on January 31, 2000
If you're one of those readers who runs screaming from the Epic Poem because (a) the poetry is too hard to read or (b) you're worried you won't understand all the allusions, metaphors, or get the really dirty hidden jokes . . . well, then, Robert Pinsky's highly entertaining translation of this classic poem is made just for you.
Pinsky does his best to maintain the poem's terza rima structure -- and his "Translator's Note" at the beginning of the book will help you appreciate just how difficult a task that is -- but those accustomed to reading straight prose will hardly know the craft to which they're being exposed. While Pinsky does indeed keep to the integrity of the terza rima, the text remains eminently readable. And if you're one of those readers who has a tendency to take a slight mental pause at the end of each line of poetry (a real problem, I find, when rhyme is involved), then you'll appreciate how Pinsky's careful enjambment keeps things moving along in a manner that sounds natural to ears accustomed to modern-day spoken English. No forced rhymes or wacky syntax here.
And for those concerned that they may get lost among Dante's political, historical, and literary references, this translation comes with top-notch notes by Nicole Pinsky that help put everything into their proper context. Sure, there are times when you don't really care which obscure Italian pickpocket is getting his comeuppance in Hell -- but more often than not, the notes are an invaluable companion to the poem. There's also an intriguing topographical map of Hell included near the front of the book that you'll find yourself marking with your thumb for easy reference as you journey from one Ring of Hell to another.
But while the Pinskys definitely keep the show moving from the wings, it's Dante who's the real star here, and modern readers who have never experienced the Inferno before will be surprised at how versatile Dante can be. Dante's Hell is a place where the punishments truly fit the crime -- where those who professed in life an ability to see the future are doomed to walk the Rings of Hell with their heads turned around backward -- and Dante pulls no punches when it comes to describing the punishments inflicted on Hell's inhabitants. Fans of the modern horror novel will find lots of familiar elements in here, as demons fight each other in mid-air over bungled chances to punish souls, as men turn to beast and vice versa, and as Dante and his guide encounter a forest filled with trees which are actually the transformed souls of suicides. It's creepy stuff. But there's also a bit of romance, redemption, and a really good fart joke.
Whether its thoughtful ruminations on the nature of God's will, retribution, and Man's place in the City of God, or just the thief Vanni Fucci giving God the finger, there are more than enough bits in here to keep even the most casual reader interested. And more serious readers will likely find themselves turning to this translation again.
In other words, even if poetry's not your thing, you may still want to check out this translation of a classic. You won't be disappointed.
on May 30, 2002
The Inferno is by far the most interesting of the three books which make up Dante's Divine Comedy, and Robert Pinsky's translation is by far the best I've ever read.
The Inferno is the story of Dante's journey through hell on the night before Good Friday in 1300. He moves through the nine circles, until he meets Satan in the middle. Each circle holds souls who committed various sins, each catagorised by their sins and punishments. All of Dante's sinners receive retribution, ironically based on their respective sins. He also fills hell with famous sinners, making it easier to determine what sins belong to which circle of hell. The nine circles are also catagorised by regions: the first five are the sins of incontinence, the next three are the sins of violence, the next is the sins of fraud, and the last and most terrible circle is the sins of betrayal.
One of the most notable things about The Inferno is that Dante's theme is not that of Christian forgiveness, but instead it is justice. All sinners in hell deserve their punishments, and they will suffer them forever. This is illustrated by the case of the sinful love of Francesca da Rimini.
Pinsky's gift to the readers of this version of The Inferno is twofold: the first is his ability to write so well in English, and the second is the way he chose to present the English with regard to the Italian. The Inferno is written in terza rima, which Dante invented for the Divine Comedy. This involves a rhyming scheme, and many translators restrict themselves to it when publishing The Inferno. However, Pinsky keeps the three line stanzas of terza rima while writing in plain verse instead of rhymed, letting him mirror Dante's phrasing and flow without restriction.
Pinsky's version of The Inferno is also bilingual - Italian on the left page and English on the right. This allows even the most casual Italian scholar to follow the translation, and see the logic of it, which is a thoughtful and useful bonus. The notes on each canto are superb, and necessary to catch all of Dante's in-jokes.
This version of The Inferno is perfect for anybody who really wants to read and understand Dante's classic. I recommend it as a gift, to others and to yourself.
on August 17, 2000
It goes without saying that The Inferno is one of the great masterpieces of Western culture. That being the case, Pinksy, not Dante, is the focus of my review. This was the third translation of The Inferno that I have read (Mandelbaum and Ciardi being the others), and it is by far the most graceful of the group. I was particularly impressed with his handling of that ever present problem: the rhyme scheme. His solution to the problem is fluid and faithful to the original text (something Mandelbaum's rhyme-free translation lacks), without being distracting (as I found Ciardi's to be). But, what is truly amazing is that he is able to maintain this scheme without ever sounding forced or contrived. This allows Pinsky's tranlsation to remain first and foremost, a poem, which is so crucial in realizing the true genious of Dante's work. I was also pleased with Pinsky's decision to put a line of white space between each triplet. This really helped to accentuate the pacing and structure that make terza rima so important. The inclusion of the Italian text is also a nice touch. Finally, the notes are concise and informative. While Mandelbaum's notes seemed to me a little too thorough, often glossing the obvious, these give pertinent information without ever condescending to the reader. My only complaint would be that Pinksy stopped at the Inferno. I firmly believe that one must experience a work of art in its entirety in order to fully experience its brilliance. This is very true of the Divine Comedy. While there are certainly plenty of Purgatorios and Paradisos out there, I would very much have liked to have been able to maintain the continuity of a single translator. While there is a long list of translators who provide this option, I regret that Pinksy is not among them.
on March 20, 2003
Robert Pinsky brilliantly translates into terza rima, the difficult rhyme scheme Dante wrote the Divine Comedy in, & does it with such grace, such linguistic precision & genius that the reader almost doesn't feel like it was difficult at all. This is something I don't know of any other translations that have been able to do in this work that's notoriously very difficult to translate. This amalgamation of the great timeless & inspired genius of Dante & the brilliance & severe dedication to poetic mastery of Robert Pinsky is far & away my favorite translation of the Inferno. Pinsky makes it so much more fun to read than other translations I know! Pinsky's version is great poetry, rife with perfect rhythms & mellifluous music.
on September 22, 2005
Pinsky has alighted on the translation solution that will eventually give rise to the definitive English Dante. Rather than forgo ryme altogether or force his English into perfect terza-rima, Pinsky employs slant rhyme. Pinsky calls his version Yeatsean, but of course other poets have embraced slant rhyme to great effect--Dickinson stands out for me.
But reading Pinsky's "Translator's Note" prepares you for the failings of his translation. For he has also aimed for a more compressed version, one with more enjambment, to convey something of Dante's own compression and, I suppose, swiftness. The problem arises in the very first tercet, where Dante spends three full lines on waking up lost in that dark wood. Pinsky dispenses with those lines in 18 syllables, then interrupts Dante's startling recollection at the end of the second line to rush the next tercet into the first one. The enjambent conceals the slant rhyme, mooting Pinsky's otherwise brilliant poetic solution, and also shucks the essential weight of Dante's opening. It reads like a prose translation, embarrased by even its own of-rhymes (which are actually a great idea!) and blasting through Dante's thought without recognizing Dante's own choices about end-stopping his thoughts more frequently. Unless English is 20 percent more efficient than Italian, or translators care for sense at the exclusion of the original's poetics, this book disappoints.
And it's a swift, compressed opening even at three full lines. Three lines--just three--for Dante to depict himself as spiritually waylaid: further compression simply detracts, and it dishonors the poem's already admirable economy, not just its efficiency but also how it chooses to spend each tercet, the careful filing of each one with this step or that in his journey, or to run over into the next tercet.
Pinsky's is a bilingual translation, allowing you to just visually register how much more ready he is than Dante to break Dante's thoughts before the end of a line and start Dante's next phrase or sentence with two or three or four syllables left. All that enjambment is perfectly natural to English poetry, maybe even to Italian, but the facing-page presentation of Dante's actual words reveal that Dante employed rhyme togeth with the regular ryhthm of the line-endings to generally honor his rhetoric.
That compression, by the way, makes most of the cantos radically shorter than Dante's own verse. Canto after canto is 20 to 30 lines short of Dante's Italian, and when a Canto is maybe 120 or 130 lines long, the translation becomes more like a discount version of Dante than an English Dante. Allen Mandelbaum, who translates into blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter), offers the poem the dignity Dante's Italian merits. You can use the facing page Italian to see that. Dope out what those latinate words obviously mean, and see how much reordering and reduction Pinsky offers--here turning a descriptive phrase into a single adjective, there shrinking a long appositive or subordinate clause.
Pinsky's diction is more fluent, more readily grasped than other translations, but it often feels off-hand, hasty, artless, undramatic--a tour of Hell in cargo pants. The story still conveys its tone, but mostly through incident, not via Pinsky's poetry.
It has been said that Dante and Shakespeare do not belong to the Western canon: they ARE the canon. Certainly, after nearly seven hundred years, Dante's COMEDY retains its power to move, inspire, and delight. But what stands out most about this masterpiece is how accessible and readable it remains. If one reads other masterpieces that are contemporary with it, the contrast is stark. It is almost as if the centuries do not stand between him and us.
Robert Pinsky's translation is a truly remarkable rendering of the first part of Dante's masterpiece. The worst criticism that can be made of it is that it is the only part of the work that he has translated so far. I do not know that he plans on translating PURGATORY and PARADISE, but anyone reading INFERNO will pray that he will. Like any translator of Dante, Pinsky had to make some decisions about how he was going to proceed. Although many point out that he decided to employ Dante's terza rima, this isn't quite true. Yes, he does maintain the rhyme scheme, whereby the final syllable in the middle line of each tercet rhymes with the final syllable of the first and third lines of the next tercet (i.e., a-b-a, b-c-b, c-d-c), he doesn't employ Dante's meter. There is, in fact, no meter at all, and therefore the lines do not scan at all and therefore contains no rhythm. I found, in fact, that I couldn't read this aloud as poetry at all. It is, however, a marvelously dynamic prose. If it possesses none of the rhythm of poetry, the translation does have a marvelous, driving prose rhythm, and one feels the text moving forward with a deliciously irresistible pace. If one compares Pinsky's dynamic translation with that of Dorothy Sayers, say, which was also an attempt at an English terza rima translation, one will understand the point.
In addition to the superb translation, one gets in this volume many of the other goodies one anticipates in any decent version of Dante. The intro is written by one of the dean's of Dante scholarship, John Freccero, who also assists with some of the notes to the text. The notes, though not exhaustive, are exceedingly pertinent to the text. They lean away from minute commentary on every aspect towards focusing on those things that a reader truly needs to get through the text.
The story itself needs little elucidation. Dante, driven into a dark valley by three beasts, finds himself at the mouth of hell, where the poet Virgil, alerted indirectly by the Virgin Mary herself to save Dante, leads him on a trip through hell and purgatory, at the end of which Dante's beloved Beatrice meets him and takes him through heaven. It was an often-employed genre, not least by Virgil himself, but Dante surpassed all of his predecessors. Interestingly, although the INFERNO is the most popular of the three books, it is also the least personal. In this volume Dante is primarily an onlooker, an observer. In PURGATORY, on the other hand, each step through purgatory is an opportunity for Dante to examine his own life. Luckily, Dante is the greatest of observers, and the world his tells us of has a vividness and concreteness that is nothing short of genius. Over and over one is astonished at Dante's genius in the world he imagines. There is also a wonderful contradiction, in that what he imagines is horrific--the punishment of the damned for their sins, with some of the punishments extraordinary in their inventiveness--but his character's interaction with the damned is for the most part oddly respectful and frequently compassionate. He does on a couple of occasions treat the damned with hostility, but that it is the exception. What is especially amazing is his relative tolerance towards Jews and Moslems. There are Jews in hell, but their presence there seems to have less to do with being Jewish than in having committed specific acts. And although one ring of hell contains burning mosques containing the souls of Moslems, and there is a particularly vivid encounter with Muhammad and Ali, Dante isn't seized with any particular bloodlust towards the religion as a whole. In fact, in limbo, where he encounters the righteous pagans, we find three notable Muslims: Saladin, Avicenna, and Averroes.
There are a host of great translations of Dante, but this is definitely one of the translations that can be most highly recommended to those approaching the text for the first time.
on March 7, 2000
Pinsky's verse translation is absolutely splendid. The words seem to flow off the pages with a grace that is unparalleled in many of the modern translations that find their way into circulation. Reminiscent of the Loeb Classical Library, the Italian text is found on the opposite of the English translation and if perchance the reader knows Italian they may find this an added luxury. Pinsky has done an excellent job of keeping the translation simple yet beautiful at the same time. Dante may be considered advanced reading by some, but Pinsky's translation is simple enough that it could be read and enjoyed by many from junior high on up. I would highly recommend this translation of Dante to anyone.
on March 29, 1999
Dante's Inferno, by far the most interesting volume of Dante's Divine Comedy, is a must for any reader who wishes to cultivate their knowledge of the classics. Reading it would aid a reader in understanding later, highly allusive works, such as those of Joyce, or Eliot, since both writers allude to Dante in abundance.
Pinsky's translation is erudite and a credit to his own poetic ability. Steering away from pure rhyme and instead using blank verse, he has avoided limiting himself, and the freedom he has gained has created a far more convincing and authoritative translation than others have achieved.
An essential read, and a timeless work.
on February 21, 2004
I first read the Inferno in high school and after several years, wanted to read it again and I am glad I did. Pinsky's translation is very well executed and he does a wonderful job at bringing the terza rima into English. (His introduction explains just how difficult this is when translating from Italian into English)
A great, dark classic, with a singular pathos that I have yet to see any literary (or cinematic) work surpass.
on November 10, 2006
The Inferno of Dante is undoubtedly a book worth reading because of its historical influence and impressive poetry, but without a skilled translator the meaning or poetic form is lost. Robert Pinsky manages to find a perfect balance between Dante's message and style. Combined with notes that explain Dante's many historical references, this balance allows The Inferno of Dante to continue to be a great piece of literature. In order to maintain the necessary balance between Dante's message and style, Robert Pinsky uses a looser form of rhyming than most people use. He rhymes leads with sides and defer with there. Although these may not rhyme as well as heat and sheet, they have enough in common that they are able to demonstrate the rhythm of the tertiary rhyme in The Inferno of Dante. Pinsky's loose rhyming gives him more choices, which allow him to better preserve Dante's message.
This message, however, would be lost on today's readers if it were not for notes that help further translate the meaning of events within The Inferno of Dante. Most of the characters Dante meets along his journey have long been forgotten by the average reader. How many people would understand the significance of the name Bocca? Upon hearing this Dante says, "I have no further need to speak with you" (Pinsky 347). This leaves the reader completely clueless as to who Bocca was. This is remedied by using the notes Pinsky provides in his translation. These notes tell the reader that Bocca betrayed his party in battle causing their defeat (Pinsky 423).
This extra information is essential to Robert Pinsky's translation, which retains the amazing rhythm, beauty, and message that Dante designed.
Dante. The Inferno of Dante. Trans. Robert Pinsky. New York: Farrar, Straus, and