Dante, Part Uno

I’m re-reading Dante, for the first time since college. It’s The Inferno—of course!—in the Robert Pinsky translation. Then I’ll move on to the other two books in the Divine Comedy which, for some reason, seem like they’ll be much less interesting. I’d love to be able to read them in the original Italian. For one thing, the use of vernacular is one of the reasons why the books are called “comedy” (the other being the fact that they have a happy ending). But I really just want to get the full force of Dante’s terza rima rhyme scheme: aba, bcb, cdc, etc. Such as, at the beginning of Canto I:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita

     mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,

     che la diritta via era smarrita.

Ahi quanto a dir qual era e cosa dura

     esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte

     che nel pensier rinova la paura!

It’s a bit agonizing to think of the sheer power of such a rhyme scheme over an extended reading, and realize that I’m missing it. Oh, well—every translation is a compromise, I guess. As Pinsky says in his Translator’s Note,

one way of dealing with the torturous demands of terza rima in English has been to force the large English lexicon to supply rhymes: squeezing unlikely synonyms to the ends of lines, and bending idiom ruthlessly to get them there.

Perhaps Bobbie Noto will be kind enough to read it aloud, and at least provide the auditory experience of the Italian language, while I’ll have to count my blessings, and be happy that at least I can still read Shakespeare in the original English. (Another answer would be to take Bobbie’s Italian class, but could I ever really approach a reading of Dante? Not with my course load, anyway!)

One thing that does come through in translation, though, is the staggering breadth of Dante’s imagination when it came to mapping his Hell and envisioning the full force of medieval Christian justice in all its severe manifestations. The place is fully realized: you can walk it, see it, hear it, feel it, taste it. And even the clumsiest translation couldn’t possibly diminish the power of such images as the monster, Geryon, “swimming” through the poisoned air.

So, what to make of this Dante Alighieri, this famous child of Florence who wouldn’t be half as famous had he not been thrown out of it? I have decidedly mixed feelings, but more on that in a future post…


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