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.

My Dantean memorization journey

This is how it all began in March 2021. Initially I only planned to learn the first twelve lines of Canto I of Inferno in the original Italian, to match what I’ve known in English for years. Then I worked on memorizing six lines from Paradiso, and returned to Inferno I in April.

However, I still didn’t intend to memorize the entire 136 lines, just another nine. I felt Line 21 ends on a nice cliffhanger, “The night I had endured with such anguish,” La notte ch’i’ passai con tanta pieta. I also thought it would be really cool to do a video of myself reciting them for National Poetry Month.

You know what they say about the best-laid plans of men and men (and women). Though I finished memorizing those lines by the last day of April, I hadn’t 100% mastered them, and I felt it weren’t enough of a challenge. Why quit so soon into the canto? Go big or go home!

The very next day, I memorized four more lines like lightning. Writing them out longhand was such a huge help, since I was able to mentally picture the words in my own writing when I got stuck. Skimming over the next lines before I began working on them also helped them to come faster when it was time.

Several times along the way, I hit humps and had to spend an extra few days working on tercets, lines, or groups of tercets or lines. It wasn’t so much that the words weren’t sticking, but rather that I was hitting the kind of mental wall many people face when learning new information. Only after you’ve cleared the wall can you continue.

Other times I had difficulty mastering the latest section or tercet because the words seemed too similar too close together. Obviously, not super-common words like che, non, and poi, but like in the above example, di sua vista and ne la sua. Or I just felt overwhelmed by all the lines I had to learn and how many I had to keep fresh in the memory bank while constantly adding new ones. The first half or so of this page was one of my humps, and the first major one since the beginning.

This page, and the end of the previous page, went super-fast, since I already knew those 18 lines in English, when Virgil shows up. Though I only knew up to the end of Virgil’s opening lines, the next few tercets came really quickly by association. I don’t think any other parts of Canto I flew into my personal hard drive that swiftly!

There were a few more humps on this page, by which point I was over the halfway mark. Things were starting to get real by now. I often had the feeling of, “I can’t really keep going, can I? I already know so many lines, and there are so many more yet to learn!”

The final tercets also came very fast, since I’d listened so many times to the overrated Roberto Benigni’s recitation and said what I knew along with him. I was so familiar with the concluding lines, I almost knew them even before I properly learnt them. I also knew the final line long before I reached that point, so the penultimate line was truly the last line I learnt.

Constant practice and repetition made sure every line went from short-term memory to long-term memory to permanent memory. I often said them to myself at night while going to bed, and not infrequently fell asleep in the middle after a certain point. Dante’s words were the last thing in my brain when it switched out of waking consciousness.

I also frequently said them to myself while swimming, or out loud softly while waiting for my sunscreen to set when I was alone at the pool.

Near the end of memorizing Canto I, I decided to go big or go home in an even greater way and learn the entire Commedia. After all, plenty of Italians throughout history have done just that, without even seeing it written down. Many other people have also known many cantos by heart.

The first tercet of Canto II went really fast, but then I hit another wall, and decided to just focus on perfecting my recitation of Canto I before jumping right into another huge challenge. It’s the same reason it’s best to rest for awhile after finishing a long book (either writing or reading) instead of immediately beginning the next. Everyone needs down time between climbing mountains.

This is everything I know to date, the first 45 lines of Canto II. As aforementioned, they came much slower than most of Canto I, since my top priority was ensuring mastery of Canto I for my recitation video on Dante’s 700th Jahrzeit (death anniversary) on 13/14 September.

Now that that’s past, I can finally begin making up for lost time on Canto II. I hope to have it completed and mastered by my birthday (either the English or Hebrew date) in December.

Oh, and if you can’t read my handwriting just because it’s in cursive, that’s a sad indictment of the current educational system.

Reading The Divine Comedy as a non-Christian

Though Dante intended his magnum opus as primarily the story of his spiritual reformation and redemption, and presumed most of his readers would be Christians or future converts, you truly don’t have to share that religion to enjoy it. Many of the themes and lessons can be interpreted in alternate ways, just as Krishna famously tells Arjuna there are many different names and faces for God, and paths to her/him, but none are wrong, so long as one has a pure, devout heart and soul.

However, despite Dante treating righteous non-Christians very respectfully, struggling with his era’s teaching that only baptised Christians could attain Paradise, avoiding antisemitic tropes about Hell, and saving a few so-called pagans, there are certain things which are still a challenge to read. This isn’t a reflection on Dante, but rather my own background. Life gives all of us a different frame of reference based on so many things, religion included.

My family background and my own personal religious history are too complicated and private to get into here, but the most pertinent thing to know is that I’ve been living a Jewish life since I was eighteen, after years of longing to reclaim my spiritual birthright. The religions I feel closest to after my own are Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Jainism.

Theologically, Judaism is closest to Islam. They were even closer before Prophet Mohammad got pissed off that more Jews weren’t converting, and changed things like how many times a day one should pray (from three to five). Again theologically speaking, Judaism and Christianity are like oil and water. So many important things radically contradict one another; e.g., Jews don’t believe in Original Sin or the divinity of Jesus.

This is a topic for another post, but suffice it to say, interfaith relations weren’t very good until about 1950. At the heart of the antisemitism which culminated in the Shoah was the deicide charge. And while I’m really glad the only Jews depicted in Inferno are Judas and Caiaphas, thus avoiding grotesque stereotypes and slanders, it’s hard to not be bothered by the deicide charge in Paradiso VII. There’s also this tercet in Paradiso V:

“If evil covetousness cries out to you,
be men, and not foolish sheep,
so that the Jew among you does not laugh!”

YIKES!

Intellectually, I can explain and contextualise these statements to take some of the sting off. Dante cannot be divorced from his time and place, no matter how modern and relevant he feels in many ways. He also believed other things we now know to be false, like the Donation of Constantine and Prophet Mohammad originally being a Christian, since there was no widely-available information debunking these claims.

And compared to many other Medieval writings (e.g., the Prioress’s Tale in The Canterbury Tales, the chilling end of The Song of Roland), this is really tame. Out of 14,233 lines, these comments are a tiny drop in the bucket. Dante also questions why, if Christian doctrine says the Crucifixion was necessary, the Second Temple then had to be destroyed and the Jewish people forced into Diaspora.

But emotionally and personally, it’s really hard to read that, knowing the deicide charge formed the basis of almost 2,000 years of horrific antisemitism in Europe, and that even those few seemingly off-handed comments were part of a much larger picture that really added up.

Judaism and Christianity also radically differ on the subject of the Pharisees, who are mentioned in a negative light in the Commedia. Though all evidence from multiple sources attests to Pharisaic beliefs and practices forming the basis of post-Temple Judaism, and indeed being the very reason we were able to survive the loss of the Second Temple, their reputation in Christianity is far different.

Long story short, each of the four Gospels is successively less Jewish and more Christian in character. As time progressed, the two faiths diverged more and more, and it became obvious there weren’t as many Jewish converts as hoped for. Thus, it was felt necessary to draw strong lines between the two traditions and seek converts from other populations.

Judaism has no concept of Limbo. While there are many conflicting views on the afterlife, who goes where, if very wicked souls stay forever in Hell, whether Gehenna or Sheol is the place for the worst sinners, and what exactly all these places are like, one thing everyone does agree one is that the righteous of all nations have a place in HaOlam HaBa, the World to Come. We don’t believe only our people can attain Paradise.

Dante heavily leans towards this view too, as he struggles all through the poem with the idea that only baptised Christians (plus the righteous people of the Bible) are worthy of Paradise. What about people who live in places like India, where Christianity had no presence, or who lived before Jesus, like his dear Virgil? Indeed, he saves a few so-called pagans (Cato, Trajan, Statius, Ripheus the Trojan), and depicts a few Muslims among the righteous in Limbo.

He also says many people of other faiths, or of no faith, are closer to God than actual baptised Christians.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s prayer to Mary, which opens Paradiso XXXIII, is pure beauty, power, emotion, and devotion. Remembering back to Inferno II, Mary is the one who ultimately set Dante’s journey in motion. And given that Dante lost his mother when he was five or six years old, it’s easy to understand why he felt such devotion to Mary.

Despite not being Christian myself, I’m very moved by the image of Mary as a loving, universal mother figure. Many people who lost their mothers are particularly devoted to her for this very reason.

While specifically Christological beliefs do nothing for me and have no parallels in Judaism, most of the poem is a rich, fertile ground for inspiration. Dante intended his magnum opus as a spiritual guidebook, and despite his own strong Catholic faith, he frequently thinks of other kinds of people. Indeed, the penultimate word is l’altre, the other (in plural form). The Love he believes in, which powers everything in existence, includes a vast rainbow of perspectives and experiences, not just one.