Raising Some Hell: The Inferno and Its Often Hellish Translators & Rips

A recreated death mask of Dante Alighieri (in ...

A recreated death mask of Dante Alighieri (in Palazzo Vecchio, Florence) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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

[Posting this here as a follow up to “Our Words Indict Us” (see below).]

I’m on a bit of soapbox here, but I think these are important issues that discriminating readers, curious about the current media buzz, would want to consider before buying any version or edition of Dante’s Inferno. I’m not after consigning Dan Brown to hell on the basis of his recent hot book, don’t misunderstand me, for I believe he writes compelling plot driven thrillers which many people, looking for a good rip roaring read and break from their daily humdrum, enjoy. For that thrill and break his books really deliver on their promises to those readers.

I am only trying, perhaps vainly, to put some perspective on the flurry of interest in Dante’s Inferno that has spawned a mini-soar in sales of bad translations and editions of what is being palmed off on the unwitting as  a true and reliable rendering of Dante’s masterpiece.

That said, here goes.

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 some really weird rad sinners.

The problem for me, and for other like-minded readers of “Literature,” is that contemporary commercial authors such as Brown trivialize, no doubt unintentionally, in the popular mind the original great books to which they allude or refer.(Brown’s case, at somewhat of a remove, and only in as much as the impression Dante made on his age, and most especially on the painter Botticelli).

Inevitably all kinds of misunderstandings and confusion arise. The phenom such books as Brown’s become for a time nearly always result in a phenomenal distortion and misrepresentation of these masterpieces in the minds of the innocent and trusting, who are none the wiser for never having studied them in school or taken the time to get the background and information essential to approaching and appreciating them. So often, they read a free or 99 cent eBook substitute, a hacked out literal translation, or a down and dirty text of great book like Moby Dick or The Sound and the Fury, that comes with no notes or intro, only to throw it down in disgust after a few pages because it makes them want to throw up.

I understand this reaction on the cellular myself. Imagine trying to read The Sound and the Fury minus any tip off about the first chapter being essentially the stream of consciousness of a retard, an idiot. When I was 15 years old, my AP English teacher assigned it to me–lips zipped, no clues aforetime– for my summer reading for independent study with her in the fall. I was so honored to be enrolled in this honor class of one and the greatest benefit and laurel of all–I would receive her undivided, undiluted personal attention and instruction one-on-one, just me and my awesome English teacher, for a whole semester. She would choose the books, I would read them like an obsessive monk on Ritalin alone in the library all week, piling up reams of notes, reactions, ideas, and then have a session with her and her alone on Friday.

Not wanting to be a slouch or flub up such a chance of a lifetime, the day after school was out I plunged headfirst into this:

Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. They were coming toward where the flag was and I went along the fence. Luster was hunting in the grass by the flower tree. They took the flag out, and they were hitting. Then they put the flag back and they went to the table, and he hit and the other hit. Then they went on, and I went along the fence. Luster came away from the flower tree and we went along the fence and they stopped and we stopped and I looked through the fence while Luster was hunting in the grass…. It was red flapping on the pasture. Then there was a bird slanting and tilting on it. Luster threw. The flag flapped on the bright grass and the trees. I held to the fence.

At that point I decided I’d never advance beyond the Nancy Drew shelf of mysteries in my bedroom if this was the next step in my education. All was lost, my hopes were dashed. OR–this was the biggest pile of crap ever written and if that was Literature? Forget it.

Primarily though I was shocked and embarrassed. So much so I daren’t even ask her: “WHAT IS THIS ALL ABOUT? WHAT’S IT MEAN?” No, I was sure there’d been some mistake, a clerical mix-up, that my test scores must have been confused with someone else’s, someone more apt, smarter, more insightful.  I concluded after reading those few paragraphs that I was the idiot, and not qualified for AP English.

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 through their beauty and brilliance 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 who is 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 created 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 and 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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1 Response to Raising Some Hell: The Inferno and Its Often Hellish Translators & Rips

  1. Pingback: Raising Some Hell: The Inferno and Its Often Hellish Translators & Rips | Reconsiderations

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