EP&M Online Review

Dante Alighieri

a new verse translation by

Michael Palma
W.W. Norton & Co., 2002, US$35
New York

Arthur Mortensen

Richard Wilbur has noted on more than one occasion that he didn't feel comfortable or even especially good as a poet in English until he had translated poems from French.   (His translations of Baudelaire are startlingly close to Baudelaire, yet unmistakably English poems.)  One can't say whether the same is true of Michael Palma, though he is both a translator and a fine poet, with three collections to his credit.  One can say that Michael Palma is one of the most noted translators of Italian into English.  Recipient of the Italo Calvino Award for his translation of My Name on the Wind: Selected Poems of Diego Valeri, and of the Raiziss/de Palchi Translation Award from the Academy of American Poets for his translation of The Man I Pretend to Be: "The Colloquies" and Selected Poems of Guido Gozzano, some years back he set himself the formidable task of translating Inferno, the first part of Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy, not only into verse, but employing the original's terza rima.  Further difficulties in doing this came from the competition.  Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, Allen Mandelbaum, and a variety of other translators and poets have presented either their versions of Inferno or the whole Commedia in the last twenty years.  And, lingering in the background, and still considered by many the best English Commedia ever, is John Ciardi's 1954 version, still available from Penguin's Mentor imprint.

Since the arrival of Dante's Divine Comedy in the early 14th century in a handwritten manuscript (print versions, often not very reliable versions of the original,  were not available until more than a century later from Florentine and Viennese printers), so much critical energy has been expended interpreting this vast canzone at scale and line-by-line that attention to a new English translation is best focused on comparison to others and on its readability as a poem.   It hardly needs saying that a translation has little worth for the average reader if it's not good, engaging poetry.

As for the reliability of content, occasionally an issue in translation, one quickly learns in comparing Palma's with Mandelbaum's, which is close to a literal translation, that Palma has not invented a new Dante, nor did Ciardi, though he added a few lines, and compressed a few others, to make what he felt was a comprehensible version.  What Palma has done, however, is to bring a good facsimile of Dante's Italian prosody into English.  The effect is striking.   Compare, for instance, the very beginning as done by Ciardi, Mandelbaum and Palma, lines 1-9 in Canto I:


When I had journeyed half of our life's way,
I found myself within a shadowed forest,
for I had lost the path that does not stray.

Ah, it is hard to speak of what it was,
that savage forest, dense and difficult,
Which even in recall renews my fear:

so bitter-- death is hardly more severe!
But to retell the good discovered there,
I'll also tell the other things I saw.


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.


Midway through the journey of our life, I found
myself in a dark wood, for I had strayed
from the straight pathway to this tangled ground.

How hard it is to tell of, overlaid
with harsh and savage growth, so wild and raw
the thought of it still makes me feel afraid.

Death scarce could be more bitter.  But to draw
the lessons of the good that came my way,
I will describe the other things I saw.

Mandelbaum skirts terza rima altogether, though there are several rhymes, as between "fear" and "severe."  While this preserves the forward movement of the terza rima, except for the one rhyme, the use of each tercet as a kernel of thought, description or depiction of action is lost.  The phrasing and diction seem lax, almost commonplace, which is not the same quality as the rhetorical simplicity and uncomplicated diction of the original, which have a peculiar grandeur unavailable to commonplace usage.  In prose, a similar quality could be found in sentences by Elizabeth Bowen.

Ciardi adopts a rhyming scheme of axa bxb cxb, etc., but, though this frames each tercet, as in the original, the stanzaic precision of Dante's original is not carried out, as Ciardi frequently carries the thought in one tercet to the next.  Further, the lack of a middle rhyme carried to the next stanza subverts the forward movement of the canto, where the frame of the rhymes isolates each stanza from the next.  Nonetheless, Ciardi's phrasing and diction have both rhetorical simplicity and beauty, which is why his is so often quoted.

Palma uses terza rima, where the scheme is aba bcb cdc, etc., the same as the Italian.  He also often contains his English stanzas so that they act much as Dante's, often presenting a complete sentence or clause, a unit of thought or expression.  The overall effect is marvelous, a slightly hesitating, forward narrative movement, which builds in intensity throughout each canto.  In these few lines, Palma's rhymes are also almost as exact as Dante's, but one should not be misled.  It is not possible to do this in English for a poem of the length and richness of Inferno, and Palma explores all the rhyming variations used in English to carry his English terza rima successfully.  (English is not so much a rhyme-poor language as one which employs different means to rhyme, particularly assonance and consonance; the wealth of possibilities is probably as great as any other language.)  Further comparison from Canto IV, Dante's awakening in Limbo, lines 1-9:


The heavy sleep within my head was smashed
by an enormous thunderclap, so that
I started up as one whom force awakens;

I stood erect and turned my resting eyes
from side to side, and I stared steadily
to learn what place it was surrounding me.

In truth, I found myself upon the brink
of an abyss, the melancholy valley
containing thundering, unending wailings.


A monstrous clap of thunder broke apart
the swoon that stuffed my head; like one awakened
by violent hands, I leaped up with a start.

And having risen; rested and renewed,
I studied out the landmarks of the gloom
to find my bearings there as best I could.

And I found on the very brink of the valley
called the Dolorous Abyss, the desolate chasm
where rolls the thunder of Hell's eternal cry....


A crashing thunderclap made me awaken,
putting the thick sleep in my head to rout.
I started up like someone roughly shaken

out of a slumber.  Standing, I looked about,
gazing and turning my rested eyes around
in every direction, trying to make out

just where I was.  The truth is, I soon found
I was standing on the edge of the abyss
of pain, where roars of endless woe resound.

Mandelbaum's phrasing and diction range between commonplace and forced.  The writer still prefers Ciardi's fine opening sentence in the first stanza, but Ciardi contrives a special name for the place ("Dolorous Abyss"), perhaps to cover a word he might not otherwise use.  Though the phrasing isn't quite as satisfactory, Palma's variation of these three stanzas moves swiftly to the edge of that abyss, and without Ciardi's slightly antique inversion ("where rolls the thunder" etc.).  "Abyss of pain" carries a different meaning out of context than Dante's d'abisso dolorosa, where the English word of the same root, "dolorous," means sorrowful, but "pain" is just fine when it's clear that the pain is expressed in "roars of endless woe."  One does not express woe at the pain of being stabbed, but for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  It works.  Mandelbaum conveys nothing of this; "melancholy valley" is a vague figure without a sense, at least in this stanza, of why it is melancholy.  Palma briefly bridges the first two stanzas, "out of slumber" a continuation of the first.  Ciardi's more economical first line is the difference between the two.   But of the three, it's easy to pick which are better poetry:  Ciardi and Palma.  (If prose translations were included, as well as several other recent verse translations, the results would be the same.)

Further comparison, from deep into the poem, from Canto 28, lines 22-31, Dante and Virgil in the 8th Circle:


No barrel, even though it's lost a hoop
or end-piece, ever gapes as one whom I
saw ripped right from his chin to where we fart:

his bowels hung between his legs, one saw
his vitals and the miserable sack
that makes of what we swallow excrement.

While I was intent on watching him,
he looked at me, and with his hands he spread
his chest and said: "See how I split myself!....


A wine tun when a stave or cant-bar starts
does not split open as wide as one I saw
split from his chin to the mouth with which man farts.

Between his legs all of his red guts hung
with the heart, the lungs, the liver, the gall bladder,
and the shriveled sac that passed shit to the bung.

I stood at stared at him from the stone shelf;
he noticed me and opening his own breast
with both hands cried: "See how I rip myself!....


A cask, when its midboard or its cant has been
removed, is not so open as one I saw
whose body was split apart right from the chin

to the farthole.  Down between his legs his raw
entrails spilled out, with his vitals visible
and the sorry sack where what goes through the maw

is turned to shit.  I was looking at him, full
of awe and wonder, when he saw me stare
and spread his breast open, saying: "Watch me pull..."

Mandelbaum is a bit shy with "excrement" (line 27, 6th in excerpt); Dante uses merda.  That aside, while Ciardi's is more vivid, he makes up his list of "vitals" and, while dramatic, such a list gives the stanzas more dramatic importance than they need.  They are vivid enough in the original.  While Palma spills the first stanza over to the second, and the second into the third, here, as elsewhere, this enjambment of stanzas usually occurs inside what in theater might be called a beat.  In the theater, a beat is not necessarily a whole scene, but a part of one in which a small, dramatic issue rises, peaks and concludes.  Dante does the same thing throughout the Commedia, though never without some slight or significant break, as a comma, semi-colon, colon or period.  (It's not possible, however, to say this definitively, as the available, "true" text involves many generations of editors and their choices about what Dante's likely intentions were on such matters as punctuation.  As far as this writer knows, there are no extant original copies in Dante's hand.)

In these few quoted lines (but throughout as well), Palma sticks to a plain, elegant phrasing which is, in its way, as memorable as Ciardi's.  Neither is very strict about prosody.  In the first set of citations, Palma's first line is five strophes followed by an iamb.  Line 2 is open to discussion.  So is line 3.  The second stanza is entirely in iambic pentameter.  So is the third.  But Palma, like Ciardi most of the time, never lets too strict adherence to a given meter obstruct readability or force unnatural phrasing.  This is just as well.  One thinks of Melville's blank verse version of Metamorphoses, so strictly iambic that the meter often squashes Ovid's humor and wit.  Palma, like Ciardi, presents a poem to read, with lively variation throughout.   However, the most significant choice by Palma was to retain the terza rima and try, as best he could, to preserve the structural and sonic value of the stanza; what this does, in this writer's opinion, is give to English a sense of Dante never available before.  John Ciardi's is still a fine and delightful translation, but Palma's Inferno brings us in essence from the next town to next door, and that is as close as a reader can expect of any translation.

The notes in Palma's book are of a high standard, including material not in Ciardi's well-annotated version.   And you should read them, as much of the poem is strange indeed if you don't know that Dante knew some of the people depicted, and referred to many historical events and people which few have reason to know about seven hundred years later.

Palma's introduction is useful, giving an historical setting for the poem biographical material on Dante, and discussion of Dante's own thesis on the use of terza rima and Palma's decision for using it. It also discusses issues in translation, such as an ongoing argument over how much license a translator should employ.  (In the three briefly compared here, Ciardi is the one who occasionally steps outside of Dante, which has both large and small perils.)

The book itself is a good production from Norton, with the usual high price tag.  Palma insisted on having the original and his translation en face, as Ciardi did not.  For those few readers who can read both, this is nice, but it's useful even if a reader has a barely functional knowledge of Italian, because one can read the original to hear how it sounds.  The dust cover and its art are attractive, the cloth binding in red and black with gold print on the edge a functional library binding.  The paper is good, the type face an attractive Bernadette for the main text, with enough leading and sufficient size for easy readability.  Even the notes, though small, are easy to read.  As is expected in cloth, the book is sewn, so can be rebound if you'd like to have yours in leather.

Michael Palma's translation of Inferno is highly recommended as a personal or libary purchase.

                                    Arthur Mortensen