Any new English translation of Dante’s allegorical poem on life, death, and redemption needs to justify itself immediately and to support its claim to existence consistently, since the versions in print are many and varied. Scholars have relied upon the six-volume major edition of La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy) by Charles S. Singleton, which contains the Italian text, full commentary, and English translation, since its appearance in 1970. The three-volume prose translation of the entire poem with précis for each canto and notes by John D. Sinclair first appeared in 1939; it remains available in paperback, has an Italian text on facing pages, and is relatively inexpensive. The Penguin edition begun by the celebrated mystery novelist Dorothy L. Sayers during World War II appeared in its first installment, the Hell canticle, in 1949. Barbara Reynolds completed the Paradiso canticle in 1962, following Sayers’ death. This version, in three paperback volumes, includes an English translation that attempts to reproduce the idiom of Dante’s terza rima (rhymed tercet) form and offers a full commentary. Those who know Dante’s Italian perennially discover humor in Sayers’ Anglicizations, though many who first came to love Dante’s poem through the Sayers version retain an affection for it; it has reliable notes and good diagrams and is the least expensive edition suitable for students.
English translators have tested their mettle on Dante’s allegory since at least 1802, but the problem that afflicts all translations to some degree can become serious when the translators are themselves primarily either poets or creative writers. Such individuals are predisposed by creative impulse to express their own vision of Dante’s distinctiveness rather than to create in English the tone of the Italian text. John Dryden’s translations of the classical poets are, to take an extreme example, inevitably more poems by Dryden than renderings of an original text.
Even so, and despite the odds, Robert Pinsky’s translation of the Infernosucceeds admirably. Perhaps this is because he is an academic as well as a poet, but it is also likely that the nature of his own verse lends itself to the confessional yet universal nature of Dante’s allegory. Pinsky’s verse collections, An Explanation of America (1979), History of My Heart(1984), and The Want Bone (1990), are essentially confessional explorations of the self upon which the poet projects a universal dimension. Perhaps this element in his own creative work predisposes him to see that writing, and for that matter translating, allegory as complex as Dante’s corresponds directly to the difficulty of the journey the Pilgrim undertakes. Dante as pilgrim and poet are the same man, yet the poet must successfully complete a technical feat (rendering the ineffable nature of divinity in vernacular and finite language) even as the Pilgrim needs to finish a course never completed by any living person (a journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven). In essence, Pinsky recognizes that the progress of the Pilgrim corresponds directly to the progress of the poet.
John Freccero, the eminent American Dantist who holds the chair in Italian studies at Stanford University, originated this confessional approach to Dante’s poem, and it is to Freccero that Pinsky turns for the foreword that accompanies the translation. Unlike many prefatory essays, which are simply endorsements of a text, Freccero’s is a masterful overview of his own approach to the entire poem, yet he writes in a style suitable for general readers. Before its appearance in Pinsky’s volume, readers could find such guidance only in Freccero’s articles, collected under the title Dante: The Poetics of Conversion (1986). Any reader who would fully appreciate Pinsky’s translation must begin by reading Freccero’s essay.
A further comment on the format of the book concerns the thirty-six illustrations by Michael Mazur, which begin on the endpapers and as the frontispiece, then continue at the beginning of each of the thirty-four cantos. These appear as black-and-white washes, are expressionist in overall style, and are either representational or simply evocative of the cantos they introduce. Black and white implies the interiority and exteriority that cohabit Dante’s allegory. Mazur often does not concern himself with illustrating particular scenes of the canticle, as had Gustave Doré, or with presenting his own cosmology, as had William Blake, so much as with suggesting states of mind appropriate to pilgrim, to poet, and, not least, to reader.
It is, in fact, slighting to call Mazur’s drawings illustrations, since they do not attempt to control the reader’s perception. An inspired use of Mazur’s work appears at canto XI, as the Pilgrim is about to enter the first ring of Hell’s seventh circle. Mazur’s drawing merely suggests from bird’s-eye view the...