Translation becomes interesting once it transcends what is now taken to be its primary function, that of providing those who don’t have the original with a substitute text. This remains and has always been an essential service, a difficult but relatively humble one. Translation shows its paces when it is addressed to those who already have the original and want not a substitute but an alternative text, one that draws its guiding impulse from the original while taking on a partially independent, critically hazardous life of its own. The liberties this involves are in order only with a work in the public domain, a classic; with contemporary writing we normally want as straight a rendering as we can get.

Translation of this sort, standing beside rather than standing in for its original, has a more than literary importance. It tells us something about the state of our culture: how far we can respond intellectually and emotionally to the great works of our tradition, old and new. Are whole ranges of experience becoming almost inaccessible or already out of reach? We learn something too about the state of the language. Is there room in today’s diminished speech for the larger utterance, the lexical daring, the sheer outrageousness, of the major classic? It is like trying to put a mad giant in a dwarf’s straitjacket, as Christopher Middleton has observed.

And the alternative translation serves another purpose. By making a work from the past present again and giving it not necessarily a contemporary but a living voice, it asserts that the classic texts belong in the world, not in the library, and are not the exclusive property of scholars in the several “fields.” They are addressed to all those who read literature for pleasure rather than study it for professional reasons. With a classic that still arouses genuine interest, there is often a marked divergence between the faces it presents to the learned and the lay. Dante provides as good an example as any. For there are now two Dantes. There is the Dante who the English poet and translator Charles Sisson claims is, with Catullus, “the best possible master for the writer of verse in our century,” the Dante considered by a good many literary people (on grounds that perhaps bear looking into) the best poet who ever lived. This is the Dante of Eliot’s famous essay and Pound’s lifelong devotion, the poet who supremely realized the Imagist call for “direct presentation of ‘the thing,’ ” and used no word not contributing to the presentation.

There is also—very little touched by what goes on in the literary world—the Dante of the academy, the Dante whose world view has been uncovered in our time and has provided so rich a vein for scholarly exploration and exegesis. Consult the extensive bibliographies to Professor Singleton’s three volumes of commentary on the Divine Comedy and you will not find the names of Eliot or, needless to say, of Pound. What light can they throw on the sacred poem, mere poets who learned how, for a line or so, to write like Dante?

Plainly such a rift is undesirable. It looks, however, as though it is being closed by Allen Mandelbaum, whose Paradiso now completes his translation of the Comedy. For Mandelbaum, his publishers tell us, is a “poet–scholar” and, in addition to his labors as translator, is the general editor of forthcoming volumes of commentary on each of the poem’s three canticles contributed by an international team of “scholar–critics.” This ambitious venture, superbly produced by the University of California Press, is surely going to reunite the two Dantes.

It is true that Mandelbaum’s scholarly credentials have been questioned by a distinguished authority on Dante, Professor John Freccero, who criticized his versions of the Inferno and Purgatorio for being insufficiently attentive to the poet’s Christian semantics, and found that, by stressing his “individualism,” Mandelbaum failed to show how Dante spoke for and from a long tradition (Boston Review, June 1983). However valid in themselves, Freccero’s strictures were not altogether on target. A translator of real poetic quality may from a scholarly point of view get this or that wrong and yet illuminate his author in a way scholarship cannot. That Mandelbaum is a translator of this order we can hardly doubt, given the chorus of praise that greeted his Inferno and Purgatorio. “Marvelously good, and a joy to read aloud….” “A miracle. A lesson in the art of translation….” “A Dante with clarity, eloquence, terror, and profoundly moving depths.” Freccero himself allowed that Mandelbaum is “undeniably a talented translator.”

Now this may be so (one can imagine Arnold saying, faced with such unanimity), but perhaps one should look into the matter more closely and ask if it is really so and if it is so without any limitations. Opening Mandelbaum’s Paradiso at random one finds this, for instance, in the second canto:


   It seemed to me that we were covered by
a brilliant, solid, dense, and stainless cloud,
much like a diamond that the sun has struck. Into itself, the everlasting pearl
received us, just as water will accept
a ray of light and yet remain intact. If I was body (and on earth we can
not see how things material can share
one spacethe case, when body enters body), then should our longing be still more inflamed
to see that Essence in which we discern
how God and human nature were made one.

Marvelously good, a lesson in the art of translation? Well, perhaps not quite. A shade humdrum, one may feel, here and there rather awkward. (For another version of this passage, see the box on this page.) A master of the art would surely not have left “one space—the case” stand. And the lurking hint of rhyme in “accept”/”intact” is disconcerting in an unrhymed version. A good deal of rhyme and off-rhyme does in fact crop up in Mandelbaum’s pages for no obvious reason, sometimes the first and second lines of a tercet, sometimes the second and third (e.g., “Centurion”/ “expression,” Canto XXIV), now and then the first and third lines rhyme as though this were real terza rima.

Rhyme, but not rhyme only, disturbs here too—Dante’s encounter with the shades of the great poets of antiquity. Virgil tells him:

   “The honor of their name,
which echoes up above within your life,
gains Heaven’s grace, and that ad- vances them.” Meanwhile there was a voice that I could hear:
“Pay honor to the estimable poet;
his shadow, which had left us, now returns.” After that voice was done, when there was silence,
I saw four giant shades approaching us;
in aspect, they were neither sad nor joyous. My kindly master then began by saying:
“Look well at him who holds that sword in hand,
who moves before the other three as lord. That shade is Homer, the con- summate poet…”
(Inferno IV, 76–88)

A joy to read aloud? Surely, though, the noble line “Onorate l’altissimo poeta” deserves better at a translator’s hands than “Pay honor to the estimable poet.” “Within your life” is unnecessarily literal for “ne la tua vita.” The sense is “in your world.” And why write “there was a voice that I could hear” when Dante means simply that he heard a voice? To pick at small points in the translation of a long poem is easy, of course, and unfair. Mandelbaum’s writing is quite often adequate. But seldom if ever is it much more than that, and one looks in vain for the distinction that might be expected from a work that has been praised so highly.

The trouble is that Mandelbaum does not really respond to Dante’s verse. Inferno XVIII opens abruptly, the harsh, bulging sounds coming straight off the page at us: “Luogo è in inferno detto Malebolge.” Mandelbaum says, “There is a place in Hell called Malebolge,” as though he were announcing that there’s a place in Manhattan called Lincoln Center. Back in the Third Circle, here is the demon Cerberus at his horrid work: “his talons tear and rend and flay the shades.” Unpleasant, no doubt, but nothing beside the physical horror of “graffia li spirti ed iscoia ed isquatra.” (Singleton’s prose is stronger than Mandelbaum’s verse: “he claws the spirits, flays and quarters them.” During the tremendous denunciation of the Italy of his day in Purgatorio VI Dante pauses, and dares directly to address God. Mandelbaum writes:

…have you turned elsewhere your just eyes? Or are You, in Your judgment’s depth, devising
a good that we cannot foresee, completely
dissevered from our way of understanding?

Compare Ciardi:

   are the eyes of your clear Justice turned aside?
Or is this the unfolding of a plan shaped in your fathomless coun- sels toward some good beyond all reckoning of mortal man?

While not keeping quite so close to the original, Ciardi can do what Mandelbaum quite fails to do, convey the awe, terror even, in the poet’s voice as he frames his huge question.

Part of the fault lies with the line Mandelbaum uses, that type of iambic pentameter characterized, as Pound once put it, by “a swat at syllables 2, 4, 6, 8, 10…mitigated by ‘irregularities’ and ‘inverted feet.’ ” This sort of thing:

   If that which has been said of her so far
were all contained within a single praise,
it would be much too scant to serve me now.
(Paradiso XXX, 16–18)

Mandelbaum evidently believes in the enduring vitality of the iambic line, whether mitigated or, as here, unmitigated, for he deployed it at length in his version of the Aeneid, which can stand sustained comparison with Lord Derby’s blank verse Iliad of 1864, ‘a production it would be idle to deplore. The trouble with this line, whatever its literary merits may be thought to be, is that it is at the furthest remove from Dante’s variously accented, often densely packed hendecasyllable—as we hear it, for instance, in the second of the two verses, “parole di dolore, accenti d’ira, / voci alte e fioche, e suon di man con elle,” where many-syllabled Italian is made to yield in effect six stabbing monosyllables. English can do this sort of thing readily enough. Laurence Binyon, distributing his accents differently, did it with “Shrill and faint voices, cries of pain and rage,” six beats for Dante’s six. Mandelbaum responds with “and voices shrill and faint, and beating hands.”1


Mandelbaum aims, I take it, at Dante’s plain style. His own style may be called plain in the sense that it is not overliterary or period, but all too often it is not so much plain as flat. Listen to the way he does the bitter, pregnant tercet on the exile’s life, which in Italy is almost proverbial (“Tu proverai sì come sa di sale / lo pane altrui, e come è duro calle / lo scendere e ‘l salir per l’altrui scale“): “You are to know the bitter taste / of others’ bread, how salt it is, and know / how hard a path it is for one who goes / descending and ascending others’ stairs.” Why repeat “know”? Why tack on the explanatory phrase “how salt it is”? Far stronger to write, “You will learn how bitter [or salt] is the taste of others’ bread.” As for those stairs, there is only one thing to be done with them and that’s go up and down.

It is in the many doctrinal passages of the Paradiso that the plain style is most needed. It is needed for the definition of faith in Canto XXIV. Singleton writes, keeping close to the King James version: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen; and this I take to be its quiddity.” Realizing that one must render the sense exactly here, Mandelbaum writes: “Faith is the substance of the things we hope for, / and is the evidence of things not seen; and this I take to be its quiddity.” This is plain enough, certainly, but the two little words the translator has introduced to turn the prose of it into his blank verse make it rhythmically so inert that one pays little heed to what is being said.

It is of course desperately hard to make the doctrinal passages sound memorable in the way Dante does. A fairer test of the translator’s mettle is to take some lines that, while still doctrinal, have a moving personal accent, Piccarda’s reply to Dante who has asked her (in Mandelbaum’s words), “But tell me: though you’re happy here, do you / desire a higher place in order to / see more and to be still more close to Him?” She answers, or so Mandelbaum would have us believe: “Brother, the power of love appeases our / will so—we only long for what we have; / our yearning calls upon no other thing.”

There is a good deal of enjambment in Mandelbaum’s translation, much of it as unhappy as this. One would have supposed that by the time he came to the Paradiso, with the 9896 lines of the Aeneid and the 9475 of the Inferno and Purgatorio to practice on, he would have picked up more of the verse maker’s basic skills and would not have been content with this sort of thing—one final example, from Canto IV: “so did Alcmaeon, / to meet the wishes of his father, kill / his mother—not to fail in filial / piety, he acted ruthlessly.”

If this is the best that can now be done with Dante, we will all have to buckle down and learn enough Italian to read him in the original—or get hold of the three splendid little volumes of the Temple Classics Dante and make out the original with the help of the facing crib as so many people used to do, Eliot himself among them. But of course Mandelbaum’s version of the Comedy is far from the best that can be done. Ciardi’s version is a great deal better, the work of a man in command of his métier who knows how to weight a line and how to join one line to the next. It is an honorable substitute for the original, sufficiently close to traditional English verse to strike the average (or academic) reader as dignified enough to stand in for a great classic, sufficiently close to today’s poetic speech not to sound mannered. If it does not constitute what I am calling an alternative translation, it is because it does not take the risks that such a venture requires. It does not make Dante new in the way Guy Davenport has made Archilochus new or (risking his neck at every turn) Christopher Logue has made a new Homer for us. Perhaps this cannot be done with the Divine Comedy. Though doubtless a poem for all time, it is of its age and culture to a degree that Homer and Shakespeare are not, and may be lodged too firmly in its age and culture to be brought over into ours without being knocked out of shape.

The most resolute attempt at a Dante speaking with today’s voice is to be found in the version of the Comedy by Charles Sisson.2 He lays down his principles crisply: the translator “must write as comes natural to him, in the language of his day and in the kind of verse which belongs to the current development of the language, and of his own technique.” Sisson shows his hand in the first canto of the Inferno where he has Dante tell Virgil that it is from him he has learned “the exact style” for which he has been honored. What Dante in fact says is “lo bello stilo,” referring not to exactness, hardly a special feature of Virgil’s poetry, but rather to the richly orchestrated syntax and periodization of the Aeneid which taught him how to re-create, in a new form, the sublime style of classical epic. What Sisson’s Dante has in mind are the virtues that most excite admiration today, the famous plain style that omits whatever does not reinforce the meaning.

This is a radical but from Sisson’s point of view necessary transposition. Does it work? It works well with the many passages where the poetry is all in the clarity, in the pressure that brings so much to precise expression in so few words. In the encounter between Dante and Piccarda, for instance, where we have already heard Mandelbaum, Sisson’s Dante asks her, in English as direct as the Italian: “But tell me: you who are happy here, / Do you desire a higher place than you have, / To see more, and be more friends with God?” She answers: “Brother, the virtue of charity brings quiet / To our will, so that we want only / What we have, and thirst for nothing beyond that.” Sisson’s plainness is even more telling a little further on in the scene where Piccarda, describing how she was dragged from the cloister back into a world she had renounced, says: “God knows what my life was after that.” (Poor Mandelbaum has to write: “God knows what, after that, my life became.”)

Where Sisson seems to me to fail is when Dante is grand—as grand, for instance, as he is in the Ulysses episode from the Inferno. To address the ancient shade, Virgil summons up the full resources of the sublime style, and Dante, not to be outdone, carries on at almost the same level. Listen to Sisson’s rendering of these lines (box 1) and then to Binyon’s (box 2). I do not see how a translator can get much closer to Dante than Binyon does here. His English is hardly less magnificent than the Italian, and magnificent in the same way. Sisson, by contrast, simply doesn’t rise to the occasion.

But, I take it he would object, Binyon is not using the language of our day; he makes Dante sound period. Is he thereby disqualified? A good deal depends on how this question is to be answered. Translations from the classics of our several literatures now appear regularly. They must alas be translated if they are to be read at all, except by specialists and a few enthusiasts. They are also required to sound decently contemporary, even though their own style may be far from any contemporary idiom. The result, all too often, is not so much translation as travesty.

What should be done? No one wants to return to the “methinkses,” “yea verilies,” and “in such wises” of Victorian translationese. There is another course. In the introduction to his Oxford Book of Verse in English Translation, Charles Tomlinson quotes some lines from Pound’s version of the Chinese Book of Rites and speaks of the way Pound gives us “something English and something irreducibly foreign and distant.” English, yes, but not the English of our day. To re-create his original, Pound draws on earlier, archaic strata of the English language, coming up with diction and syntax unfamiliar enough to sound startlingly new, confronting us with an ancient text that we know could only have been written in this century.

No one can write like Pound, but his work is there for translators to study. From it they might learn how to get behind the faded literary idiom of the last century or so and dig deeper into the resources of our language, how to blend old and new in a way that makes the old sound contemporary and the new sound timeless. It is this sort of translation of the Divine Comedy that we need—if it can be done, and if in fact we do need more translations at present. (Of the whole work, that is. There is everything to be said for poets trying their hand at single episodes.3 ) Binyon comes closest to the ideal, but his archaisms do not have the “nowness” that marks Pound’s and keeps them from seeming musty; his Comedy is a superb achievement but it does not form part of modern poetry. What we do not need are further translations of the kind that Allen Mandelbaum has just completed.


It seemed to me a cloud as luminous
   and dense and smoothly polished as a diamond
   struck by a ray of sun, enveloped us.
We were received into the elements
   of the eternal pearl as water takes
   light to itself, with no change in its substance.
If I was a body (nor need we in this case
   conceive how one dimension can bear another,
   which must be if two bodies fill one space)
the more should my desire burn like the sun
   to see that essence in which one may see
   how human nature and God blend into one.
John Ciardi


“O you who are two inside one fire,
If I deserved of you, while I was alive,
If I deserved of you, little or much,

When in the world I wrote those high verses,
Then do not move; but let one of you tell
Where, having lost himself, he went to die.”

And then the bigger horn of the ancient flame
Began to shake itself and make a murmur,
Just like a flame that is buffeted by wind;

Then, pulling the top of it this way and that,
As if it were the tongue that was doing the talking,
Projected a voice outward, and said: “When…
C.H. Sisson


“O ye who are two within a single flame,
   If any merit I of you have won,
   If merit, much or little, had my name,
When the great verse I made beneath the sun,
   Move not, but let the one of you be heard
   Tell where he went to perish, being undone.”
The greater horn of the ancient flame was stirred
   To shudder and make a murmur, like a fire
   When in the wind it struggles and is blurred,
Then tossed upon a flickering crest yet higher,
   As it had been a tongue that spoke, it cast
   A voice forth from the strength of its desire,
Laurence Binyon

This Issue

December 20, 1984