on 12 December 2009
For anyone who may not be familiar with the plot of Dante Aligheri's Inferno, in brief, it involves the narrator's descent, while still alive, into the circles of Hell where he witnesses the grotesque punishments of many people including his own contemporaries, from corrupt popes to soldiers. The book is an allegorical journey of humankind's redemption, at the same time casting a critical glance over the politics of Italy and Florence, all portrayed in beautiful verse.
There is a lot of speculation about the exact reason for this descent into Hell, confusion which results in immediate differences in translation from the very first chapter of the book. So the question for most people would be which book has the best translation?
Well, that depends on what you are looking for. This book does have some wonderful translations; in particular I enjoyed Canto 33. And if you are looking for an edition for studying, line by line, then this is a very good version - the introduction and commentary are worth the price of the book alone, though the notes are in the back of the book which can be a little annoying. This version also has the Italian and English side-by-side, one of the main reasons for me buying it. But, I think, if you are reading it purely for pleasure, I probably prefer the Mark Musa or Robert Hollander versions.
That said, when choosing between the various translations, I would say that it really is down to personal taste; I like aspects of pretty much most translations and I enjoy having various translations available to scrutinise. But I would recommend this to anyone studying Dante's Inferno.
"Midway life's journey I was made aware/that I had strayed into a dark forest..."
Those eerie words open the first cantica of Dante Alighieri's "Divine Comedy," the legendary poem that takes its author through the eerie depths of hell, heaven and purgatory. It's a haunting, almost hallucinatory experience, full of the the metaphorical and supernatural horrors of the inferno, and joys of paradise.
The date is Good Friday of the year 1300, and Dante is lost in a creepy dark forest, being assaulted by a trio of beasts who symbolize his own sins. But suddenly he is rescued ("Not man; man I once was") by the legendary poet Virgil, who takes the despondent Dante under his wing -- and down into Hell.
But this isn't a straightforward hell of flames and dancing devils. Instead, it's a multi-tiered carnival of horrors, where different sins are punished with different means. Opportunists are forever stung by insects, the lustful are trapped in a storm, the greedy are forced to battle against each other, and the violent lie in a river of boiling blood, are transformed into thorn bushes, and are trapped on a volcanic desert.
Well, that was fun. But after passing through hell, Dante gets the guided tour of Purgatory, where the souls of the not-that-bad-but-not-pure-either get cleansed. He and Virgil emerge at the base of a vast mountain, and an angel orders him to "wash you those wounds within," then lets them in.
As Virgil and Dante climb the mountain, they observe the seven terraces that sinners stay on, representing the seven deadly sins -- the angry, the proud, the envious, the lazy, the greedy, the lustful and the gluttons. It's a one-way trip, and you don't even get to look back.
The road up the mountain leads to the gates of Heaven, and soon Dante has been purified to the point where he's allowed to go inside. Virgil doesn't get to enter Heaven, so he passes Dante on to the beautiful Beatrice, the woman he loved in his younger years.
She whisks him up to the spheres of those who are now pure of soul -- the wise, the loving, the people who fought for their religion, the just, the contemplative, the saints, and finally even the angels. And after passing through heaven's nine spheres, he passes out of the physical realm and human understanding -- and sees God, the incomprehensible, represented by three circles inside each other, but all the same size.
Needless to say, it's a pretty wild trip.And admittedly "Purgatorio" and "Paradiso" aren't quite on the writing level of "Inferno," which has the most visceral, skin-crawling imagery and lines ("Fixed in the slime, groan they, 'We were sullen and wroth...'"), and a wicked sense of irony. It makes the angels and saints seem a bit tame.
But there's plenty of power in the second two books, particularly when Dante tries to comprehend God, and almost blows out his brain in the process -- "my desire and my will were turned like a wheel, all at one speed by the Love that turns the sun and all the other stars." It's haunting, and sticks with you long after the story has ended.
More impressive still is his ability to weave the poetry out of symbolism and allegory, without it ever seeming preachy or annoying. Even at the start, Dante sees lion, a leopard and a wolf, which symbolize different sins, and a dark forest that indicates suicidal thoughts. Not to mention Purgatory as a mountain that must be climbed, or Hell as a Hadesian underworld.
Dante's vivid writing and wildly imaginative journey makes the "Divine Comedy" a timeless, spellbinding read, and hauntingly powerful from inferno to paradiso.
on 13 March 2007
Dante was an exile in his own time. In his great work, he descends to the underworld where he encounters his poetic hero Virgil who guides him through the circles of Hell, up Mount Purgatory, and to the gates of Paradise, where his role is taken by Dante's vision of the Ideal, Beatrice. In Paradise Dante meets the spirits of the blessed.
This is a magnificent work, considered by some the joint centre of the Western Canon along with Shakespeare. It is peerless among works of literature, offering a lifetime of deep reading. Mandelbaum is to be congratulated on producing a direct, lively, musical translation which leads the eye and the mind ever onward. The presentation is first-rate, pleasing to the eye and hard-wearing, and comes with many of Boticelli's illustrations. I have tried and failed with other translations, but Mandelbaum's is eminently readable.