Divine Comedy - Hell (Inferno)

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No poem in any tongue is more informed with rhythmic life than the Divine Comedy. And yet, such is its extraordinary distinction, no poem has an intellectual and emotional substance more independent of its metrical form. Its complex structure, its elaborate measure and rhyme, highly artificial as they are, are so mastered by the genius of the poet as to become the most natural expression of the spirit by which the poem is inspired; while at the same time the thought and sentiment embodied in the verse is of such import, and the narrative of such interest, that they do not lose their worth when expressed in the prose of another tongue; they still haye power to quicken imagination, and to evoke sympathy.

In English there is an excellent prose translation of the Inferno, by Dr. John Carlyle, a man well known to the reader of his brother's Correspondence. It was published forty years ago, but it is still contemporaneous enough in style to answer every need, and had Dr. Carlyle made a version of the whole poem I should hardly have cared to attempt a new one. In my translation of the Inferno I am often Dr. Carlyle's debtor. His conception of what a translation should be is very much the same as my own. Of the Purgatorio there is a prose version which has excellent qualities, by Mr. W. S. Dugdale. Another version of great merit, of both the Purgatorio and Paradiso, is that of Mr. A. J. Butler. It is accompanied by a scholarly and valuable comment, and I owe much to Mr. Butler's work. But through what seems to me occasional excess of literal fidelity his English is now and then somewhat crabbed. "He overacts the office of an interpreter," I cite again from Howell, "who doth enslave himself too strictly to words or phrases. One may be so over-punctual in words that he may mar the matter."

I have tried to be as literal in my translation as was consistent with good English, and to render Dante's own words in words as nearly correspondent to them as the difference in the languages would permit. But it is to be remembered that the familiar uses and subtle associations which give to words their full meaning are never absolutely the same in two languages. Love in English not only SOUNDS but IS different from amor in Latin, or amore in Italian. Even the most felicitous prose translation must fail therefore at times to afford the entire and precise meaning of the original.

Moreover, there are difficulties in Dante's poem for Italians, and there are difficulties in the translation for English readers. These, where it seemed needful, I have endeavored to explain in brief footnotes. But I have desired to avoid distracting the attention of the reader from the narrative, and have mainly left the understanding of it to his good sense and perspicacity. The clearness of Dante's imaginative vision is so complete, and the character of his narration of it so direct and simple, that the difficulties in understanding his intention are comparatively few.

It is a noticeable fact that in by far the greater number of passages where a doubt in regard to the interpretation exists, the obscurity lies in the rhyme-word. For with all the abundant resources of the Italian tongue in rhyme, and with all Dante's mastery of them, the truth still is that his triple rhyme often compelled him to exact from words such service as they did not naturally render and as no other poet had required of them. The compiler of the Ottimo Commento records, in an often-cited passage, that "I, the writer, heard Dante say that never a rhyme had led him to say other than he would, but that many a time and oft he had made words say for him what they were not wont to express for other poets." The sentence has a double truth, for it indicates not only Dante's incomparable power to compel words to give out their full meaning, but also his invention of new uses for them, his employment of them in unusual significations or in forms hardly elsewhere to be found. These devices occasionally interfere with the limpid flow of his diction, but the difficulties of interpretation to which they give rise serve rather to mark the prevailing clearness and simplicity of his expression than seriously to impede its easy and unperplexed current. There are few sentences in the Divina Commedia in which a difficulty is occasioned by lack of definiteness of thought or distinctness of image.

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