Though Dante’s magnum opus made him a celebrity in his own lifetime, and lectures and classes were widespread almost immediately after its completion, it took quite some time for the poem to be translated into English. In fact, it wasn’t until 1782 that the first known partial translation was published. Meanwhile, full translations in Latin, French, Spanish, and a few other European languages had existed for years.
Dante’s obscurity in the Anglophone world continued into the late 18th century. He was also barely known in Germany, and there was a general dearth of translations beyond the original standards.
And why might that be?
Though much of Dante’s poem can be read in a universalist way, with lessons people of all faiths or of no faith can relate to in their own way, there’s no getting around the fact that he was a devout Catholic, and thus heavily featured Catholic theology, particularly in Paradiso. The countries where his poem languished in obscurity were primarily Protestant.
Thus, Dante was seen as distasteful, heretical, and uninteresting. His frequent incorporation of Classical Antiquity didn’t help his reputation either.
In 1782, British art collector Charles Rogers anonymously published a blank verse translation of Inferno. A full translation in rhymed six-line stanzas was done by Irish cleric Henry Boyd between 1785–1802, with essays, notes, and illustrations.
Probably the best-known early translation, which is still in print, was done by Rev. Henry Francis Cary from 1805–14. Rev. Cary was a British writer who studied French and Italian literature at Oxford. Because his version of Inferno had been a failure, he had to publish the entire poem at his own expense.
Irish poet Thomas More alerted poet Samuel Rogers to the translation, and Mr. Rogers made some additions to an Edinburgh Review article written by Italian writer Ugo Foscolo, who was then living in London. Samuel Taylor Coleridge also praised the translation in a Royal Institution lecture.
From that point on, Rev. Cary’s work shot to popularity and went through four editions in his lifetime.
Seventeen more translations followed, both full and partial, including the first by a woman, Claudia Hamilton Ramsay. The only U.S. translation, by poet and dentist Thomas William Parsons starting in 1843, consisted of Inferno, two-thirds of Purgatorio, and fragments of Paradiso.
Then came the 1867 version by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the first full U.S. translation, which is still considered by many to be one of the very best. Longfellow, the most popular poet of his era, was a hyperpolyglot who taught modern languages including Italian at Harvard.
To make his translation as perfect as possible, Longfellow hosted a Dante Club at his house every Wednesday starting in 1864. Among the regular guests was Charles Eliot Norton, who later did his own translation. This club later became the Dante Society of America.
Longfellow also made pilgrimage Dante’s tomb in Ravenna during the 1865 celebration of his 600th birthday.
Twenty more translations followed during the remainder of the 19th century. This revived interest in Dante in the Anglophone world included a great many artworks, primarily by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Whereas statues and paintings had traditionally depicted him with a stern, hatchet face and aquiline nose, these new artistic treatments gave him a warm, even romantic look.
Scores of translations were published during the 20th century, with at least five in every decade. The only exception was during WWII, when production of everything not war-related entirely ceased or crawled along at a snail’s pace. In 1948, the translation industry sprang back to life.
In 1966, Gilbert Cunningham published a two-volume critical biography of all known English translations up to that time. He singled out Joseph Hume’s 1812 blank verse Inferno and Patrick Bannerman’s 1850 complete translation in irregular rhyme as the absolute worst.
The bulk of all these translations have been done by poets, English professors, literary critics, clergy, and people who studied languages. The devoted Dante scholars and Medievalists have been few and far between. Barely any of them had any Italian heritage or expertise in Italian studies either.
Thus, most translations were done in terza rima, irregular rhymes, Spenserian stanzas, quatrains, rhymed six-line stanzas, and several other poetic styles. And until at least the 1930s, many of these editions also featured dated poetic contractions (e’er, o’er, e’en, lov’d, ne’er, to’ards), poetic diction putting words in a nonintuitive order, and Elizabethan English trying to make Dante sound like Shakespeare.
Today the consensus among Dante scholars has completely shifted, and terza rima is seen as too complex to accurately reproduce in English without taking significant linguistic liberties. Translations of all premodern works are also now done in modern standard English instead of forcing an old form of English on languages that never had equivalent grammar and pronouns.
Shakespeare might be a bit difficult to read because he used a different form of our language, but I don’t mind those challenges, since that’s how he actually wrote. Dante wrote in the vernacular, the language of the common people. Rendering his work with words like wouldst, thou, havest, doth, wert, wast, shalt, e’er, o’er, saith, and thy not only misrepresents him, it’s also very distracting and annoying to the average modern reader.
Another thing to keep in mind with old translations is the handling of coarse language. Many times they indicate vulgar words or sentences with long dashes, or leave it out entirely. Others dance around it with euphemisms like “make wind,” “rump,” and “filthy.” That kind of misses the point, since Dante deliberately uses worse and worse language the lower we get in Hell. And who expects Hell to be a place of beautiful poetry?
The only antique translations still in print I’m aware of are Longfellow and Rev. Cary. Not even the average used bookstore is likely to have the others, though a good antiquarian bookseller might have a few in stock. Many 20th century translations are also now out of print.
The most popular and easy to find currently seem to be Mark Musa, John Ciardi, Dorothy Sayers, Allen Mandelbaum, Robert and Jean Hollander, Robin Kirkpatrick, Robert Durling, C.H. Sisson, and Anthony Esolen. There are also popular standalones like Robert Pinsky’s Inferno and W.S. Merwin’s Purgatorio.
Today there are more translations than you can shake a stick at, and the volume grows each year. Perhaps someday we’ll find the elusive unicorn, a terza rima translation that manages to be both linguistically accurate and true to the poetic original without taking any liberties.
And always keep in mind that not all translations are created equal. You don’t want to just grab the first or cheapest one you see. Take some time comparing and contrasting, and make sure your edition has lots of good supplemental material. If you’re building a collection, you also don’t want to mindlessly buy every translation you find either. Quality over quantity.