The history of English translations of The Divine Comedy

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.

Why you should read The Divine Comedy all the way through (and not just stop after Inferno)

So many people have this idea that only the first third of The Divine Comedy is worth reading, and they treat it as the first book in a trilogy instead of understanding it’s the first of three canticles in a long epic poem meant to be read in its entirety. Do these people quit reading other multi-part books after Part I, or stop watching long films after the intermission? At least own that you DNFed them!

Here are some compelling reasons you should read the entire Commedia, the way its author intended it to be read:

1. Dante didn’t want his readers to stay in Hell or end on a sad, low, hopeless note! He and Virgil see stars when they climb out of the abyss, and the next leg of their otherworldly journey begins immediately in the second canticle. Dante wanted to take us into the heights of Paradise with him, even if he does warn readers to turn back if they’re not ready for the intense theology of the final canticle.

2. You’ll miss Dante’s reunion with Beatrice, one of the most powerful sections of the book. He’s not going through the afterlives for kicks and giggles. His lost love sent him on this journey to revive his faith, and possibly even save his life.

3. Virgil’s character development takes on a very interesting direction. He goes from being the steady voice of reason and totally in control in Inferno (except that one time he failed outside the gates of Dis!) to making more and more mistakes and not knowing what to do in Purgatorio. His character arc is possibly one of the most unexpected in all of literature.

4. The relationship between Dante and Virgil deepens even further. Though they’re only together for a few days, they become as close as father and son. A number of times, Virgil is compared to a father or mother, and when Dante turns to him for comfort upon Beatrice’s entrance, the word mamma is used. He bursts into tears when he realizes Virgil is gone.

5. The poetry becomes more and more beautiful as the poem progresses. Yes, it also becomes increasingly difficult to understand and relate to as theology comes to the fore, but don’t let that put you off from the gorgeous images, sounds, and turns of phrase. This is also one of many reasons you should get a dual-language edition!

6. There’s a lot of emotion, drama, beauty, power, and tension in the second and third canticles, whereas there’s not much room for most of that in Hell.

7. You don’t want to miss the beautiful concluding cantos, particularly Dante’s tender farewell to Beatrice, St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s prayer to Mary (the one who ultimately set Dante’s journey in motion), and the unforgettable final lines.

8. Though Dante was a faithful Catholic, he nevertheless struggles with certain then-mainstream points of theology. He finally airs these doubts in detail in Paradiso. Most meaningfully to me as a non-Christian reader, he questions the teaching that only baptized Christians can attain Paradise, even if they lived long before Jesus or in places like India and Ethiopia. He says righteous non-Christians, devout in their own faiths, are closer to God than insincere Christians.

9. Dante’s treatment of women, religious minorities, and gay men continues to reflect a surprisingly modern, nuanced, sympathetic attitude lightyears ahead of his time. He’s still ultimately a product of his time and place, but his overall worldview isn’t entirely tied to the Middle Ages.

10. The entire book is a priceless compendium of history, politics, religion, and mythology. There are also many astronomical, geographical, and mathematical references and calculations. This truly was a continuation of Dante’s discontinued encyclopedia Il Convivio. Without Dante serving as the historian of record for many of these people, particularly the women, even hardcore Medieval history scholars wouldn’t know or care about them.

11. You will never fully, properly understand any book if you DNF it.

12. Many of the most touching, beautiful, memorable, poignant, and/or powerful moments happen in the second and third canticles. You’ll miss them if you only read Inferno.

13. Dante directly addresses readers seven times in each canticle, and the opening line famously says “In the middle of the journey of our life,” not “my life.” He wanted us to feel as though we’re experiencing this together, to put ourselves in his shoes as we renew our faith, hope, and priorities.

Essential Divine Comedy translations

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.

How not to translate Dante, Part II

Since Black Friday and Cyber Monday are coming up, I’m looking forward to adding some more Divine Comedy translations to my collection. The ones I want most are by Allen Mandlebaum, John Ciardi, and Thomas Bergin (the lattermost unfortunately appearing to be out of print). There are also a few others I’m interested in, like Robin Kirkpatrick, Robert and Jean Hollander, and, until recently, Clive James.

I pulled up the Amazon preview of the James translation for a recent vlog which included a compare and contrast of thirteen versions of the famous opening twelve lines, and didn’t think it was that bad. But when I later read further in the preview, I discovered many shocking divergences from the original Italian, among them large chunks of entirely invented lines.

Knowing Canto I of Inferno by heart in the original Medieval Florentine Tuscan really comes in handy when deciding if I’d like to buy a translation. It makes it so easy to tell when the translator is staying true to the original, indulging in some gently creative liberties within reason (to stick to iambic pentameter or a rhyme scheme, or to enhance the emotional, dramatic, or visual impact), or just outright inventing things to look hip, modern, creative.

Mr. James falls into the lattermost category. He also employs the annoying habit I thought was consigned to the rubbish bin—using old-fashioned words like yonder, whereat, and aught else. Dante wrote in the vernacular, the language of the common people, not a flowery, pretentious, archaic, musty style. At least Mr. James didn’t use Elizabethan English like Longfellow and Laurence Binyon.

Ironically, he also peppers the text with contemporary phrases and slang, like “enough said” and “chilled with the shakes.”

Mr. James uses no footnotes, which are kind of really important in any translation worth its salt. While you certainly can read the Commedia without any outside study or explanatory notes, that makes it much harder to fully understand many important things. You can use your own judgment as to whether you want to interrupt your reading by constantly looking down at footnotes or flipping to the notes section, read each canto without footnotes and then reread it with footnotes, read the footnotes first and then read the canto, or any approach you feel most comfortable with.

However, Mr. James does manage to convey information normally found in footnotes in another way—directly inserting it into the text. E.g., he point-blank tells us the believed symbolism of the three beasts in Canto I of Inferno, when Dante never explicitly stated anything to that effect. That’s as annoying as an English teacher overanalyzing every last word!

All these extra lines serve to make the poem thrice as long.

This is one of the reasons I dislike the Gutnick Chumash, a Torah translation and commentary found in some Orthodox synagogues. They insert stories and interpretations from the Midrash right into the text, never mind that’s nowhere in the Torah. The Midrash is a collection of rabbinic interpretations, reimaginings, and explanations of the Torah, including fantasy, folklore, and politically-motivated claims like slander of Yishmael and Esau.  Sorry, nothing will ever make me believe, e.g., Rebecca married Isaac when she was three and he was forty, nor that Esau was practically Hitler.

This translation feels in some ways like a Divine Comedy for reluctant readers, since a lot of sentences are so short and staccato. Take, for example, Virgil’s first lines:

“No, not a man. Not now.
I was once, though. A Lombard. Parents born
In Mantua. Both born there.” That was how
His words emerged: as if with slow care torn,
Like pages of a book soaked shut by time,
From his clogged throat. “Caesar was getting on
When I was young. That’s Julius. A crime,
His death. Then, after he was gone,
I lived in Rome. The good Augustus reigned.
The gods were cheats and liars. As for me,
I was a poet.” He grew less constrained
In speech, as if trade talk brought fluency.
“I sang about Anchises’ son, the just
Aeneas, proud, peerless. When proud Troy
Was burnt to ashes, ashes turned to dust
Which he shook off his feet, that marvellous boy.
He did what any decent hero must:
Set sail.”

A speech that occupies nine lines in the Italian is bloated to eighteen, twice the original length!

Mr. James was a poet, literary critic, novelist, TV personality, and songwriter, NOT a scholar of Dante studies, Medieval history, or Italian literature. I most trust translations by people who’ve been passionately immersed in a subject for years, for the same reason I go to professional body piercers instead of tattoo artists offering piercings on the side or sketchy characters working out of a van down by the river.

A quartet of antique horror films

For the sixth year in a row, my yearly October salute to vintage horror films celebrating landmark anniversaries kicks off with grand master Georges Méliès. So much of the language and development of early cinema was his creation.

Released 3 May 1901, Blue Beard (Barbe-Bleue) was based on Charles Perrault’s 1697 fairytale. This popular and famous story is the reason the word “bluebeard” is synonymous with a man who marries and murders one wife after another.

Rich aristocrat Barbe-Bleue (Méliès) is eager for a new wife, but none of the noblewomen brought to meet him like what they see. Not only is he ugly, he’s also been married seven prior times.

However, Barbe-Bleue’s riches convince one man to bestow his daughter in marriage (Méliès’s future wife Jehanne d’Alcy).

Barbe-Bleue gives his wife the keys to his castle before going on a trip, and warns her to never enter a certain room. While deciding between curiosity and fear, an imp (also Méliès) appears to tempt and taunt her. An angel tries to prevail upon her to stay away.

Curiosity gets the better of her, and she enters the room to discover a most macabre sight—seven bags that turn out to be Barbe-Bleue’s first seven wives hanging from a gallows in a torture chamber. In shock, she drops the key and becomes stained with blood she’s unable to wash off.

That night, she dreams of seven giant keys.

When Barbe-Bleue returns, he finds out what happened and tries to murder her too. She flees to the top of a tower and screams for her siblings to help her.

Barbe-Bleue is slain when they come to the rescue, and his first seven wives are resurrected and married to lords.

The Devil and the Statue (Le Diable Géant ou Le Miracle de la Madonna) was also released in 1901. A young man serenades his lover, then goes out a window. Presently a devil appears and begins growing to gigantic proportions.

A Madonna statue comes to life and makes the devil shrink, then opens the window so the lover can return.

The Haunted House (La Maison Hantée, also known as La Maison Ensorcelée) was released in April 1906. Though Méliès appears as one of the three characters, it was directed by Segundo de Chomón (Segundo Víctor Aurelio Chomón y Ruiz). Señor de Chomón is widely considered the greatest Spanish silent film director, and often compared to Méliès because he used many of the same magical illusion tricks and camera work.

In 1901, he began distributing his films through the French company Pathé, and moved to Paris in 1905. He remained with Pathé even after returning to Barcelona in 1910.

Three people take refuge at a house on a dark and stormy night, and spooky things immediately begin happening—chairs that appear and disappear, ghosts flying through the air, flying flames, the house tilting and rotating, the bed sliding across the floor, a knife cutting a sausage and bread by itself, a slice of sausage moving all over the table, a teapot pouring by itself, napkins moving.

This entire film is so fun! It made me eager to seek out more of Señor de Chomón’s work.

And finally we come to L’Inferno, which premièred 10 March 1911 at the Mercadante Theatre in Naples, not to be confused with the other 1911 Italian film of the same name, which I reviewed in 2016. This film was produced by Helios Film, a much smaller company than Milano Films, and made in a hurry to try to beat the other film to theatres and take advantage of the huge wave of public anticipation. It did arrive three months earlier, but is only 15 minutes long as opposed to over an hour.

Eleven major episodes from Inferno are depicted—the dark forest, Virgil’s meeting with Beatrice, crossing Charon’s ferry across Acheron, Francesca and Paolo, Minòs, Farinata degli Uberti in his flaming tomb, the usurers in a rain of fire, Ulysses, Pier della Vigna in the Wood of the Suicides, Count Ugolino, and Satan.

This L’Inferno uses only 18 intertitles (drawn right from Dante’s own words) and 25 animated paintings, compared to 54 in the full-length feature. However, the special effects are quite sophisticated, such as the lustful being blown around and Minòs’s gigantic stature.

Like the other L’Inferno, this one too is strongly based on Gustave Doré’s famous woodcut illustrations. And while both films feature nudity, the short film is more sensual regarding Francesca.