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    watercolor painting of a man climbing a mountain

    Which Dante Translation Is Best?

    Englishing Purgatorio

    By Andrew Frisardi

    November 18, 2021
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    With reviews of Dante, Purgatorio, translated with introduction and notes by Mary Jo Bang (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2021); and Dante, Purgatorio, translated and with a commentary by D. M. Black, preface by Robert Pogue Harrison (New York: New York Review Books, 2021)

    Purgatorio, the second part of the three-part Divine Comedy, picks up where Inferno left off: Dante and the ancient Roman poet Virgil have just emerged from Hell onto the island from which rises the mountain of Purgatory. The word Purgatory means a place of cleansing or purification. Dante, still guided by Virgil, now starts climbing the holy mountain, progressing level by level in a process of purification that will prepare him to enter the Earthly Paradise at the top of the mountain, reunited with his youthful love and muse, Beatrice, who will then take over as his guide through the spheres of Heaven in Paradiso.

    Purgatorio is a story of redemption through a change of heart that leads to confession, renunciation, and contrition. The characters Dante encounters in it are souls of people who had opened their hearts to the spirit, to God, before they died – even just before they died – and who are therefore free from the self-obsessed, desecrating, and egocentric perspective of Hell. They are now undergoing the purgation of the accretions of sin by facing their most characteristic flaws in graphic form – the especially arrogant and proud, for example, experience humility by being bent under the weight of the rocks they have to carry.

    Purgatorio’s narrative, unlike the storylines of Inferno and Paradiso, includes the sense of time, of day and night, and of earth, color, and personal psychological struggle, which is why some consider it to be the most lovely, humanly relatable part of the Comedy. In addition, there is the very great poetry of it, whose imagery, stories, and language are compelling even without the religious significance that motivates Dante. As the Scottish poet-psychoanalyst D. M. Black says in his introduction to one of the Purgatorio translations I’m reviewing here, Dante’s acute insight into his characters’ most inward motivations and conflicts is accessible to all readers, including secularized modern ones.

    watercolor painting of a man climbing a mountain

    William Blake, The Ascent of the Mountain of Purgatory (public domain)

    With biblical basis in 2 Maccabees 12:42–46, the notion of an intermediary state after death was already widespread in the fourth-century Church – evidenced by the practice of offering prayers and devotions for the dead. Augustine wrote that some souls are purified in purgatorial fire and that the duration of this process varies, depending on the state of the individual’s soul at death. This doctrine of purgation after death remained essentially unchanged for centuries; the noun “Purgatory,” indicating a postmortem place associated with purification, was introduced in the twelfth century. The Second Council of Lyon, in 1274 (when Dante was nine years old), formalized the doctrine of Purgatory. The Church’s teachings about the state of Purgatory are readily recognizable in Dante’s poem, but the place itself as Dante describes it is particularly his. Before Dante, Purgatory was pictured as an outer zone of Hell, located under earth and accessed through a grotto or a well. In contrast, Dante’s Purgatory is above ground and highly detailed and tangible.

    For Dante the mountain of Purgatory is situated in the uninhabited (for medieval geography) Southern Hemisphere, which is composed almost entirely of water. In the eighth century the Venerable Bede had suggested that the Earthly Paradise was on a high mountain in the middle of the ocean, far from places inhabited by human beings, a view shared by later authors. But the notion that Purgatory was located on the slopes leading up to the Earthly Paradise apparently was Dante’s invention, and he makes the most of its symbolic potential. The island of Purgatory and its mountain rise from the water in the Southern Hemisphere opposite to Jerusalem in the Northern Hemisphere, which for Christians is where the Savior was crucified and rose from the dead to redeem souls. Therefore, the place of Christ’s sacrifice for humanity is exactly opposite to Eden, where the Fall took place, the felix culpa (felicitous error) that necessitated salvation, and the climb up the mountain enacts the purification of the soul returning to its primordial integrity. In this way, Dante’s mind-bogglingly rich symbolic imagination, nearly always precise and coherent within its mythological coordinates, infuses his geography with profound metaphysical meaning.

    From the opening lines of Purgatorio Dante uses a very different tone and language from that of Inferno. As Dante and Virgil enter onto the shore of the new place, the suffering and anguish of the realm of spiritual death is left behind for the new one of the serenity and grace of spiritual awakening. Elegiac tenderness is the key mood of Purgatorio, apart from its political diatribes and prophetic-apocalyptic scenes. We hear this tone right away, from the souls in an angel-guided boat arriving on the shore of Purgatory, singing In exitu Isräel de Aegypto, “When Israel came out of Egypt,” the song of the Jews in the desert making their way toward the promised land. For Dante this psalm captures his longing for his home city, Florence, from which he is exiled, as well as his desire for his spiritual homeland in God. The bitterness and melancholy of the soul’s exile is tempered by the sweetness of the hope and promise of beatitude. Right at the start of Purgatorio sweetness and gentleness, dolcezza, are announced as the qualities that will inform the language of the poem. The poetic atmosphere of Purgatory is one of enchantment and inwardness, delicacy, nostalgic remorse, the relief of self-forgetfulness, full of the friendship, charitableness, and gentleness of the purifying souls.

    As impossible as it is for translation to capture all aspects of any poem, a version of Purgatorio must convey some of this mood or atmosphere. That should be doable in any language, though one would never know it by reading the American poet Mary Jo Bang’s version of Purgatorio, which is the sequel to her similar Inferno translation of a few years back. It is hard to know where to begin to describe her translation, so I’ll start with her verse technique, which is free verse with occasional lapses into meter. Free verse is a poor medium for translating a long narrative poem, since it creates little forward momentum and can’t exploit the interplay between syntax and line or stanza breaks – key elements of Dante’s technique – to the degree that metrical verse can do. In terms of the content of the poem, Bang frequently seems to find it hard simply to say what Dante says. She explains in her introduction that “the elevated register of most Dante translations makes the experience of reading the poem pure studium, not only by reminding me that the poem is a literary artifact but also by blunting the subtle differences between the voices of the characters, which is a key element of how the poem works.” This statement is misleading. For one thing, it is ironic that Bang mentions characterization, since (as I will show in examples below) her translation routinely misrepresents the individual characters. More fundamentally, for Bang “elevated register” seems to be any serious tone that doesn’t second-guess itself with cartoonish language and imagery. Indeed, Bang’s statement that she has “taken Dante’s stated aims” as her own only demonstrates that she has not grasped Dante’s stated aims. She says that “in order to bring Purgatorio forward into the present, I’ve used spoken English.” But Dante’s poetry is far more nuanced than that. He does not only use the Florentine language spoken on the streets of his time, though he does that as well. The Comedy applies all of Dante’s previous literary phases and styles, from the refined and rarefied language of his early metaphysical love poetry, to the “comic-realism” of his scurrilous poetry-exchanges with friends, to the virtuosity and intricacy of his Provençal precedents, to the dry style of his doctrinal canzoni and the philosophical language of his unfinished work the Convivio. The resulting plurilinguistic poem has an expressive power that has very few rivals in world literature. Yet Bang gives little indication that she has understood any of this.

    Most egregiously odd is Bang’s decision, à la postmodern pastiche, to tack on references from the pop culture of our own time. She lists them in her introduction: “the fable of The Little Red Hen; The Princess and the Pea fairy tale; Goldilocks and the Three Bears; the musical West Side Story; a photo-op close-up of the MGM logo, Leo the Lion … Tootsie Fruit Chews; and Chutes and Ladders … Bob Dylan, Cyndi Lauper, Led Zeppelin, Amy Winehouse, John Coltrane, Marvin Gaye, Talking Heads, Richie Havens, and others.” Is this supposed to be entertaining or relevant? Bang claims that “these allusions will create a recognizable backdrop against which the reader will see that Dante’s remarkable intelligence, considerable humor, vast erudition, and subtly drawn characters are one with our world,” but really what they do is create the sense that Bang’s “translation” often reads like a parody of Dante. Interjecting anachronistic allusions might be effective if they were comparable to Dante’s own practice, but Bang’s pop-cultural inserts really are not.

    Examples from Bang’s text will illustrate. In canto VI, the bitterly ironic tone of Dante’s diatribe against Italy’s and Florence’s political corruption is weirdly undercut by Bang’s allusion to the Little Red Hen. In this passage Dante is taking a sarcastic swipe at Florentine officials who pretend to care about their city’s well-being by volunteering their service with the intention only of using it to promote their own ambitions. As Bang renders the passage: “Many refuse the burden of public office, but you, / Even before being asked, hoist the weight and cry / Like the Little Red Hen, ‘I will, I will, I will.’” But Dante uses no simile here, never mind a silly one. Nor is one needed. What he actually says is this: “Many refuse the civic burden, but your people readily respond without being called: ‘I’ll take it on!’” Bang’s distracting reference to the Red Hen itself requires a note, which she supplies, since many readers, myself included, will not even get the Red Hen reference, which makes its insertion into the text even more absurd. And the light aside is completely inappropriate, since this passage is famous as perhaps the most passionate political verse in all of Italian literature, often cited by the nineteenth-century Italian patriots who were fighting for national unification. Earlier in the same canto, Dante compares the Italian troubadour Sordello’s stoic dignity to a lion at rest, watching Dante and Virgil, but Bang says that he was watching them “like Leo the Lion posing for a close-up.” This translation is so ridiculous, so inappropriate and juvenile, it knocks the wind out of the scene’s sail in one stroke. In any case, do contemporary readers really need cutesy asides to stomach serious content? As Dante does with other figures in Purgatorio who exemplify moral integrity, he wants to emphasize Sordello’s magnanimity and proud bearing as representative of what he elsewhere calls the cantor rectitudinis, the singer of rectitude and moral integrity. Bang apparently does not feel comfortable with this tone so she deconstructs it.

    Similarly inappropriate is Bang’s frequent mangling of Dante’s metaphors. In canto X Dante describes the mountain ledge that he, Virgil, and Sordello are resting on as being “more deserted than desert roads,” but Bang says it is “more / Abandoned than Wall Street on a weekend.” Is this a meaningful or creative digression from the source text? Perhaps if contemporary readers were unable to picture a desert road, it would be, but this is not the case. Rather, it is an imposition, like spray-painting graffiti on Michelangelo’s statue of Moses to show how hip and contemporary one is. Likewise, in canto XXVIII, one of the most high-lyrical passages in all of western literature, where Dante has just entered the Earthly Paradise and is describing its exquisite beauty, Bang translates Dante’s augelletti, little birds, as “the little birdies,” as if we have suddenly entered a Looney Toons episode. I could go on with many similar examples from this book, which often reads more like a cartoonish parody than a translation.

    Purgatorio is a story of redemption through a change of heart that leads to confession, renunciation, and contrition.

    I mentioned above that Dante did not simply write “like people speak,” which is a common contemporary oversimplication about poetry’s relation to the spoken word. The earthiness of Dante’s vernacular is one of the great pleasures of reading him, but Dante employs the entire lexical and syntactical range, from the most common to the most sophisticated. He writes in the classic Italian line, the hendecasyllable, an eleven-syllable line in which the tenth syllable is always accented and other accents typically fall in a few different patterns. Dante masterfully exploits the tension between natural speech rhythms and poetic meter, varying caesuras and accents so that the Comedy’s rhythms are always shifting without losing contact with their metrical base. The hendecasyllable has usually been translated into English in its anglophone parallel, iambic pentameter – a ten-syllable line composed of five parts, or feet, each made up of an unaccented syllable followed by an accented one. Meter is a template not a metronome, however, and speech rhythms blended with the meter are essential to make poetry sing. Yet many translations of Dante, not sufficiently adapting their meter to the vernacular voice and ear, fail to do this. The Romantic poet Ugo Foscolo, who was a classicist, noted the raw, fresh power of Dante’s language, which he compared to the dawn of Greek and therefore western culture in Homer – recalling that Dante is indeed the father of the Italian language, in a way that not even Shakespeare can be said to be for English. An effective translation of Dante will convey some of these of qualities, however inevitably diminished by putting them into another language.

    That there have been a lot of translations of the Comedy can be seen by glancing at the Wikipedia page “English translations of Dante’s Divine Comedy.” It took nearly five hundred years from Dante’s death for there to be a translation of all three parts of the poem. The first was by Henry Boyd, soon followed by the blank verse translation of Henry Francis Cary, which had such a great influence on William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and other Romantic poets. Cary’s version was the first done in blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter), the method that America’s own Henry Wadsworth Longfellow also used. Many translators since Longfellow have done the same. It makes sense that blank verse has been the meter of choice for the Comedy in English. In capable hands it is a supple medium, which has the advantage of not forcing the translator to distort language and syntax for the sake of rhyme. Readers of Dante in English will have their own views as to whether there is a need to add to the many Dante translations available. I myself believe that we could get by for a while with what we already have – though a five-hundred-year hiatus might be overdoing it.

    Among the best-selling contemporary blank verse translations are those of Robin Kirkpatrick and Allen Mandelbaum. These translations, while worthy in many respects, and especially in Kirkpatrick’s case accompanied by excellent commentary and notes, are rather heavy-handedly set to meter and therefore often feel stiff or stilted. Mark Musa’s translation, also in blank verse and very widely used, reads more fluidly though it has a tendency to flatness. Anthony Esolen’s translation of the Comedy is in blank verse but he interjects rhymes here and there to remind the reader that rhyme is in fact a fundamental feature of Dante’s poem. Esolen’s translation is lovely in places, and though I applaud the effort to use rhyme, however sporadically, even in Esolen’s limited use of it the sense is too often forced, or padding is added to find a place for the rhymes. Dante wrote the Comedy in his invented stanza form of terza rima: tercets in which first and third lines rhyme, and the second line of each tercet rhymes with the first and third of the subsequent tercet, and so on, creating a forward-moving chain of interlinking sound. The poet Robert Pinsky produced a fine terza rima Inferno translation by liberally using off-rhymes, but he did not translate the rest of the Comedy. There have been several terza rima translations of the entire Comedy. Ezra Pound, who was uniquely gifted at balancing astute literary observations with extravagant and bizarre endorsements, championed the tortured terza rima version by Laurence Binyon. Dorothy Sayers, with Barbara Reynold’s help at the end, did a terza rima translation that is also quite stilted. A recent translation by the Australian writer-critic Clive James offers an interesting compromise: a rhyming Comedy that abandons the terza rima scheme in favor of rhyming quatrains of iambic pentameter. The result is a robust read, sometimes more Jamesian paraphrase than Dantean translation, that nicely communicates a vitality consistent with Dante’s, though James’s version loses the economy of Dante’s poem as well as its symbolically meaningful numerical structure (the threes of tercets alluding to the Trinity, and so on). The most widely used translation of the Comedy in contemporary US colleges, that of John and Jean Hollander, is not blank verse, as some critics (and the Wiki article) have stated, since the lines vary in length – often with five beats, but also very often with three or four. The Hollanders’ version is exemplary for its readability and accuracy, and they no doubt opted not to fill out all the lines to five beats in order to avoid adding material that is not in the original and does not contribute to the poem – something which the above-mentioned blank verse versions do too often. Another approach to translating the Comedy is to simply put it into prose, accepting that poetry, as Robert Frost said, is what gets lost in translation. Prose translations of Dante with the parallel Italian text have been offered in two important editions with extensive commentary by Charles Singleton and by the coeditors Ronald Martinez and Robert Durling. And lastly, two distinguished late poets, C. H. Sisson and W. S. Merwin, translated Dante into loose blank verse, Sisson providing the entire Comedy in this way and Merwin only Purgatorio. Both these versions are very fine. Sisson and Merwin admirably render Dante into living English while maintaining the modulations and variety of Dante’s style; and like Hollander they do not hesitate to translate lines into shorter than five beats rather than stuffing them with filler. In sum, for any reader trying to figure out which Englished Purgatorio to read, you can’t go wrong with the Sisson and the Merwin for their music and craft, while also using the Hollander version for its cleanness and accuracy as well as its excellent notes.

    The new translation of Purgatorio by D. M. Black falls into the group of blank verse translations described above. Black handles the blank verse competently and often gracefully, striking a nice balance between the at-times too-loose iambic pentameter of Sisson and especially Merwin, and the insufficiently modulated meter of some translations. Stretches of his translation read beautifully. An example would be his rendering of the Sordello passage mentioned earlier, which Black captures better than most:

    And then we came to him. O Lombard soul,
    how nobly and disdainfully you sat there!
    how honest and calm the movement of your eyes!
    He did not say a word to us, but let
    us keep on walking, only watching as
    a lion watches as it waits and couches.

    Importantly as well, Black pays close attention to Dante’s intricate syntax, which often runs on for two or more tercets, imitating it not for any empty formal reason but, as Black says in his introduction, because he wanted to follow Dante’s astonishing intelligence in its ever-engaged meanderings.

    Though Black generally adheres to Dante’s meanings, he occasionally misses with certain terms. An example is a famous passage in canto XXIV, where Dante identifies himself as a poet who faithfully records what love dictates or inspires him to write. Dante here uses the verb significare (from signum, sign), which in this context means to put thoughts or feelings into words (signs), that is, to write or speak. Dante is saying, in short, that he is love’s scribe. Scholars have shown that the notions in this passage have precedents in medieval theological culture, in which Dante was steeped. But Black translates it with an unwieldily postmodern phrase, “making meaning” (echoing the more common sense of significare, “to mean”), which Black further muddles in his commentary by saying that making meaning is the same as “discovering spiritual truth.” Elsewhere too, Black is now and then overly literal or awkward in his interpretations. For example “quando sarai tornato” is rendered as “when you will have returned,” although the verb “sarai tornato” is a still-current usage of the future-perfect tense in Italian, which in this context (the soul of Pia de’ Tolomei asking Dante to remember her when he is back on earth) translates idiomatically as “when you return.”

    A fair amount of translationese appears in Black’s text. When Dante describes the shade of the trees in the garden of Eden softening the bright light of the new day as, “ch’ a li occhi temperava il novo giorno,” literally, “which tempered the new day to my eyes,” Black renders it nonidiomatically as “which made the new day moderate to my eyes.” And in a marvelous and typically Dantean simile for the souls who are amazed to find that the character Dante is still in his body as he travels through Purgatory, Black has, “Like simple mountainfolk who look around them / in stupefaction, dumbstruck, when they come / with their rough rustic manners to the city,” where “stupefaction” is clunky metrical filler redundant with “dumbstruck.” For these lines, Merwin gives the lovely, “No different from someone out of the mountains, / amazed, open-mouthed, turning and looking, speechless, / on entering, rough and wild, into the city.” Merwin’s greater freedom with the meter, adapting it to his ear, enables this sort of inventiveness, which suits Dante’s style.

    Overall however, Black’s translation is well worth reading for its beauties as well as its fidelity to Dante’s text and intentions. It joins the array of worthy Purgatorio translations, which is more than making up for the first five hundred years of little or nothing to choose from.

    Contributed By Andrew Frisardi Andrew Frisardi

    Andrew Frisardi is the author of The Harvest and the Lamp and Love’s Scribe: Reading Dante in the Book of Creation. The paperback edition of his annotated translation of Dante’s Convivio will be available December 2021.

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