Dante wrote his great poem in the years between 1300, the fictional date of his descent alive into Hell, and his death in 1321. Chaucer wrote his Canterbury Tales between 1387 and his death in 1400. Few today can deal with Chaucer in the original Middle English; he is read mainly in translations, which began to appear as early as 1700, when Dryden published versions of three of the Tales in his Fables Ancient and Modern—Chaucer’s language, he claims in the Preface, is “so obsolete, that his Sense is scarce to be understood.” Yet, even today, no one would even dream of producing a modernized Italian version of Dante’s Commedia. Though his text needs annotation and occasional linguistic explication, Italians know their Dante; his lines are as deeply rooted in the national memory as those of Shakespeare for modern speakers of English.
In Florence, his native city, the visitor often comes across verses of the Commedia inscribed high on a wall at some appropriate place. By one of the Arno bridges, for example, one can read Dante’s affectionate description of the river from the Purgatorio:
Per mezza Toscana si spazia
Un fiumicel che nasce in Falterona…
Through central Tuscany there winds its way a little stream that’s born on Falterona…
The inscription must have drawn some black looks from passers-by after that little stream, swollen by torrential, protracted rains in the winter of 1966, flooded the basement and the ground floor of the National Library, burst through to the shops on the Ponte Vecchio, sending their jewelry down the rushing stream toward Pisa, and, in the low-lying quarter of Piazza Santa Croce, drowned people in their beds.
But Florentines are not alone in their familiarity with Dante. I had striking proof of this in the final month of the war in Europe. I was in charge of a large Italian partisan formation, its ranks drawn mostly from the area of Modena, which was facing German mountain positions, part of the Gothic Line. We had been assigned a role, a very minor one, in the offensive that was to end the war in Italy: to assault the German positions on the mountain ridge opposite our own advanced post on Monte Spigolino. I had requested air and artillery action against the ridge immediately prior to our attack. An affirmative answer came at last—in the early evening before the day scheduled for the operation. When I briefed the partisan officers, they were dismayed: They had not expected to go so soon; the men were not prepared. And we would have to make the whole long journey down into the valley and up to forward positions below the ridge that night. Could the air and artillery be postponed for twenty-four hours?
I had to explain that in the complicated logistics of a huge offensive last-minute changes, especially for peripheral operations, were impossible. The partisans’ dismayed silence was finally broken by their commander, who said, with a half-smile of bitter resignation: “O.K., Captain,” and then proceeded to quote the lines Virgil addresses to Charon, who is refusing to take Dante, a living man, on his boat:
Vuolsi cosi cola dove si puote
Cio che si vuole, e piu non dimandare
Literally—“So it is willed there where what is willed has power—and ask no more questions!” English has no reflexive verbs and has to use passive forms, which unfortunately cannot convey the full effect of the Italian—the evocation of an utterly impersonal, irresistible, immediately effective Will. We moved into position that night and stormed the ridge next morning.
This contemporaneity of Dante’s language faces the translator with a difficult problem. His English must be as contemporary, as free of archaism or affectation of any kind, as direct and sometimes (especially in the Inferno) as brutal as that of his model, but he must also maintain a high level of eloquence. The speech of Dante’s characters, Erich Auerbach pointed out in a famous chapter of Mimesis, often “has the ring of spontaneous and unstylized speech, of everyday conversation among ordinary speakers…,” but at the same time “the weightiness, gravitas, of Dante’s tone is maintained so consistently that there can never be any doubt as to what level of style we find ourselves upon.” John Ciardi, in his Translator’s Note for his 1954 version of the Inferno, summed up the problem in a memorable phrase: “I do not imply that Dante’s is not the language of common speech. It is a much better thing than that: it is what common speech would be if it were made perfect.” And that speech comes from the mouths of the huge cast of characters that crowds the stage of the Inferno; the metaphor is not inappropriate, for Dante, in a different age and context, could have been as great a dramatist as Shakespeare.
The voices of his tormented souls recreate for us their identity as it was in life, and those voices are given vibrant tone in Robert Pinsky’s superb translation (which has the benefit of Michael Mazur’s illustrations, Nicole Pinsky’s notes, and John Freccero’s fine introduction). They range from the aristocratic delicacy of Francesca’s account of the moment she and Paolo fell in love—
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 the other’s eyes,
And then the color in our faces drained.
But one particular moment alone it was
Defeated us; the longed-for smile,
Was kissed by that most noble
lover: at this
This one who now will never leave my side.
Kissed my mouth, trembling…
to the patrician hauteur of Farinata degli Uberti, who “seemed by how he bore his chest and brow/To have great scorn for Hell”—
At his tomb’s foot I felt his proud gaze pierce
Mine for a moment; and then as if in disdain
He spoke and asked me, “Who were your ancestors?”
Eager to comply with that, I made all plain,
Concealing nothing, whereupon he raised
His brows a little. Then he said, “These men
Were enemies to me; they fiercely opposed
Me and my forebears and my party—so, twice, I scattered them.”
But they can sound lower notes, too, like the self-loathing of a sacrilegious thief—
My leader asked the shade
To tell us who he was. “The time is brief
Since I rained down from Tus- cany,” he replied,
“Into this gullet. It was a bestial life,
Not human, that pleased me best, mule that I was.
I am Vanni Fucci, beast—and aptly enough
Pistoia was my den.”
—or the blasphemous joviality of the black demons who taunt one of the elders of the Church of Santa Zita in Lucca, who has just been dumped into a lake of boiling pitch—
The sinner sank below, only to rise
Rump up—but the demons under the bridge’s shelf
Cried, “Here’s no place to show your Sacred Face!
You’re not out in the Serchio for a swim!
If you don’t want to feel our hooks—like this!—
Then stay beneath the pitch.”
—not to mention the military maneuvers of the Malebranche, who are detailed to guide Virgil and Dante to their next destination—
And then the company of devils turned,
Wheeling along the left-hand bank. But first
Each signaled the leader with the same grimace:
Baring their teeth, through which the tongue was pressed;
And the leader made a trumpet of his ass.
These passages from Robert Pinsky’s new translation of the Inferno, which has been awarded the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award by the Academy of American Poets, are enough to show that his stylistic fusion of the realistic and the sublime comes close to reproducing in English not only Dante’s lyric grace and grave eloquence but also what Goethe called his “repulsive and often disgusting greatness.” But they also exemplify and entirely novel feature of this version, a serious attempt to solve the problem that has baffled so many translators: to find an adequate English equivalent of Dante’s poetic form, the terza rima he invented for the Commedia. It consists of a series of linked tercets: two rhyming hendecasyllabic lines enclose a similar line that dictates the rhymes of the two outer lines of the following tercet—and so on to the end of the Canto, which closes with a single line that rhymes with the internal line of the preceding tercet. The tercets are interlinked and each one seems to generate the next; the rhyme sequence creates an anticipation that gives a strong forward sweep to the narrative.
But it is a poetic form more easily managed in Italian than in English, for the Italian language is enormously rich in rhyme. With very few exceptions all Italian words end in a vowel, and the regularity of noun, adjective, and verb formations expands the poet’s resources still farther. “In Italian,” as Ciardi puts it, “it is only a slight exaggeration to say that everything rhymes with everything else or a variant form of it.” The old classic Scartazzini-Vandelli edition of the Commedia contains a Rimario listing all the lines arranged by endings; it is an invaluable index but also reveals the richness of the rhyme-bank from which Dante could draw. Under the termination –ava, for example, it lists fifty-nine different words (many of them, of course, used more than once), under –ia fifty, –ate forty-seven, –ura forty-four, and so on. Rhyme in Italian in fact is so easy that its use can become banal and many modern poets, Montale for one, use it sparingly and in subtle forms.
Poets writing in English have rarely attempted terza rima in its strict form, except in short poems—Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind, Antonio’s speech in Auden’s The Sea and the Mirror—though Louis MacNeice employs it successfully through the twenty-six Cantos of autobiographical reminiscences in Autumn Sequel. Derek Walcott’s great poem Omeros is cast in tercets, but his brilliant use of rhymes is a series of skillful variations on Dante’s strict pattern. In any case, it is one thing for a poet following his own bent to try to conform to Dante’s rhyme scheme and quite another for a poet-translator, who must at the same time produce an English version faithful to the sense of the original as well as its equal in force and eloquence. “Inevitably”—Ciardi again—“the language must be inverted, distorted, padded, and made unspeakable in order to force the line to come out on that third all-consuming rhyme.” Ciardi’s solution was to preserve the outside rhymes in lines 1 and 3 but dispense with the echo of line 2 in lines 4 and 6, thus sacrificing the links that bind tercet to tercet and seem to move the poem forward on an irresistible course. The translations of Mark Musa (1971)1 and Alan Mandelbaum (1980) forgo any attempt to preserve even the regularity of the outside rhymes of the tercet.
Pinsky aims to preserve Dante’s pattern by making “a more flexible definition of rhyme, or of the kind and degree of like sound that constitute rhyme.” This might seem like a license to claim rhyme where others hear none, but Pinsky narrows the field at once. He does not accept “just any similar sounds as rhyming: the translation is based on a fairly systematic rhyming norm that defines rhyme as the same consonant-sounds—however much vowels may differ—at the ends of words.” This “system of like sounds,” he notes, “happens to correspond to some preference of my own ear, a personal taste.” He prefers such rhymes as swans/stones to such “hard-rhyme combinations” as bones/stones. The examples he gives are drawn from Yeats, “a master of such consonantal rhyming,” and he excludes “mere vowel rhymes”—state/raid, claim/feign—but admits rhymes between open now/throw—and closed—be/why—vowels. And he tries to exclude “hard rhymes” altogether, though in this regard, as in others, he admits to “occasional compromises and slidings.”
The result is a brilliant success. Though at first the ear and eye of the reader may have to recognize new patterns, the music soon sounds clear and there is even an extra element of anticipation added—surmise about the exact caliber of the rhyme to come. Here is the exit of Vanni Fucci, the beast of Pistoia:
The thief held up his hands when he was through,
And “God,” he cried, making the fig with both—
“Take these: I aim them squarely up at you!”
The serpents were my friends from that time forth,
For then one coiled itself about his neck
As if to say, “That’s all, then, from your mouth,”
And another went around his arms to snake
Them tight and cinch itself in front, so tied
They couldn’t budge enough to gesture. Alack,
Pistoia, Pistoia!—Why haven’t you decreed
Your own incineration, so that you dwell
On earth no more, since you surpass pass your seed
In evildoing? In all the circles of Hell
I saw no spirit so arrogant to God,
Not even him who fell from the Theban wall.
Speaking no more then, Vanni Fucci fled…
It is alive with forward motion. Let us hope that motion carries Robert Pinsky and his talented crew up the Mount of Purgatory and on to Paradiso.
October 19, 1995