury Tales in Middle English, with far fewer spelling differences.

Learning another language gives us a passport to another world. Who better to learn Italian with than the Supreme Poet?

One thought on “Why you should read The Divine Comedy in Italian

  1. Pingback: Why everyone should read The Divine Comedy – Welcome to My Magick Theatre

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