Creating a New Version of Dante’s Inferno
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
che la diritta via era smarrita.
So begins the Inferno, written between 1308-1317, the first of the three books that make up the Divine Comedy (1308-1321) by Dante Alighieri. The poem was written in an interlocking rhyme scheme called terza rima and has been translated into English over two hundred times. The first American translation of the Divine Comedy by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was the literary event of 1867.
Walter Benjamin claimed in “The Task of the Translator” that “a translation issues from the original — not so much from its life as from its afterlife… a translation, instead of resembling the meaning of the original, must lovingly and in detail incorporate the original’s mode of signification, thus making both the original and the translation recognizable as fragments of a greater language.” The afterlife of Dante’s Inferno has been long and varied. In each case the translator has made formal and lexical choices based on what he or she believed would best capture the essence of Dante’s allegorical journey — a descent down a funnel-like structure of nine, ever-smaller, misery-filled circles to Lake Cocytus where a three-headed Satan sits frozen to his waist in a block of ice, a sinner dangling from each of his three mouths, his flax-mallet teeth hammering their backs throughout eternity. From there, the Dante and his faithful docent, the Roman poet, Virgil, climb out of hell onto the hopeful edge of purgatory, ready for the next phase of the journey.
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