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Love in Hell

Inferno

by Dante Alighieri, a verse translation from the Italianby Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander
Doubleday, 634 pp., $35.00

Dante

by R.W.B. Lewis
Lipper/Viking, 205 pp., $19.95

1.

This new version of Dante’s Inferno, by an internationally famous Dante scholar and his wife, the poet Jean Hollander, is accompanied by a detailed, brilliant commentary that is itself worth the price of the volume. The publisher’s claim on the dust cover—“The introduction, notes, and commentary on the poem cannot be matched for their depth of learning and usefulness for the lay reader”—is for once fully justified.The translation began as Professor Hollander’s attempt to modernize the archaic English of John Sinclair’s 1939 prose translation for the Princeton Dante Project.[*] His wife happened to look at his manuscript over his shoulder and asked, “What is it? It’s awful,” and, when told, pronounced it “unsayable.” She took it away and returned it in two days with a version of the first canto; it was the beginning of a collaboration, not always harmonious, that produced the Inferno and has since almost finished a version of the Purgatorio scheduled for publication in 2002.

This new translation invites comparison with its distinguished predecessor, Robert Pinsky’s Inferno of 1994. Both versions print the Italian text on the left-hand facing page, and both preserve the tercet form of the original. But in other respects they differ widely. Here, for example, are the two versions of Francesca’s reply to Dante’s request for an account of how she fell in love with Paolo, a moment that led to their deaths at the hands of her husband and their eternal punishment in the second circle of Inferno, the circle of the lustful who let passion overcome their reason. First the Hollanders:

One day, to pass the time in pleasure,
we read of Lancelot, how love enthralled him.
We were alone, without the least misgiving.
More than once that reading made our eyes meet
and drained the color from our faces.
Still, it was a single instant overcame us:
When we read how the longed-for smile
was kissed by so renowned a lover, this man,
who never shall be parted from me,
all trembling, kissed me on my mouth.
A Galeotto was the book and he that wrote it.
That day we read in it no further.

And here is Pinsky:

One day, for pleasure,
We read of Lancelot, by love constrained:
Alone, suspecting nothing, at our leisure.
Sometimes at what we read our glances joined,
Looking from the book each to each other’s eyes,
And then the color in our faces drained.
But one particular moment alone it was
Defeated us:
the longed-for smile, it said,
was kissed by that most noble lover: at this,
This one, who now will never leave my side,
Kissed my mouth, trembling. A Galeotto, that book!
And so was he who wrote it; that day we read
No further.

Comparison with the Italian shows that the Hollanders faithfully reproduce the arrangement of the text in tercets—no crossing over from one to the next—and even in line, so that the reader trying to follow the Italian has no trouble locating in the English the place that will give needed help or confirm a guess. And the lines are indeed “sayable”; they show the refining touch of a poet’s hand. But they make no attempt to reproduce two important features of Dante’s technique: line length and rhyme scheme. Every one of the lines of this enormous poem is, in pronunciation, exactly eleven syllables long, and the Hollanders’ line length is variable. Though its norm is the standard English pentameter, one finds lines as short as “I was so full of sleep” and as long as “such favor to him, considering who and what he was.”

As for rhyme, the Hollanders dispense with it completely, making no attempt to reproduce the terza rima that Dante invented for his poem, a rhyming system that gives the Commedia its insistent forward drive. Pinsky’s lines are not hendecasyllabic but they have a consistent length, that of the English pentameter, and as for terza rima he has found a new and successful expedient—the use of consonantal rhyme, a favorite Yeatsian resource which enables him to “supply an audible scaffold of English terza rima, a scaffold that does not distort the English sentence, or draw excessively on the reaches of the English lexicon.” On the other hand his translation, as he admits, is not a “line-for-line, nor tercet-for-tercet”; it uses enjambment freely and crossing from tercet to tercet.

These differences stem from the different objectives of the translators. Pinsky’s translator’s note begins:

I have tried to make an Inferno in English that stays true to the nature of English, and that conveys the meaning of the Italian as accurately as possible, in lines of terza rima that will suggest some of the force and suppleness of Dante’s form. Above all, I have tried to translate a poem: in passages where my English is not literal, I hope that it is faithful to the spirit.

Pinsky has in mind readers with little Italian or none at all; he addresses a wide audience. Hollander, speaking for himself and his wife, is thinking of readers who will at least attempt to read the original:

We have tried to bring Dante in-to our English without being led into the temptation of making the translation sound better than the original allows. The result may be judged by all who know him in his own idiom. This is not Dante, but an approximation of what he might authorize had he been looking over our shoulders, listening to our at times ferocious arguments.

The difference in the audience addressed by the two translations is clear also from the commentary that accompanies the text. Nicole Pinsky’s notes “are intended for students and general readers. They have been written to approximate some of the literary and historical information Dante’s original audience might have had, and are certainly not an interpretive guide.” The book does, however, contain a brilliant foreword by John Freccero, the notable Dante scholar, which offers interpretation, and so do the brief commentaries by both Freccero and Pinsky that precede the notes to some of the cantos. Hollander’s notes, which cover almost four times as many pages as Pinsky’s, are almost entirely concerned with interpretation. They are a precious distillation of the product of thirty years of brilliant research, teaching, and writing, of profound study not only of Dante’s voluminous writings but also of the enormous scholarly literature they have generated.

Hollander is concerned especially with passages that seem to invite contrary interpretations, for though Dante’s dramatic and narrative skills may at first reading disguise the fact, such problems are many and various. One of them is presented by the passage quoted above in the two versions, the story of Francesca da Rimini. As he noted, she and her lover Paolo are in the second circle of Inferno, reserved for those who let their lustful passions overwhelm their reason. They are now creatures buffeted by fierce winds which will torment them for all eternity. When Dante’s call to them for a conversation gives them a momentary respite, Francesca replies to Dante’s request for their story in lines so graceful and charming that she wins the reader’s heart, as she does Dante’s. Her tale is one of love; amor is the opening word of three of her tercets, which also contain the words amato and amar. It was a love that brought about their deaths at the hands of her husband. Asked by Virgil for his reaction Dante pities them—“Oh,/how many sweet thoughts, what great desire,/have brought them to this woeful pass!”—and asks her to tell how they first fell in love, to which she gives the answer quoted above.

What, the reader may wonder, since the charms of Francesca’s two speeches no longer dazzle eye and ear, is going on here? This is the second circle of Hell, the place where unrepentant sinners are punished for all time. Why does Dante make Francesca so appealing? The mystery deepens when we realize, since Hollander points it out, that the real story of Paolo and Francesca is very different:

…Her adulterous conduct was a lot more calculated than Dante presents it (she and Paolo, also married, both had children and she had then been married for ten years). The fact is, however, that Dante’s version of the story makes her conduct seem about as understandable as possible, an effort on which the character herself spends her considerable resources of persuasion.

Hollander points out that Francesca’s “chief rhetorical strategy is to remove as much blame from herself as she is able, finding other forces at fault whenever possible (e.g., Paolo’s physical beauty, her despicable husband, the allure of a French romance).” Like all the sinners in Hell, she puts the best possible face on her conduct. But, as he admits, this canto is the cause of continuing debate. He characterizes the two sides as “Romantic readers” who “understandably tend to align themselves with the love that Francesca emblematizes and/or the pity that Dante exhibits” and the “moralizing ones with the firmness that an Augustinian reader would feel.” He himself is on the Augustinian side. He argues that

…it is pity itself that is here at fault…. Indeed, if we see that Francesca’s aim is precisely to gain Dante’s pity, and that she is successful in doing so, we perhaps ought to question his offering of it. Sympathy for the damned, in the Inferno, is nearly always and nearly certainly the sign of a wavering moral disposition.

Hollander stresses the fact that the fictional Dante of the Commedia has a lot to learn. His pity for Francesca stems from a lack of understanding of Giustizia, divine justice, the word that appeared in the inscription on Hell’s gate—Giustizia mosse il mio alto fattore (“Justice moved my maker on high”). In the Francesca episode it is as if Virgil were testing Dante’s mettle; he encourages him in his desire to talk to Paolo and Francesca and after her first enchanting speech—three tercets, each beginning with the word amor—Virgil asks him: “What are your thoughts?”

Dante’s reaction to Francesca’s final speech, pity that overwhelms his senses so that he faints, is not the only example of his pity for sinners justly condemned to everlasting torment. In Canto XX he weeps when he sees the diviners, the false prophets, with their heads reversed, so that their tears “ran down their buttocks, down into the cleft.” But this time Virgil reproves him sharply. “Are you still witless as the rest?/Here piety lives when pity is quite dead.” By Canto XXXII Dante has learned his lesson; he pulls hard on the hair of the traitor Bocca degli Abati, who sits forever with his body encased in ice.

Freccero, who writes the introductory note to Canto V in the Pinsky version, suggests a very different approach. He points out that all the other sinners in the second circle are “literary lovers drawn from the great tradition of ancient epic and medieval romance…all of whom died for love.” Francesca, in her first speech, describes her love “in the cliches of medieval literature: a unique and irresistible passion, kindled on sight, swept them to their death.” Francesca speaks of “love, quick to kindle in the gentle heart” and Dante in his early love poems “had insisted upon the inevitability of such love for those with ‘gentle hearts.’”

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