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
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 …