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by dante alighieri
translated by robert and jean hollander
doubleday, 944 pages, $40

With the publication of Paradiso, Robert and Jean Hollander have completed their landmark translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, begun with the Inferno in 2000 and followed by Purgatorio in 2003.

Reading translations is like seeing through a glass darkly, with the original growing dimmer as the translation ages. Fortunately, Dante’s Comedy has been rendered by scores of successive English translators, each offering a new glimpse into the original. Charles Singleton gave an estimable prose version, and Henry Wads­worth Longfellow composed a sublime but woolly verse rendition. John Ciardi’s Comedy wears the unmistakable stamp of New Criticism, and Allen Mandelbaum’s Everyman edition is handy but hefty as a single volume. Robert Pinsky’s Inferno sounds a lot like Robert Pinsky, while the expertly tuned lines of C.H. Sisson’s Dante are now largely forgotten.

With winsome modesty, the Hollanders acknowledge the difficulty of their situation: A fine translation must be deeply knowing but not pedantic, surefooted but not obtrusive, beautiful but not vain—in other words, a lot like Dante’s beloved Beatrice, who leads him from purgatory through paradise. The Hollanders have been true to Dante in their fashion. They explain that, without attempting to make the poem “sound better than the original allows,” they hope to establish “a helpful bridge to the untranslatable magnificence of Dante’s poem.”

In this they have succeeded admirably, and the easy elegance of their translation, with the Italian on the facing pages, will arguably make theirs the definitive text for some time to come. Their commentary is copious but always pellucid, even as the reader is sped along by the clean, colloquial gusto of their blank-verse tercets. Granted, we lose the cascading flow of Dante’s terza rima, but the triple rhymes of the 100-canto, 14,233-line Italian exceed the powers of rhyme-poor English, and attempts to preserve the original form typically wrench the diction and syntax.

Still, Paradiso presents a particular problem for translators, for readers have always preferred the earlier books—as though Dante has ended his epic with a whimper. The poet’s hell teams with hideous scenes and fantastic contrapasso punishments, and even his purgatory reads like a fast-moving potboiler compared to his heaven. Readers who give up on Paradiso have a point.

It’s just not a very good one. Hell is where the action is, no doubt. Who could forget the saga of Paolo and Francesca’s steamy liaison or their eternal sorrow as they circle on the whirlwind? And what of Count Ugolino’s horrible and immortal tale of eating the corpses of his children? And I began, / already blind, to grope over their bodies, / and for two days called to them, though they were dead. / Then fasting had more power than grief. (A stomach-turning bit of euphemism, that.) Then there is Ulysses, who sails off to his death, and there are the moaning trees in the wood of the suicides. These are Dante’s greatest hits, for good reason: The drama, the visceral quality of the metaphors, the “harsh and rasping” language in which they are rendered—all contribute to the impact of the first book and, to a fair extent, the second as well.

But all three books—mapping the poet’s pilgrimage from hell, up Mount Purgatory, and into the empyrean—retain a distinct worldliness, quite different from other medieval poetry. Indeed, Dante’s Comedy was not dubbed Divine until two centuries after its composition in the early 1300s. In one of literature’s greatest linguistic leaps, Dante wrote his epic in Italian rather than Latin, thus promoting the vernacular over the language of Church and culture. And in one of literature’s greatest leaps, Dante set his poem almost entirely in the afterlife. At the same time, however, he let the people, places, and internecine struggles of his native Florence penetrate and inform his account of universal justice.

As a political exile, Dante relished the art of skewering his enemies. The descriptions of their crimes and eternal suffering make for some of the most thrilling reading in the poem. Purgatory, like hell, teems with variety—displaying as many forms of purgation as there are sins. Some people are destined to reenact their fatal vice, and others are forced to endure its opposite. The wrathful, for example, cry for blood, while the slothful, against type, clamber about in a frenzy. Particularly striking are those being cleansed of envy, who grope around, eyes wired shut, seeking comfort and companionship in the fog. The Inferno contains the most dramatic and affecting testimonies of the dead, and Purgatorio does not trail far behind.

Paradiso feels different. The book contains comparatively little narrative; reading it, in fact, is almost an out-of-body experience. Dante’s pilgrim doesn’t walk places, as he did previously; he is shot heavenward like an arrow, so quickly that he almost doesn’t realize what has happened. The whole character of the earlier books—the visceral descriptions, the tactile tropes, the teeming polyphony of speakers—levels off into long, even-toned passages of scholastic ruminations against a diaphanous backdrop of holy souls. Questions addressed in paradise, meant to purify Dante’s intellect, deal with such fine points as the nature of upward gravity in heaven, the lunar spots, the trajectory of saved souls, the details of free will, the roots of time, the reasons for creation, the corruption of various religious orders, and the total number of angels.

Robert and Jean Hollander anticipate the reader’s wariness: Paradiso's “at times endless-seeming theological disquisitions, to be sure, have addled many a reader.” But this most challenging portion of the Comedy may also be its most rewarding. Among the especially memorable passages is the long speech by Dante’s relative Cacciaguida, who describes the relationship of free will to fate before foretelling Dante’s exile:

Contingent things, which do not extend
beyond the pages of your material world,
are all depicted in the Eternal Sight,
yet are by that no more enjoined
than is a ship, moved downstream on a river’s flow,
by the eyes that mirror it.

And thus, as harmony’s sweet sound may rise
from mingled voices to the ear, so rises to my sight
a vision of the time that lies in store for you.

Cacciaguida’s summary of exile still resounds today: You shall learn how salt is the taste / of another man’s bread and how hard is the way, / going down and then up another man’s stairs. The Hollanders’ note underscores the poignancy: The breadmakers in Dante’s native Florence did not use salt in their bread.

Paradiso does something extraordinary: It repeatedly attempts to find words for the ineffable and even the mystical. With characteristic re­sil­ience, Dante meets the challenge head on:

I was in that heaven which receives more of His light. He who comes down from there
can neither know nor tell what he had seen,
for, drawing near to its desire,
so deeply is our intellect immersed
that memory cannot follow after it.

Nevertheless, as much of the holy kingdom
as I could store as treasure in my mind
shall now become the subject of my song.

Or, as he later characterizes the problem: And so my pen skips and I do not write it, / for our imagination is too crude, as is our speech, / to paint the subtler colors of the folds of bliss. Dante’s repeated inability to find the words to describe paradise leads him to form neologisms. The mystery of the Holy Trinity, for example, gives rise to Dante’s verb intrearsi, “to inthree itself.” Dante arrives at a vision of the divine that, in its graceful movements and rapt attention, approaches the prophetic.

This, of course, invites a much debated question: Was Dante a mystic? The Hollanders are characteristically levelheaded in their response: “It is difficult to believe that the final cantos of the poem, so obviously reflective of a great mystic, St. Bernard, and so triumphantly presenting a final vision, can be thought of as separate from the tradition of Western mysticism. At the same time, it is difficult to think of the earlier ninety-seven cantos of the poem as being essentially mystical in character. Thus the best answer seems to be ‘no’ and ‘yes’—in that order.”

His poem does aspire in parts to something akin to prayer: Perhaps, in my wake, prayer will be shaped / with better words. This passage, as the Hollanders explain, expresses Dante’s “(not immodest) hope that the Comedy will help those who will read it to pray more effectively (and thus put themselves in the way of salvation—that would seem to be the necessary conclusion).”

Paradiso, in the end, is a deeply Marian work. St. Bernard, forever remembered for his devotion to Mary, is Dante’s last guide, and the Hollanders show how this is fitting. In the final cantos, Dante gazes in awe as the topos of inexpressible beauty is transferred from Beatrice to the Virgin Mary: Were I as rich with words as in my store of images, / I still would never dare attempt to tell / the least of these delights that came from her. And, at the very end of his pilgrimage—about to lift his eyes to God—Dante invokes his heavenly queen: Lady, you are so great and so prevail above, / should he who longs for grace not turn to you, / his longing would be doomed to wingless flight.

Passages such as these are what belie the historicist claims of some critics. Yes, Dante’s poem does serve as a cultural window into the European past. But, for those with eyes to see, it also offers a glimpse into the first and the last things of life, performing this feat so artfully and so naturally that it can inspire Christians and non-Christians alike. In their splendid translation, Robert and Jean Hollander do not just adhere to Dante’s words; they also follow his spirit. This spirit, encapsulated in the final note of the volume, is at once simple and sublime: AMDGFor the greater glory of God.

David Yezzi is executive editor of the New Criterion.

Giorgio Vasari [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons. Image cropped.