I've loved The Inferno since junior high. I would pull a translation by Rev. H.F.Cary M.A. off the shelf at my high school library every now and then and just be entranced by the illustrations by someone named Dore. The edition, including illustrations, is online via the Gutenberg Project here
. If you've ever read The Inferno, you know that the text is often dry and impenetrable. If your first mistake was like mine, it was reading a translation by a priest.
But that's not really fair to Rev. Cary. I have a volume that includes The Inferno, The Purgatorio and The Paradiso translated by layperson John Ciardi, and while very well done, I think the real problem is that Dante's work is EPIC POETRY and translators must feel like they have to be very staid and stolid lest they come off too unserious. For instance,
Midway in our life's journey, I went astray
from the straight road and woke to find myself
alone in a dark wood. How shall I say
what wood that was! I never saw so drear,
so rank, so arduous a wilderness!
Its very memory gives a shape to fear.
Death could scarce be more bitter than that place!
But since it came to good, I will recount
all that I found revealed there by God's grace.
So translates Ciardi; click through to the Gutenberg site to see Rev. Cary's interpretation. You see that Ciardi's looks sort of like the stuff you read in English class: impressive adjectives, words shoehorned into the meter (drear instead of dreary, scarce instead of scarcely), nouns and verbs befitting an EPIC POET rather than a normal shlub (journey, shall, recount). It even rhymes; the original Italian is in terza rima, aba bcb cdc ded efe, but you can hardly expect an English translation to do that and be faithful to the substance. Can you?
Now, The Inferno, you may know, was written in an accessible vernacular. Dante used then-current figures of speech, had the tortured souls he met speak the way they spoke while alive, not like they'd taken an etiquette class to get in to hell, described things like a man seeing hell and telling friends about it, not like an EPIC POET writing for a 21st century literature class.
Of course, what was accessible in 1300 is still EPIC POETRY today, so you tend to get lots of journeys and recountings and drears, but sometimes you'll find that a writer has tried to make a "modern" translation of Dante. Usually it ends up seeming as gaudy and phony as that Romeo and Juliet movie with Leonardo DiCaprio and that girl from Stardust.
I bought myself Ciaran Carson's 2002 translation of The Inferno a couple years ago. It's absolutely breathtaking: Faithful to the boisterous original, and in terza rima! Here:
Halfway through the story of my life
I came to in a gloomy wood, because
I'd wandered off the path, away from the light.
It's hard to put words to what that wood was;
I shudder even now to think of it,
so wild and rough and tortured were its ways;
and death might well be its confederate
in bitterness; yet all the good I owe
to it, and what else I saw there, I'll relate.
"The story of my life!" "Came to!" Contractions! It's really engaging work throughout. Here are the two different ways Virgil describes the rationale for the lower circles of hell, in Canto XI. Ciardi first:
Fraud, which is a canker to every conscience,
may be practiced by a man on those who trust him,
and on those who have reposed no confidence.
The latter mode seems only to deny
the bond of love which all men have from Nature;
therefore within the second circle lie
simoniacs, sycophants, and hypocrites,
falsifiers, thieves, and sorcerers,
grafters, pimps, and all such filthy cheats.
This is fine poetry, don't get me wrong; but Carson's:
Fraud gnaws every conscience. A man may cheat
someone who trusts him; and he may do the same
to one who does not trust him in the least.
This latter mode seems plainly to disclaim
the bonds of social love that Nature makes,
so in the second circle are contained
all hypocrites, officials on the take,
chancers, panders, crooked businessmen,
and other scum, like conjurors, and fakes.
is readable. More: It's thrilling, beautiful. Read this translation for a good, fulfilling, entertaining read, even if EPIC POETRY usually strikes you as a little clammy.