Winner of the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award of the Academy of American Poets and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize
On the Inferno
Whether you are approaching Dante Alighieri's Inferno for the first time, for the first time since college, or as a teacher or scholar, you will discover in Robert Pinsky's award-winning translation not merely a fascinating work of medieval Christendom but a psychologically acute vision of sin and suffering with surprising resonance for our times. By conceiving of a fresh, unique way to maintain fidelity to Dante's poetic structure without distorting English usage or idiom, Pinsky conveys not just the literal meaning of Dante's words but their music and spirit, their subtext and emotional import. The result is a timeless, eerily recognizable Hell—and a poem that speaks to our own souls and renews our appreciation of Dante's greatness.
The Inferno is the first part of a three-part epic poem by Dante called the Commedia, or Comedy, and later dubbed Commedia Divina or The Divine Comedy by others. Written in the early fourteenth century, in a world poised between the theological worldview of the Middle Ages and the philosophical expanse of the Renaissance, it presents us with one of the essential human narratives: the journey of the self through the darkest side of existence toward the redemption and affirmation of the soul, from the "dark woods" of human life toward God's light.
On one level, the poem tracks the particular spiritual journey of its author. Set in the year 1300, the Commedia follows Dante the character on a pilgrimage from Hell to Paradise, re-creating metaphorically the course of Dante's life and the development of his ideas. Dante the poet, writing seven years after his fictional pilgrimage, depicts Dante the pilgrim as he is guided through Inferno and Purgatorio by the Latin poet Virgil, and through Paradiso by the Lady Beatrice, or Beatrice Portinari, Dante's true-life beloved who died in 1290 and for whom he was in mourning. Dante had been passionately involved in Florentine politics as a member of the radical Catholic wing of the Guelph party which favored the separation of church and state. When the Guelphs lost power to another faction at the turn of the century, Dante was falsely accused of crimes against the state and exiled from his beloved Florence. In Inferno, he takes the opportunity to name names and assign positions in Hell to the false counselors, errant colleagues, self-interested politicians, misguided clerics, and other morally reprehensible contemporaries whose actions, he believed, led to his exile. At the same time, he revisits his own intellectual and moral life, comes to understand his sins, and in the poem's third part, Paradiso, emerges redeemed. With an irony that animates the poem for the contemporary reader, Inferno traces its author's spiritual growth even as it achieves revenge on his personal enemies—for eternity, in a sense.
The poem's vision of Hell is based on Thomas Aquinas's interpretation of Aristotle's principle of retribution. This is the concept of contrapasso, in which the soul's suffering in Hell extends or reflects or reembodies the sin that predominated it: adulterous lovers are thrown about in a perpetual storm, murderers are boiled in blood, those who succumbed to anger tear at one another's naked bodies, and so forth. This vision of Hell is grounded as well in the medieval belief in a rigorous divine justice.
But what makes the poem an enduring work of literature is not merely its manifestation of Christian doctrine and Aquinas's ideas but its richly detailed, astonishingly imaginative deployment of language, thought, history, belief, and experience. Dante creates a complex tension between his poetic vision of an absolute divine justice and his pilgrim-self's actual experience of human nature and human suffering. Dante's sinners are fully and recognizably human, distinct individuals and members of society; they interest us dramatically. In the Inferno we recognize ourselves as we are in the world above ground and the great challenges we face in struggling to live a good life.
On Pinsky's Translation
Dante structured his Commedia as an epic poem in three parts and a hundred cantos. Inferno contains thirty-four cantos and is set in the Lenten period of the year 1300. The action of the poem is meant to occur over the days that recall Christ's suffering, death, and resurrection. In calling his poem a "comedy," Dante suggests that it ends happily and that its protagonist is not a mythologized heroic warrior but an actual contemporary person. He wrote the poem not in Latin—the standard language of the most serious literature of the period—but in the everyday Italian of his city. In this Dante resembles the authors of the Gospels, who used humble language to convey the message of Christ, and made his work generally accessible to people.
In composing the Commedia, Dante also devised the terza rima—the pattern of interlocking rhymes (aba bcb cdc ded, etc.) in which the first and third lines rhyme in each tercet, or group of three lines, with the second line indicating the rhyming sound of the next tercet. This rhyme scheme, with its conclusive yet propulsive rhythm, gives the poem a muscular quality; its verses move through narrative, dialogue, cosmology, meditation, and theological musing with great conviction, carrying the reader along as the sentences cross rhymes and tercets.
These two essential elements of the poem's structure—the use of colloquial speech and the terza rima pattern—have always posed great challenges to those who attempt to translate the Commedia into English. Terza rima relies for its strength on the Italian language's rhythm and its richness in rhyming words. English has far fewer rhymes than Italian, but many more synonyms; because of this, translators in search of rhyming synonyms have often resorted to the use of words no English speaker would actually say, thus making the translated poem sound awkwardly formal. For centuries, translators have sacrificed meaning to music or vice versa. The resulting versions have been either literally accurate, but not effective as poems in their own right, or stilted and archaic in their use of English and thus incapable of conveying the power and momentum of the original.
Robert Pinsky's approach to these challenges was based in an effort to recreate Dante's poem in plain English while also conveying some of Dante's verbal music. Poetry, in Pinsky's view, is a technology of language's sounds, and since one language's sounds cannot be those of another, poetry is in this sense essentially untranslatable. "I wanted to make it as accurate as I could," Pinsky says of the beginning of his undertaking. "After working on a very little of it, I got a strong notion that I could also make it sound like a poem in English."
In this endeavor Pinsky neither abandoned terza rima nor tried to reproduce the rhymes of the Italian. Instead, he sought a reasonable English equivalent, by defining rhyme loosely so as to let English approximate the richness in like sounds of Italian. He defines rhyme by like terminal consonants, no matter how much the vowel may vary. Thus there are such "rhymed" triads as both/forth/mouth and neck/snake/alack. Pinsky's translation runs the sentences freely across the ends of lines and tercets; the reader's voice also should run freely, not treating the end of a line as a stop. Within the idiomatic flow of Pinsky's English are sentences that can be read with pleasure.