Though I’ve previously spoken about what to look for in a Divine Comedy translation, I’d now like to specifically address which editions I consider most essential for building a dedicated Dantean bookshelf. Obviously, everyone will have their own preferences for style (e.g., blank verse in iambic pentameter, terza rima, irregular rhymes), supplemental material, footnotes, and linguistic choices. Many times we also feel a special relationship to the first translation we read, or the first one that made us fall in love with the poem.
However, there are certain translations every dedicated Dantephile should aspire to add to the collection, regardless of whether or not they’re our personal favorites.
1. Robert Durling and Ronald Martinez. There’s a reason the scholarly community considers this the current gold standard. It has the Italian and English on facing pages; the translation is as literal as possible while still being very readable; the notes are extensive and inserted after each canto; and there are many great supplemental essays on a wide variety of subjects. There’s also a section noting textual variants, and the notes for Purgatorio and Paradiso close with a exploration of how the poem can be read vertically, with, e.g., Canto III of Inferno bearing similar themes, events, and language to Canto III of the other canticles.
Unfortunately, the prices of Purgatorio and Paradiso are ridiculously expensive. I finally nabbed a $10 used copy of Purgatorio, albeit with a lot of underlining from the previous owner. At the moment, even the cheapest used copies of Paradiso are almost as expensive as new ones.
2. Allen Mandelbaum, the Everyman’s Library edition. I was very excited to recently add this to my collection. This is widely considered one of the finest translations, and all three canticles are in one volume. The notes are included after each canto, which reduces the temptation to constantly look down and interrupt your reading. There are also reproductions of Sandro Botticelli’s 16th century illustrations.
3. Mark Musa, the Penguin Classics edition. This volume also includes La Vita Nuova. The three canticles of the Commedia are also available separately, with more extensive notes than in the bundled book. Musa’s La Vita Nuova is also available separately, with a long essay and many more notes. I highly recommend this translation because of the simplicity of the language. Reading the poem in such easy to understand English after only knowing the overly flowery language and annoying Elizabethan constructions of Laurence Binyon was like reading it all over again, and finally understanding it.
4. Robert and Jean Hollander. The three canticles are only sold in individual volumes, but the prices seem rather reasonable, and it makes sense to split them up because of the extensive essays and notes. You can also read it all for free online at the Princeton Dante Project, though nothing compares to holding a physical book in your hand. Robert Hollander taught Dante at Princeton for 42 years, and was much beloved by his students. He passed away in June 2021 at age 87.
His wife Jean, a poet, did the actual translating, and he checked her work for accuracy. Prof. Hollander wrote the commentaries, notes, and introductions. However, some people have criticized their work as too postmodernist and academic.
5. John Ciardi, the New American Library edition. You can buy this in one volume or in three separate volumes. This seems to be the best-regarded rhymed translation, though it does take some liberties to stick to the rhyme scheme, and every canto ends with a couplet instead of a single line.
6. Robin Kirkpatrick, the new Penguin Classics edition. From what I’ve seen of it, this seems like a good balance between linguistic accuracy and a fresh new spin. E.g., he translates Malebolge as Rottenpockets, and Ahi as “Eek!” You don’t need to invent entire new sections and slip in anachronistic references like Clive James and Mary Jo Bang to craft a modern translation.
7. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the first complete U.S. translation. I bought this for the historical value, and because it has the famous Gustave Doré woodcuts. If you’re a dedicated Dantephile, you should be familiar with at least one older translation. Many people also still regard this as one of the very finest, despite the distracting Elizabethan language and poetic contractions. Longfellow was obviously a poet himself, in addition to being a passionate Dantephile and professor of Italian language at Harvard. He brought his poetic sensibilities and scholarly knowledge to the endeavour.
8. Dorothy Sayers, also a Penguin Classics edition, in three volumes. There are many notes and diagrams, though some of the comments are a bit dated, and the poetic diction might take a bit getting used to. However, if you want the experience of reading the poem in terza rima, this is probably the best way to go.
9. C.H. Sisson, the Oxford World’s Classics edition. It comes in a single volume, and has ample notes, outlines, and illustrations.
10. Charles Singleton, in three volumes. The price is ridiculously high, but there are extensive commentaries, notes, and diagrams.
11. Thomas Bergin. This translation, which is in three volumes, is sadly out of print, but I’m very eager to add it to my collection. Prof. Bergin was a renowned scholar of Medieval and Renaissance Italian literature, as well as Provençal, French, and Spanish literature of those eras. There are illustrations by Leonard Baskin.
And if you can read Italian, the current definitive commentary is by Giorgio Petrocchi.