The Inferno
by Dante Alighieri (1321)
translated from the Italian by Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander (2000)
Anchor Books (2002)
694 pp

The first and last time I read Dante’s Inferno was, like most people, in a college humanities class. For me that was the Robert Pinsky translation back in 1998. I thoroughly enjoyed my trek through Hell while learning about Dante’s particularly violent medieval theology. Quite a bit of the imagery has stuck with me over the years. Ever since I have had the intention of finishing the full Divine Comedy . . . but that still hasn’t happened (though a couple of years ago I did read D.M. Black’s translation of Purgatorio, published by NYRB Classics. I realized at that time, though, that I’d like to read the whole thing, from the start, and from the same translator(s). So I did some searching and discovered that there was a translation of each part of The Divine Comedy from Dante scholar Robert Hollander and poet Jean Hollander. It still took me some time to finally get going, but over the past month I’ve read The Inferno at the rate of one Canto (plus all of Hollander’s notes) per day. What a nice way to welcome the spring!

The Hollanders opted for textual fidelity, attempting to help the reader know what Dante wrote, even if it sacrifices some of the poetry. I am okay with that this time, since my main object is to understand, as best as possible, what Dante wrote. So, for example, here is a comparison of the Italian, the Pinsky, and the Hollander translation of the opening two tercets:


Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensare rinova la paura!


Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost. To tell
About those woods is hard—so tangled and rough

And savage that thinking of it now, I feel
The old fear stirring: death is hardly more bitter.


Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.

Ah, how hard it is to tell
the nature of that wood, savage, dense and harsh—
the very thought of it renews my fear!

We can see that Pinsky’s is more poetic in a lyrical sense (maybe even than Dante himself), but Hollanders’ is a more faithful translation, line by line. They did have the benefit of not trying to work around the terza rima rhyme scheme.

This edition is a hefty one. Reading just the poem itself would probably take only a few hours, but here we not only have a good introduction and copious notes, we also have the Italian on the opposing page. To read a Canto a day took approximately 20-40 minutes, depending on how many notes they had.

I was always looking forward to my daily quest and was happy with this reading. I’m excited to keep going with another read of Purgatorio, and then, finally, a first read of Paradiso.

Have you read any of the Divine Comedy? Any thoughts—or nightmares—you’d like to share?

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