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Inferno, The

by Dante

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By all accounts, it is a near-impossible task to translate Dante’s Divine Comedy into English without losing much of the power of his verse. Those who can read Italian swear that nothing can approach Dante in his own language; those of us who can’t read Italian feel like the last kid picked for a sandlot team. What’s the equivalent of reading Dante in English? Drinking instant coffee on a Kona plantation? Catching a catfish in a trout stream? Climbing the highest mountain in Kansas?

In any case, it seems likely that translator Robert Pinsky, the Poet Laureate of the United States, has solved our problems. Pinsky’s translation “maintains the original’s episodic and narrative velocity while mirroring its formal shape and character,” writes Edward Hirsch. “Pinsky succeeds in creating a supple American equivalent for Dante’s vernacular music where many others have failed.”

As far as I can tell, what Hirsch says is true. One of the difficulties facing translators of Dante is his terza rima rhyming scheme, coupled with the fact that there are far fewer rhyming words available in English than there are in Italian. Terza rima, an aba, bcb, cdc rhyming pattern, was invented by Dante for the Divine Comedy, at least in part because of his obsession with the number three (he superstitiously assigned more meaning to it because of the Trinity). Such a rhyme scheme demands a great many rhyming words—more than the English language can reasonably provide. Pinsky’s solution to this problem is to rely on a looser definition of rhyming, and then to stick rigorously to that definition. Thus, he says, “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.” By this definition, then, “sleep,” “stop,” and “up” all rhyme.

Likewise, words that end in vowel sounds must agree in endings, with round vowels rhyming with round vowels and closed vowels with closed vowels (so that “stay” rhymes with “cloy” and “why”).

Though a suspicious mind might wonder if Pinsky adopts this strategy simply to save himself the trouble of sweating over the right word, the translation still indicates a lot of sweat. And a more generous mind might admit that what the reader most desires is not line after line of sing-song rhymes, but to hear the voice of Dante himself. It seems to me that Pinsky gives us Dante in passages like this:

“As soon as I was up—so out of breath

Were my spent lungs I felt that I could get

No farther than I was. ‘To cast off sloth

Now well behooves you,’ said my master then:

‘For resting upon soft down, or underneath

The blanket’s cloth, is not how fame is won—

Without which, one spends life to leave behind

As vestige of himself on earth the sign

Smoke leaves on air, or foam on water. So stand

And overcome your panting—with the soul,

Which wins all battles if it does not despond

Under its heavy body’s weight . . .’”

by Jeff Baldwin