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.
Most English translators have chosen to gesture to the poem’s medieval origins by using elevated language; they have also very often remained faithful to the syntactical structure of the Italian lines, even when that structure fails to match English syntax. The fact is, Dante quite intentionally wrote the poem in a language closer to the vernacular of his day. He chose the vernacular, rather than Latin, the language of scholars and clergy, because he wanted it to be read widely. I felt that a contemporary translation that more closely approximated spoken English would better match Dante’s original intent to create a text that could be read and understood by all. To that end, I have also chosen to substitute more contemporary images, here and there, for images that now sound quaint to the contemporary ear: a peasant and his cart, for example, have become a worker and a car; elsewhere, a speeding arrow has become an Ultimate Aero, the world’s fastest car, signal fires have become klieg lights. I have tried to take these liberties in a way that does not call so much attention to the substitution that the moment becomes comic; that would subvert the goal I set myself — which was to make the poem feel as if it belonged to the reader’s moment but without undermining its pathos and terror.
The Inferno, in addition to being an individual’s allegorical search for spiritual grounding, is also a dramatic demonstration of the pernicious effects of corruption, of malice, of selfishness, and of nefariousness.
I have also foregone Dante’s rhyme scheme since the paucity of rhymes in the English language forces the English translator into patterns of language that in no way conform to the way we speak. Instead, I have substituted the music of contemporary poetry — assonance, alliteration and internal rhyme. Because Dante borrowed language from the poets he admired and was influenced by, like Ovid, Virgil, and Lucan, I have incorporated lines from poets who have lived since the medieval era: Shakespeare, Milton, Browning, and even more recent poets like Bishop, Plath and Berryman. And since the divide between high culture and low has collapsed in the post-modern era, I have chosen to also include lines by low-culture poets such as Dylan, the Stones, and the Beatles.
The Inferno, in addition to being an individual’s allegorical search for spiritual grounding, is also a dramatic demonstration of the pernicious effects of corruption, of malice, of selfishness, and of nefariousness. It addresses the most elemental question of personal and public responsibility. The philosophical climate of Dante’s age and geography was Catholicism but the issues are larger. I’ve tried to create a version of the Inferno that remains true to Dante’s aims but at the same time mirrors in various ways our present day, post-modern 21st century — its language and its mindset. My hope is that this version will be as convincing to the contemporary reader as the original was to readers in that earlier era.
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