Forays into spiritual exile

Dante's Inferno - The Inferno of Dante
April 12, 1996

Translations by their very nature hover between responsibility and recreation, between faithfulness to the original and a desire to see and to celebrate it in a new way. Representing the responsibility wing of the enterprise is Mark Musa's freshly reissued translation of the Inferno. Here, certainly, the emphasis is on communicability. Musa's translation, arranged like the original in tercets, is designed both to maintain the narrative line of the Inferno and to convey its moral and philosophical substance in an English which, for all its studiously uncomplicated character, is nonetheless equal to the ideological and tonal complexity of the Italian. In this sense, Musa leaves it to the text to speak for itself. Far from imposing on it, he seeks as far as may be in the context of translation - and with the help of a canto-by-canto set of notes designed to inform and elucidate with respect to the text's often oblique system of reference and a collection of essays designed to introduce the newcomer to Dante to the best of contemporary American criticism in the field - to bring the reader into the presence of Dante's original utterance. All in all, therefore, the orientation is complete. Careful in respect of translation and annotation, and generous in respect of scholarly provision, the volume offers both a useful guide for new readers and a welcome companion for those already accustomed to living and working with the Divine Comedy.

Quite different in conception is Robert Pinsky's bilingual text, for the translator's task here is not merely, nor even primarily that of introducing the text, of making it accessible to a fresh readership, but of recasting it, indeed in some sense of recreating it, in keeping with the expressive possibilities of English as the new and alternative linguistic medium. This is not to minimise Pinsky's sense of responsibility to the original, for there it stands, magisterially, alongside his own version of it, a permanent point of reference and spur to comparison. But it is to emphasise the more than usually heightened sense of otherness informing his enterprise, the novelty of a version which, coming from a practising poet, gives full rein to the properties of English in particular as a means of understanding and appreciating what Dante is up to in the Inferno. Everything, then, from the peculiar self-sufficiency of the Dantean tercet to the distinctive structuring of the Italian poet's thought patterns, is subject to dissolution as Pinsky explores a new rhythm and dynamic, a new way of articulating the substance of Dante's discourse. And the effect of all this is quite extraordinary, for Pinsky's liberal reorganisation of the text induces at one and the same time a sense of scandal and of heady excitement, of outrage in respect of its free appropriation and yet of admiration in respect of the way in which it is once again affirmed as a significant statement of man's historical (never mind his transhistorical) predicament.

The purist, certainly, will have his reservations. But for those sensitive to the function of the original as a catalyst, as encouragement to an ever fresh meditation on what Dante's text is all about, this is a compelling venture. John Freccero, to the fore among contemporary American Dantists, does his bit by focusing at the outset on the existential urgency of Dante's undertaking in the Inferno (here, he suggests, we have an inquiry into the painful process of self-interrogation preparatory to all properly human homecoming), while Michael Mazur, the illustrator, frequently succeeds in suggesting something of the monochrome dread hanging like a pall over Dante's infernal landscape; but the triumph here - meaning by this the kind of triumph contingent on being one's own man in the presence of a great text - is Pinsky's, for here is a version of Dante which, daring as it does to enter into a new kind of relationship with the original, confirms yet again (should confirmation be needed) the Inferno's tremendous vitality as an inquiry into spiritual exile.

John Took is reader in Dante studies, University College, London.

Dante's Inferno: The Indiana Critical Edition

Editor - Mark Musa
ISBN - 0 253 33943 X and 20930 7
Publisher - Indiana University Press
Price - £.50 and £11.99
Pages - 409
Translator - Mark Musa

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