This enthralling new translation of Dante’s Inferno immediately joins ranks with the very best (Richard Lansing).
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About the Author
Peter Thornton attended a Jesuit prep school in Manhattan, where the curriculum was based on Latin and Greek. After graduating from Boston College, he earned his PhD from Stanford University. He taught college English for several years before becoming a lawyer. The intellectual rigor of the law did not satisfy his hunger for poetry and he has spent decades translating the works of Dante and Petrarch into English verse. He currently resides in Evanston, Illinois.
Dante Alighieri, born in Florence in 1265, became one of the leading lyric poets in Italy as a young man. He was exiled for political reasons, and in the last fifteen years of his life composed The Divine Comedy, of which the Inferno is the most-read part today.
Read an Excerpt
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
che la diritta via era smarrita.
Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura4
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier rinova la paura!
Tant' è amara che poco è più morte;7
ma per trattar del ben ch'i' vi trovai,
dirò de l'altre cose ch'i' v'ho scorte.
Io non so ben ridir com' i' v'intrai,10
tant' era pien di sonno a quel punto
che la verace via abbandonai.
Ma poi ch'i' fui al piè d'un colle giunto,13
là dove terminava quella valle
che m'avea di paura il cor compunto,
guardai in alto e vidi le sue spalle16
vestite già de' raggi del pianeta
che mena dritto altrui per ogne calle.
Allor fu la paura un poco queta,19
che nel lago del cor m'era durata
la notte ch'i' passai con tanta pieta.
E come quei che con lena affannata,22
uscito fuor del pelago a la riva,
si volge a l'acqua perigliosa e guata,
Lost in a dark wood and threatened by three beasts, Dante is rescued by Virgil, who proposes a journey to the other world.
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself in a dark wilderness,
for I had wandered from the straight and true.
How hard a thing it is to tell about,4
that wilderness so savage, dense, and harsh,
even to think of it renews my fear!
It is so bitter, death is hardly more-7
but to reveal the good that came to me,
I shall relate the other things I saw.
How I had entered, I can't bring to mind,10
I was so full of sleep just at that point
when I first left the way of truth behind.
But when I reached the foot of a high hill,13
right where the valley opened to its end-
the valley that had pierced my heart with fear-
I raised my eyes and saw its shoulders robed16
with the rays of that wandering light of Heaven°
that leads all men aright on every road.
That quieted a bit the dread that stirred19
trembling within the waters of my heart
all through that night of misery I endured.
And as a man with labored breathing drags22
his legs out of the water and, ashore,
fixes his eyes upon the dangerous sea,
° that wandering light of Heaven: Italian pianeta, "planet." It is the sun, considered a planet, or wandering light, revolving about the earth.
così l'animo mio, ch'ancor fuggiva,25
si volse a retro a rimirar lo passo
che non lasciò già mai persona viva.
Poi ch'èi posato un poco il corpo lasso,28
ripresi via per la piaggia diserta,
sì che 'l piè fermo sempre era 'l più basso.
Ed ecco, quasi al cominciar de l'erta,31
una lonza leggera e presta molto,
che di pel macolato era coverta;
e non mi si partia dinanzi al volto,34
anzi 'mpediva tanto il mio cammino,
ch'i' fui per ritornar più volte vòlto.
Temp' era dal principio del mattino,37
e 'l sol montava 'n sù con quelle stelle
ch'eran con lui quando l'amor divino
mosse di prima quelle cose belle;40
sì ch'a bene sperar m'era cagione
di quella fiera a la gaetta pelle
l'ora del tempo e la dolce stagione;43
ma non sì che paura non mi desse
la vista che m'apparve d'un leone.
Questi parea che contra me venisse46
con la test' alta e con rabbiosa fame,
sì che parea che l'aere ne tremesse.
Ed una lupa, che di tutte brame49
sembiava carca ne la sua magrezza,
e molte genti fé già viver grame,
questa mi porse tanto di gravezza52
con la paura ch'uscia di sua vista,
ch'io perdei la speranza de l'altezza.
E qual è quei che volontieri acquista,55
e giugne 'l tempo che perder lo face,
che 'n tutti suoi pensier piange e s'attrista;
tal mi fece la bestia sanza pace,58
che, venendomi 'ncontro, a poco a poco
mi ripigneva là dove 'l sol tace. So too my mind, while still a fugitive,25
turned back to gaze again upon that pass
which never let a man escape alive.
When I had given my weary body rest,28
I struck again over the desert slope,
ever the firmer foot the one below,
And look! just where the steeper rise began,31
a leopard light of foot and quick to lunge,
all covered in a pelt of flecks and spots,
Who stood before my face and would not leave,34
but did so check me in the path I trod,
I often turned to go the way I came.
The hour was morning at the break of dawn;37
the sun was mounting higher with those stars°
that shone beside him when the Love Divine
In the beginning made their beauty move,40
and so they were a cause of hope for me
to get free of that beast of flashy hide-
The waking hour and that sweet time of year;43
but hope was not so strong that I could stand
bold when a lion stepped before my eyes!
This one seemed to be coming straight for me,46
his head held high, his hunger hot with wrath-
seemed to strike tremors in the very air!
Then a she-wolf, whose scrawniness seemed stuffed49
with all men's cravings, sluggish with desires,
who had made many live in wretchedness-
So heavily she weighed my spirit down,52
pressing me by the terror of her glance,
I lost all hope to gain the mountaintop.
And as a gambler, winning with a will,55
happening on the time when he must lose,
turns all his thoughts to weeping and despair,
So I by that relentless beast, who came58
against me step by step, and drove me back
to where the sun is silent evermore.
those stars: the constellation Aries. It is the springtime of the year, recalling the springtime of the universe; see notes. Mentre ch'i' rovinava in basso loco,61
dinanzi a li occhi mi si fu offerto
chi per lungo silenzio parea fioco.
Quando vidi costui nel gran diserto,64
«Miserere di me», gridai a lui,
«qual che tu sii, od ombra od omo certo!».
Rispuosemi: «Non omo, omo già fui,67
e li parenti miei furon lombardi,
mantoani per patrïa ambedui.
Nacqui sub Iulio, ancor che fosse tardi,70
e vissi a Roma sotto 'l buono Augusto
nel tempo de li dèi falsi e bugiardi.
Poeta fui, e cantai di quel giusto73
figliuol d'Anchise che venne di Troia,
poi che 'l superbo Ilïón fu combusto.
Ma tu perché ritorni a tanta noia?76
perché non sali il dilettoso monte
ch'è principio e cagion di tutta gioia?».
«Or se' tu quel Virgilio e quella fonte79
che spandi di parlar sì largo fiume?»,
rispuos' io lui con vergognosa fronte.
«O de li altri poeti onore e lume,82
vagliami 'l lungo studio e 'l grande amore
che m'ha fatto cercar lo tuo volume.
Tu se' lo mio maestro e 'l mio autore,85
tu se' solo colui da cu' io tolsi
lo bello stilo che m'ha fatto onore.
Vedi la bestia per cu' io mi volsi;88
aiutami da lei, famoso saggio,
ch'ella mi fa tremar le vene e i polsi».
«A te convien tenere altro vïaggio»,91
rispuose, poi che lagrimar mi vide,
«se vuo' campar d'esto loco selvaggio;
ché questa bestia, per la qual tu gride,94
non lascia altrui passar per la sua via,
ma tanto lo 'mpedisce che l'uccide;
Now while I stumbled to the deepest wood,61
before my eyes appeared the form of one
who seemed hoarse, having held his words so long.
And when I saw him in that endless waste,64
"Mercy upon me, mercy!" I cried out,
"whatever you are, a shade, or man in truth!"
He answered me: "No man; I was a man,67
and both my parents came from Lombardy,
and Mantua they called their native land.
In the last days of Julius I was born,70
and lived in Rome under the good Augustus
in the time of the false and cheating gods.
I was a poet, and I sang of how73
that just son of Anchises° came from Troy
when her proud towers and walls were burnt to dust.
But you, why do you turn back to such pain?76
Why don't you climb that hill that brings delight,
the origin and cause of every joy?"
"Then are you-are you Virgil? And that spring79
swelling into so rich a stream of verse?"
I answered him, my forehead full of shame.
"Honor and light of every poet, may82
my long study avail me, and the love
that made me search the volume of your work.
You are my teacher, my authority;85
you alone are the one from whom I took
the style whose loveliness has honored me.
See there the beast that makes me turn aside.88
Save me from her, O man renowned and wise!
She sets the pulses trembling in my veins!"
"It is another journey you must take,"91
replied the poet when he saw me weep,
"if you wish to escape this savage place,
Because this beast that makes you cry for help94
never lets any pass along her way,
but checks his path until she takes his life.
Table of Contents
|The Plan of Dante's Hell||XXI|
What People are Saying About This
"The love of Dante comes through inthe text -- every line carefully, beautifully translated." -- Duke University
Conversation with ANTHONY ESOLEN, translator of Dante’s INFERNO
1. What attracted you to Dante’s work?
Dante is arguably the greatest poet who ever lived; I think only Homer and Shakespeare deserve mention in the same breath. It is hard to find a poet whose art is as severe, as precisely chiseled, and as intellectually well-defined as is Dante's, yet at the same time his art possesses a kaleidoscopic complexity that staggers the imagination. Each of these qualities is rare enough. To find them at once in the same author, writing an epic about the ultimate questions, is–well, all I can say is that we will not see his like again.
2. What made you interested in doing translations?
Once, when I was a graduate student attending a party given by a professor of German, I met a young man who said he was studying Georgian, the language spoken by the natives of the Caucasus mountains. "Why on earth would you do that?" I asked, thinking I'd come upon another harmless academic snob. His answer shamed me. "One of the greatest living poets in the world lives in Georgia. He writes epics in Georgian, and I want to translate them into English so that other people can read them." Of all the things that academics do–some good, some bad, many simply vain and useless–I could hardly think of anything of greater value than to devote your talent to so humbling a task. Then, years later, my wife Debra suggested the same thing to me, and that is when I started work on Lucretius.
3. Is Dante difficult to render well in English? What were some of the challenges you faced as a translator, and what are youtrying to achieve with this translation?
Dante is difficult, period. I think, though, that once you get over the issue of rhymes, English is actually a pretty good language into which to translate the Commedia. (I love German, but I do shudder to think of Hell in the Teutonic tongue!) English is a peculiar language, after all: it contains its good stock of short, brusque, German or Middle French words, enriched by an enormous stock of words derived directly from Latin or from the Romance languages. So the vocabulary, with all its subtle semantic and tonal shades, helps a lot, as does that most supple tool, English iambic pentameter.
What was I trying to achieve? I want to make people fall in love with Dante–really fall in love with him, and not just pretend to in order to score points at a literary soiree. For that, you need swift and vigorous but also musical verse. And I'm hoping that that's what I've provided.
4. Why iambic pentameter?
Nothing else will do. Free verse won't do; non-metrical (that is to say, free but not too free) verse won't do, either. Music must somehow be translated into what retains traces of the music. Iambic pentameter is the natural meter of English narrative poetry, imitating most faithfully the rhythms of our speech, and it is capable of extraordinary variation (consider the uses to which Shakespeare put it in his plays). We are fortunate to have it.
5. What kind of research did you do for this translation, and how did you go about doing it?
For the translation, I consulted many Italian editions of Dante, especially those whose notes brought out most clearly the meanings of his coinages or of strange dialectal words. As for the rest of the book, let's just say that for a year I had twenty volumes of Aquinas cluttering up the office.
6. Why has the INFERNO been so influential and admired over the ages and in our own time?
Well, for a while Dante did go out of fashion: too medieval, you know. With the important exceptions of Milton and Blake, he really did not have many admirers among English writers from the Tudors to the end of the eighteenth century. The English Romantics and their Victorian followers rediscovered his greatness–or at least they found the story of Dante and Beatrice to harmonize with their own beautiful, dreamy, half-sickly love of the chivalric past. That was in England; in Italy, Dante has been the poet who defined both language and nationhood. But I think that modern readers are attracted to Dante because they find in him what the modern world cannot offer: a cogent and coherent vision of the universe.
7. Why, in this new translation, did you include the “sourcebook” that presents Dante’s most important religious sources?
I'm a professor by trade and know what sorts of ancillary material I would want, and have wanted, in books I assign the students to read. Also, I think that you miss much of the joy of a work of art when you cannot walk a little way into the world that gave it birth.
8. What do you want readers to take away from this new translation?
A love for Dante, and maybe a clearer view of that great peak of intellectual and artistic achievement: the Middle Ages.
9. What are you working on now?
Don't tell my editor, but I'm taking a break! Actually, I'm going to be writing the introduction and the notes to my translation of Paradiso, while revising the completed translation. Purgatorio is finished and ready to be printed.
10. What other languages do you speak fluently and/or translate?
How fluently I speak it, I'd best let the natives judge, but I do speak German too, and read French, Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and some (New Testament, which is the easy stuff) Greek. I've translated Lucretius (De Rerum Natura; Latin) and Torquato Tasso (Gerusalemme Liberata; Italian), and one of these days I'm going to make good on a threat to translate into English verse a passel of Anglo-Saxon poems not named "Beowulf".