The Divine Comedy – On Translations

Through Inferno, Canto VII

“Abandon all hope, you who enter here.”
~Inscription above the gate of hell, Inferno, Canto III

All of the books in the Franklin Library’s collection are printed in English. Otherwise, this little project of mine would come to a screeching halt rather rapidly. But this means that the numerous books that were originally written in other languages are translations.

Now, normally I wouldn’t even give this fact a second thought. I mean, there are English words for me to read, and presumably whoever did the translation knew what they were talking about, so why should I bother with it? But in the case of The Divine Comedy, it’s necessarily an issue.

The honors college at my university offers a number of informal reading groups per semester, where a group of students all read a certain amount per week and get together to discuss the book. Seeing Dante’s Inferno (which, for those of you who don’t know, if the first section of The Divine Comedy) on the list, I immediately signed up, since I intended to read it anyway.

Now, when you sign up for these reading groups, you get a free copy of the book. The copy that everyone is reading is the Hollander translation. However, the edition published by the Franklin Library is the Ciardi translation.

So this puts me in the interesting position of owning two translations of the same work. At least thus far, I’ve been reading along in both, and the differences in style are remarkable.

It’s probably because The Divine Comedy really is a poem – in the original Italian, it rhymes and everything. And the two translators have taken very different approaches to the style of the poem. So, for all of you who are simply torn over which translation to read, here is:

My Short Guide to Divine Comedy Translations (based on 7 cantos):

The Hollander translation reads very much like prose. The phrasing is rather lyrical, but it comes across as normal writing. The annotations (or whatever they’re called – the notes that explain things) are very exhaustive, often detailing numerous interpretations of various lines, not just the prevalent one. This is generally one aspect that I really like, as it really makes you think about what’s written, but it can also be a little confusing.

The Ciardi translation, on the other hand, reads like a poem. The rhyme structure is the same as the original Italian, and the general phrasing is much more . . . poem-y. Additionally, the annotations are not nearly as extensive. This can be nice, since the Hollander annotations can be very academic, and Ciardi ones are often more practical – but they also don’t really convey as full a picture of what Dante was talking about, at least in my opinion.

From what I can tell so far, the Hollander translation is excellent for comprehension and context, while the Ciardi version is stylistically more poetic and indirect. What I’ve been doing is reading a canto in the Hollander translation, including all annotations. Then, when I’m through, I read the same canto in the Ciardi translation, at which point I don’t even need annotations – I can just enjoy the rhythm and style of the poem.

If you (understandably) don’t want to buy and read two copies of the same book, I’d suggest the Hollander if you’ve never read the Divine Comedy before. For any future re-reading, though, the Ciardi seems excellent.

Anyway, that’s my impression so far.

Now for a bit of whining. In order for me to make sure that I’m on pace to finish these twelve books within the semester, I have a ‘pages per day’ quota. It’s the very manageable number 43 (unless I get really lazy one week, in which case it will go up). However, as I’m finding out, not all pages are created equal. For something like The Divine Comedy, which I have to slowly read with annotations (not included in the page count), it can take as much as an hour to get through 7 pages of text (in both translations). Which means that, while I’m enjoying the Comedy thus far, it’s rather demoralizing in terms of how much progress I make toward my daily goal.

Anyway, that’s all. I’m too lazy to search for a relevant link tonight, so if you want something further to read, go look up The Divine Comedy on Wikipedia – I imagine it includes a thorough breakdown of the structure of the poem.

Published in: on September 14, 2010 at 12:14 AM  Leave a Comment  
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