The Divine Comedy in translation

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.

Wishing for a dream birthday present

Winona's Pony Cart (Deep Valley, #3) by Maud Hart Lovelace

Though this book features the characters of the Betsy-Tacy series and is set in the same fictional small town of Deep Valley, Minnesota, it’s not actually part of the series. Winona’s Pony Cart is one of three spin-offs, and the only one written for children instead of young adults.

Like almost all the other characters, Winona Root too is based on a real person. However, the child Winona and the teenage Winona are based on two different girls. This book is the only time we see her younger Doppelgänger besides Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown.

Winona's Pony Cart [Betsy-Tacy] by Lovelace, Maud Hart , Hardcover Brand New 9780060288754 | eBay

It’s autumn 1900, and third grade Winona is about to turn eight (making her one of the youngest kids in her class). Though her family are at least upper-middle-class, if not outright wealthy, she nevertheless lacks one longed-for possession: a pony.

When the book opens, Winona is being made to sit on a wall outside her house as punishment for sitting on a birdbath and getting her clothes all wet while pretending to ride a pony. Mrs. Root has very rigid, stereotypical ideas about how girls are supposed to act, and can’t get it through her head that Winona’s more tomboy than frou-frou girly-girl.

Winona's Pony Cart **First Edition by Lovelace, Maud Hart: Fine Hard Cover (1953) First printing Stated., Not Signed | Barbara Mader - Children's Books

Through the entire book, Mrs. Root unsuccessfully tries to make Winona over in her own image, and that of Winona’s older sisters Bessie and Myra. She also refuses to listen when Winona asks if she can invite more people to her own birthday party, and doesn’t want some of these other kids to come.

Mrs. Root decides there should only be fifteen guests, and chooses for Winona who’ll be there. She invites children from Winona’s Sunday school and her friends’ children, not Winona’s real friends. One of these unwanted guests is an annoying Little Lord Fauntleroy no one likes.

Not once does she consult Winona about the guest list, and claims it’s impossible to invite anyone else, since Mr. Root only had fifteen invitations made, and there are only sixteen party hats, horns, and place settings. God forbid Winona get a say in her own party!

Carney's House Party/Winona's Pony Cart: Two Deep Valley Books - Kindle edition by Lovelace, Maud Hart. Children Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.

Winona goes ahead and invites all her real friends by word of mouth, without saying anything about this to her family. Thus, it’s a most unwelcome surprise when all these unplanned guests start streaming in the afternoon of the party. A crisis is averted when one of Winona’s friends from Little Syria brings a baklawa cake, thus ensuring everyone can have a slice of some kind of cake.

Mr. and Mrs. Root have been mentioning a surprise, and Winona thinks she’s going to get a pony. After all, she’s been begging for a pony a lot recently, and she tends to get what she wants eventually (esp. if she throws a tantrum). She never knew the crushing disappointment I did of never getting a rocking horse or a beautiful redhaired baby doll I named Apricot, since my parents hadn’t that kind of money.

It seems as though Winona’s wish has come true, but there’s an unexpected twist.

A Grand Tour on the eve of destruction

Betsy and the Great World (Betsy-Tacy): Lovelace, Maud Hart, Neville, Vera: 9780064405454: Amazon.com: Books

Over three and a half years have passed since Betsy’s high school graduation, and she’s been at loose ends for some time. Early in her freshwoman year at the University of Minnesota, a bout of appendicitis interrupted her studies, and she went to her grandma in California to recover.

When she returned to school, she was overcome by depression at being a year behind her old friends. Though Betsy became actively involved in a sorority and the school newspaper, academia just didn’t agree with her. She also sort-of cheated on her almost-fiancé Joe, which led to their breakup.

Finally, Betsy confesses to her parents that she’s not getting much out of her education, something that’s been obvious to them for a long time. She only wants to write, and her parents feel a trip to Europe would provide wonderful inspiration and hands-on experience.

Betsy and the Great World: Lovelace, Maud Hart: 9780606141628: Amazon.com: Books

But the book doesn’t open with that. No, it opens as Betsy is preparing to board a ship sailing to Europe in January 1914. The story of the last three and a half years is told in a long backstory infodump in the second chapter. We also learn in this chapter that Mr. Kerr’s grooming and aggressive pursuit of Tacy was successful and that they’re now married.

Why couldn’t there have been a few books about Betsy’s university days, year in California, and split with Joe? These events have less emotional resonance because we’re told about them after the fact instead of experiencing them along with Betsy as they unfold.

The death of Tacy’s father merits a single line in this long infodump. There was a lot more time and care given to the death of a secondary character’s father in Betsy Was a Junior! How do you just gloss over such a huge event in the life of a main character?!

Amazon.com: Betsy and the Great World/Betsy's Wedding (9780061795138): Lovelace, Maud Hart: Books

Anyway, Betsy has a grand time on the S.S. Columbic, making lots of new friends, enjoying dances and dinners, hobnobbing with society people, flirting with a much-older guy who turns out to have a wife and five kids, taking daytrips to a few islands and cities along the way to Naples. These first seven chapters were my favorite part of the book.

The first stop on Betsy’s itinerary is München (Munich), where she stays in a pension (i.e., a boardinghouse that provides meals) full of people from all over the world. She falls in love with the city, and makes several good friends.

During this time, Betsy also gets $100 for a story published in Ainslee’s magazine.

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Betsy comes off really poorly during a daytrip to Sonneberg, the toy and doll capital of the world. Despite initial opposition, she manages to talk her way into touring a doll factory. After learning the doll heads are assembled in people’s houses, Betsy peeks in windows to see the process.

None of the children have any dolls of their own, which greatly puzzles Betsy. Shouldn’t they have their pick of the best dolls when they live in a city renowned for making them? But Betsy is reassured everything is peachy-keen when a little girl shows her a headless doll.

Betsy returns to the factory to buy a fancy doll she admired earlier, though she feels very silly walking through the streets with a doll in her arms at her age. She doesn’t give it to one of the children, but keeps it for herself.

She still shows no self-awareness when she decides to give the doll to Tacy’s potential daughter.

Another daytrip is to Oberammergau, which has been putting on Passion Plays since the 17th century. Betsy is enthralled by the town and how seriously people take their roles. If she’d stayed long enough to see the next play, I doubt she would’ve picked up on the blatant antisemitism built into this play until a major update in 1950.

Betsy then jaunts off to Venice, where she spends six weeks. During her stay, a young man named Marco falls in instalove with her.

Then it’s off to Switzerland and Paris, skimmed over in a chapter written by Mrs. Lovelace’s daughter Merian. So much of this book reads like a shallow travelogue instead of an actual novel!

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During Betsy’s stay in London, where she happily acquires a group of friends called The Crew, war is declared. Though the events described are gripping, there’s never any real doubt Betsy will get a ticket for a ship home. She’s upper-middle-class and has many well-connected friends.

This book is the weakest in the series. Not just writing-wise, but in Betsy’s lack of emotional growth. She never goes off the beaten path in any of her travels, and reacts with naïveté and willful blindness when confronted with people who weren’t lucky enough to be born into the privilege she takes for granted. She develops zero perspective or class consciousness from seeing how the other half lives.

Betsy also never has to navigate her travels all by herself, as she always has multiple people looking out for her. And what 21-year-old goes around telling people about her pretend maid Celeste like she’s a real person?!

BBC News | Enlarged Image

Betsy’s declaration of support for women’s suffrage also comes from out of left field. There was never so much as an indirect hint in any of the previous eight books she deeply cared about this issue!

At least this Grand Tour helps Betsy to realize she needs to try to make things right with Joe already, and the ending sets things up for the final book.

Religious minorities in The Divine Comedy

Despite my love of The Divine Comedy after reading it for the first time at age 24, I nevertheless managed to come away with a rather shallow, surface reading of many things. I blame my translation, the speed at which I read, and my lack of supplementary study materials. There’s also the uncomfortable fact that my cognitive development wasn’t quite finished, and so I was incapable of thinking like a complete adult about certain things.

One of those things was non-Christians automatically going to Limbo.

Historically, Limbo was seen as a holding-pen for the righteous people of the Bible until Jesus scooped them up during the Harrowing of Hell and took them to Paradise. Thereafter, it was designated for unbaptized babies.

Yet in Dante’s vision, we only find adults. Not a single baby or child appears, though he later affirms his belief in this second purpose of Limbo.

In Limbo reside all the lights of Antiquity, like Homer, Euclid, Julius Caesar, Lucan, Ovid, Horace, Diogenes, Galen, Ptolemy, Aristotle, and Hippocrates. There are also three Muslims, Sultan Saladin (who was renowned for his righteousness and magnanimity of character), Avicenna, and Averroës. Dante learnt about the latter two from his dear mentor Brunetto Latini, who got translations of their books while he was exiled in Spain.

Though as of 1300, the year the Commedia is set, Dante had only published one book, he’s nevertheless invited to join the noble school of Homer, Ovid, Horace, Lucan, and Virgil, and warmly welcomed as one of their own. The inclusion of Homer is particularly poignant, since Dante couldn’t read Greek. His love and respect of Homer was based on his reputation and partial Latin translations.

Dante also builds a beautiful castle for the souls in Limbo, and doesn’t subject them to any torments. They’re also the only people in Hell who wear clothes.

Through the entire poem, Dante struggles with the then-mainstream teaching that only baptized Christians can attain Paradise, no matter how righteous they were, even if they lived in a place where no one has ever heard of that religion, or if they lived before Jesus. He’s particularly upset about this because that means his belovèd Virgil will never leave Limbo.

He also says, in Paradiso, that it’s better to be an observant, committed Jew than an insincere, unrighteous Christian, and asks why Jesus’s death needs to be avenged (i.e., in the form of Church-sponsored antisemitism) when Christian doctrine teaches the Crucifixion was necessary.

This is one of those places where having supplementary study material is so important, since I didn’t interpret those passages that way at all in 2004. All I saw were a few comments that seemed like antisemitic jibes, and the deicide accusation really made me angry, since that’s the core of 2,000+ years of antisemitism and ultimately culminated in the Shoah.

BUT!

Dante also believed other things we now know to be completely false, like the Donation of Constantine, that Cleopatra was a promiscuous harlot and not a serious ruler, that Pope Anastasius II was a heretic, and that Prophet Mohammad was originally a Christian and therefore a schismatic. That didn’t make him ignorant or bigoted, just a product of the Middle Ages. He had no reason to doubt the inaccurate history he was taught, since there were no counterexamples.

Dante diverges from popular antisemitic tropes and propaganda of his era by making all his usurers Christians. His own father was a moneylender, and so were many of his friends and acquaintances. In fact, there are no Jews in Hell at all except Judas and Caiaphas. Everyone else Dante encounters are Christians, so-called pagans, and a few Muslims.

Given how almost all popular depictions of Hell into the modern era featured grotesquely stereotyped Jews, it’s remarkable how Dante refrained from that.

Immanuel ben Solomon of Rome, a contemporary of Dante who was also possibly his friend, was so inspired by the Commedia, he wrote a Hebrew poem patterned on it.

Dante was greatly influenced by Classical Antiquity, and constantly blends it with Christian theology and his own imagination in Inferno. There are many “pagans” who show up outside of Limbo, and they’re all punished for their respective sins instead of condemned merely for not being Christians. E.g., Tiresias is with the soothsayers; Achilles is with the lustful; Ulysses/Odysseus (seen above in the William Blake painting) is punished for leading his men on an impossible voyage; and Capaneus (seen below) is punished with the blasphemers because he said Zeus couldn’t stop him from invading Thebes.

Dante also makes Cato the guardian of Purgatory, despite not being Christian (and a suicide to boot), and saves three other “pagans,” Statius, Trajan, and Ripheus the Trojan. Statius, his second-favorite writer, joins him and Virgil as they’re leaving the Fifth Terrace of Purgatory and accompanies them until the Earthly Paradise.

Ripheus and Trajan appear as lights in the eyebrow of a beautiful eagle composed of souls in Paradise. They were made Christians through God’s Divine grace.

Given the prevailing attitudes in Medieval Europe, Dante could’ve done a lot worse than making a beautiful castle for righteous non-Christians, saving a few of his favorites, and protesting the teaching that only Christians can attain Paradise.

Women in The Divine Comedy

There were so many important details, nuances, and even major plot points I missed during my first reading of The Divine Comedy in 2003–04, on account of my translation, the speed at which I read, and not having any supplementary study material. One of those things I missed was the surprisingly modern treatment of female characters.

I didn’t know until earlier this year that Dante was the historian of record for many of the women who appear in his magnum opus. If not for him taking an interest in their stories, not even hardcore scholars of Medieval Italian history would’ve heard of them.

First and foremost, the familiar trope of a damsel in distress being rescued by a man is completely flipped. Beatrice is the one who saves Dante. Not only that, she sets out to recruit his first guide, Virgil, after a conference with the Virgin Mary and Saint Lucia (one of Dante’s favorite saints). Three women work together to hatch a plan to rescue this lost soul, whose folly has brought him so close to his final hour they’re almost too late.

We know Beatrice Portinari was a real woman because she’s mentioned (as Bice, her familiar name) in her father Folco’s 1289 will and in a 1280 notarial deed where her husband, Simone de Bardi, sold land to his brother with Beatrice’s approval. Historical record also shows her family lived very close to Dante’s family when they were children. But everything else we know about her comes straight from Dante. If not for those mentions in legal documents, some people might still believe she was a fictional character.

Many people in the Middle Ages were scandalized and outraged by the role Beatrice plays in the poem. Not only is she Dante’s teacher during the final leg of his otherworldly journey, she also teaches theology and knows more than he does. Many people (men as well as women themselves) believed women had smaller brains and weren’t capable of learning anything substantial, let alone being teachers. Theology in particular was considered a solely male enterprise, despite the example of many highly educated nuns like Hildegard of Bingen.

Love saved Beatrice from becoming one of the too many women whose names and stories are forgotten by history.

The first woman to directly appear and speak (since Virgil only quotes Beatrice) is Francesca da Rimini, who was murdered by her husband Giovanni when he discovered her affair with his younger brother Paolo. Dante speaks to Francesca, not Paolo, when he encounters them in the Second Circle (for the lustful), and thus gives her moral agency. She tells her own story instead of passively letting Paolo narrate it. Francesca also reveals herself as a literate woman, since she and Paolo were reading when they fell in love.

Though Francesca and Paolo’s love affair and tragic murder was well-known in Dante’s day, Francesca was only mentioned by name in her father-in-law’s will, by which time she was deceased. Because of her appearance in the Commedia, she’s become the subject of countless works of art and music. Another obscure woman rescued from historical oblivion.

The next woman to speak, in Canto V of Purgatorio, is Pia dei Tolomei, who was also murdered by her husband. In a world where wife-beating was not only legal but seen as socially acceptable and matter-of-fact, Dante’s sympathy is with the abused women, not their husbands.

The only reason we know anything about Pia, even her name, is because Dante was her historian of record.

Dante’s final guide in Purgatorio is Matelda, who appears in the Earthly Paradise (i.e., the Garden of Eden). She invites him to ask any questions he might have about this place, and explains the weather and rivers. Then she orders him to pay attention to the approaching heavenly pageant.

When Beatrice appears, she’s anything but sweetness and light. She immediately begins upbraiding Dante for his sins of forgetting her and not using his God-given talents after her passing. She’s so stern and tough, Dante compares her to the admiral of a ship.

For the umpteenth time, Dante passes out, and when he comes to, Matelda is reviving him in the river Lethe. Some people believe Dante may have had a condition like epilepsy or narcolepsy because of how many times he passes out, and how realistic his descriptions are of coming back to himself.

The first woman we meet in Paradiso is Piccarda Donati, who was forcibly removed from her convent by her dastardly brother Corso and married against her will. Yet another woman who was the victim of violence, and whom Dante sympathizes with.

Other women who appear are Sapìa Salvani (Canto XIII of Purgatorio), who rejoiced when Florence defeated her hometown of Siena, and Cunizza da Romano (Canto IX of Paradiso), who doesn’t regret her many love affairs and marriages.

Many other women are mentioned, among them Ghisolabella Caccianemico. When Dante encounters her brother Venedico in Hell, he condemns him for selling Ghisolabella into prostitution and pimping his own sister.

The depiction of women in the Commedia is one of many things which makes Dante feel so modern and relevant 700 years later, not like someone whose worldview is entirely tied to the Middle Ages.