Our Words Indict Us

(c) Copyright 2013, Margaret Langstaff, All Rights  Reserved

What a piece of work is man.”  It takes genius to fully render him, both in time and for all time.

English: Dante Alighieri's portrait by Sandro ...

English: Dante Alighieri’s portrait by Sandro Botticelli. Tempera 54,7 x 47,5 cm. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Trying to verify a phrase and give correct attribution for a piece I was writing, I stumbled on a fabulous critical appreciation from the Sewanee Review by J.T. Barbarese (2009)  of contemporary English translations  of Dante‘s Inferno.  I thought I might share it here for its gems, insights and what it has to say about character development, the inevitable irrevocable choices all people  make in their lives and for an interesting juxtaposition of Shakespeare’s take on character a few hundred years after Dante was no doubt in paradise himself. (We haven’t heard a word from him since).

I also tripped over some fine, thought-provoking references and fresh angles on Milton.  Paradise Lost, go figure.  We haven’t seen the ball since the kick off, it seems.  It’s a perennial subject, paradise; seems like it was here once, but where? And what was it? Hell is much more accessible to us, tangible even, and more convincingly burned into a page than harps, angels, and  the life with wings.

There is too much going on in this essay for me to do justice to it, but I encourage you to sample it at least.  It’s not only great scholarship, but a real enticement to use our heads and re-read the best books with fresh eyes.

A few statements and passages in the essay stopped me in my tracks:

“Shakespeare teaches us that all great art begins in the  stereotypes that individual genius transforms into individual characters.  Shakespeare’s characters’ changes of heart, whether instigated by themselves, God,  destiny, or those occasions that inform against us, are never predetermined.  There is no maturing of a telos already there. What shocks us in Shakespeare,  what shocked Keats into calling it negative  capability, was his agility at getting out of the way of his creations once  the drama was under way. [italics mine]So self-sustaining seems the process of characterization  in Shakespeare, even in his botches (e.g. Titus  Andronicus), that no “real” Shakespeare seems ever to have  existed.”

“We are always  ourselves, right down to the words that speak us into being.”

Dan Brown, a voraciously commercial miner of others’great works and reputations (am I too severe?) is like not to displace this original masterpiece either. His books fade–the real deal endures– and only revive interest in his sources. Thank you, Dan Brown.  You’ll have your own sweet home in one of Dante’s three worlds eventually, but which world only time will tell.

Perhaps, if you’re not a fool for poetry and literary things, you will find the essay a drudge.  If you are inert at this juncture of my intro, you are excused now. But for the rest of us (and our better selves): “Four Translations of Dante’s Inferno,” by J.T. Barbarese, Sewanee Review, Fall 2009–


[Please NOTE a VIP I failed to make in the original post here—

The Inferno is not just another “great book” or “classic” that people can become curious about, sample and render an informed opinion on, and so join the talky-talk and chatter about it. It’s not just one hell of a plot with some really weird punishments for really weird rad sinners. (This attitude drives me crazy! Contemporary commercial authors such as Brown trivialize, distort and misrepresent the great works they rip in the popular mind and usually no one bothers to call them out. I’m whistling in the wind here and know it. Hopeless to try to stop this kind of stuff. But still…)

Many well intentioned readers succumb to reading fads, become interested in a work they’d heard so much about in school, always meant to read, but never got around to reading it, because of a new movie or a contemporary rip-off of it by such as Dan Brown. You must understand, and many readers don’t, that The Inferno (actually Book III of The Divine Comedy) is one of the only handful of towering literary achievements of Western Civilization. You’ve heard of that, maybe? Western Civ? (Think everything written from 300 BC to now. That’s lots of years and lots of “books,” nearly all of them now vanished without a trace from the face of the earth and our consciousness as well because they weren’t profoundly significant and had nothing of lasting importance to tell us about life, and our individual lives, while the “masterpieces” (i.e, The Inferno), through their beauty and brilliance and wisdom, give us a moment of transcendence from our daily messes and confusion. Through these works we touch the stars, we are lifted up and feel and taste of eternity.

Wait. Almost finished. This is important, the bottom-line, the real nut and heart of this rant.

To think that you can go out and get any old version/translation of The Inferno on the cheap, as in “Free on Kindle,” to quickly catch up on the present fuss about it in the media, skim it and thus understand it, with an agenda of joining the #Inferno twits, etc. and the current conversations is:


No other word for it.

You must remember this work is only available to most speakers of English (unless they can read 14th century Italian in Dante’s dialect of this lost language!) in translation, and translation from 14th Italian (the late Middle Ages, only on the cusp of the Renaissance, nothing modern or “cool” about those days). It is in poetry, is a huge poetic achievement, was carefully and painstaking written a certain way in order to best present the sum total of the ideas and the world view (very different from ours!) of the poet Dante Alighieri.

Poetry is the biggest challenge for the translator, particularly poetry such this, so subtle and so well wrought, from hundreds of years ago and worlds and cultures apart from us today.

Only a brilliant, masterful English-speaking poet and a very learned scholar as well, can do this, and even then it will fall short. John Ciardi was a great 20th century American poet, learned, much respected, supremely talented and insightful, gifted with language skills rare in any time or place. Most in the know about these things agree his translation is the best, most enjoyable, and gives us the closest approximation of the riches of the original.

All right. I feel better now. So caveat emptor and damn “Free on Kindle” poor versions of the world’s greatest literary achievements! They deserve their own special circle in Dante’s hell, the lowest ring, a new one just for them, and the punishment (Dante was really into the punishment fitting the crime) should be that they have to read aloud backwards upside in a pile excrement their own travesty-translations for all eternity.

The din would be awful and so befitting.

Now I really feel better. Over and out. Thank you for listening, stopping by. Goodnight.

May 22, 2013, MJL]

About Margaret Jean Langstaff

A lifelong critical reader with literary tastes, a novelist, short story writer, essayist, book critic, and professional book editor for many years. A consultant to publishers and authors, providing manuscript critiques and a full range of editorial services. A friend and supporter of all other readers and writers. A collector of signed modern first editions. Animal lover and tree hugger. Follow me on Twitter @LangstaffEditor
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7 Responses to Our Words Indict Us

  1. Thank you. This fits in with the Northrop Frye essays I’m reading, my husband’s (a mechanical engineer’s) sudden decision to read The Inferno (he got it free on Kindle) and my son’s wish for me to encourage our 13-year-old grandon’s budding interest in Shakespeare. We recently read The Da Vinci Code, also free on Kindle.


  2. Pingback: Raising Some Hell: The Inferno and Its Often Hellish Translators & Rips | Margaret Langstaff

  3. Thank you for your caution. The Divine Comedy has been on my list for more decades than I care to remember. Actually, although it’s a 14th century work, I was hoping to get the Italian version on Kindle and fight my way through the Italian. I speak the modern version fairly well. Instead, I stumbled on the English one for a pittance, so I bought it. [My mother had a copy in our house a long, long time ago, in Hungarian, but I never got around to it and the book(s) have disappeared.] Anyway, I just checked my Kindle and I couldn’t track down the translator. I will, eventually. — Thank you kindly, again, for your note. — Thomas Virany, P. Eng. (Not that I will design anything anymore).


  4. It just occurred to me that Dante’s Inferno, the literary edifice and monumental achievement that it is, makes it worth studying 14th Italian in order to read and fully (if one can) enjoy, understand and appreciate it. Has to be a better, more satisfying endeavor than blogging, tweeting, answering the artillery of daily email that floods our minds and saps our precious time


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