Translation is always an imperfect art, demanding from its practitioners a level of dual fidelity that even a seasoned bigamist would envy. And no work of art has prompted more in the way of earnest imperfection than Dante's Divine Comedy
. Transforming those intricate, rhyme-rich tercets into English has been the despair of many a distinguished translator, from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to W.S. Merwin (whose estimable rendition
found the poet rattling over more than one linguistic speed bump). Now comes a fresh rendition of the Inferno
from a husband-and-wife team. Robert Hollander, who has taught Dante for nearly four decades at Princeton, supplies the scholarly muscle, while his wife, poet Jean Hollander, attends to the verbal music.
How does their collaboration stack up? In his introduction, Robert Hollander is quick to acknowledge his debt to John D. Sinclair's prose trot of 1939, and to the version that Charles Singleton derived largely from his predecessor's in 1970. Yet the Hollanders have done us all a favor by throwing Sinclair's faux medievalisms overboard. And their predilection for direct, monosyllabic English sometimes brings them much closer to Dante's asperity and rhythmic urgency. One example will suffice. In the last line of Canto V, after listening to Francesca's adulterous aria, the poet faints: "E caddi come corpo morto cade." Sinclair's rendering---"I swooned as if in death and dropped like a dead body"--has a kind of conditional mushiness to it. Compare the punchier rendition from the Hollanders: "And down I fell as a dead body falls." It sounds like an actual line of English verse, which is the least we can do for the supreme poet of our beleaguered civilization.
Robert Hollander has also supplied an extensive and very welcome commentary. There are times, perhaps, when he might have broken ranks with his academic ancestors: why not deviate from Giorgio Petrocchi's 1967 edition of the Italian text when he thinks that the great scholar was barking up the wrong tree? In any case, the Hollanders' Inferno is a fine addition to the burgeoning bookshelf of Dante in English. It won't displace the relatively recent verse translations by Robert Pinsky or Allen Mandelbaum, and even John Ciardi's version, which sometimes substitutes breeziness for accuracy, can probably hold its own here. But when it comes to high fidelity and exegetical generosity, this Inferno burns brightly indeed. --James Marcus
From Publishers Weekly
The opening canzone of Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy has appeared in almost every imaginable variety of English translation: prose, blank verse and iambic pentameter; unrhymed or in terza rima; with and without the original Italian; with commentary ranging from a few notes to a full separate volume. The translations have been produced by poets, scholars and poet-scholars. In the past six years alone, six new translations of the Inferno have appeared (including Robert Pinsky's 1994 rendition for FSG) and at least 10 others remain in print, including Allen Mandelbaum's celebrated 1980 translation (Univ. of Calif. Press and Bantam) and the extensively annotated editions of Charles Singleton (Princeton Univ. Press) and Mark Musa (Univ. of Indiana Press), the latter two unlikely to be surpassed soon in terms of extensiveness of commentary.Dante scholar Robert Hollander and the poet Jean Hollander bring to this crowded market a new translation of the Inferno that, remarkably, is by no means redundant and will for many be the definitive edition for the foreseeable future. The heart of the Hollanders' edition is the translation itself, which nicely balances the precision required for a much-interpreted allegory and the poetic qualities that draw most readers to the work. The result is a terse, lean Dante with its own kind of beauty. While Mandelbaum's translation begins "When I had journeyed half of our life's way,/ I found myself within a shadowed forest,/ for I had lost the path that does not stray," the Hollanders' rendition reads: "Midway in the journey of our life/ I came to myself in a dark wood,/ for the straight way was lost." While there will be debate about the relative poetic merit of this new translation in comparison to the accomplishments of Mandelbaum, Pinsky, Zappulla and others, the Hollanders' lines will satisfy both the poetry lover and scholar; they are at once literary, accessible and possessed of the seeming transparence that often characterizes great translations. The Italian text is included on the facing page for easy reference, along with notes drawing on some 60 Dante scholars, several indexes, a list of works cited and an introduction by Robert Hollander. General readers, students and scholars will all find their favorite circles within this layered text.
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