Friday, 15 April 2016

Book Review: The Divine Comedy: Inferno by Dante Alighieri

Translated by Mark Musa

Pros: excellent translation and notes, poem is easy to read and pay attention to, fascinating descriptions

Cons: daunting, miss a lot, lots of politics

Dante the pilgrim wakes in a fearsome wood and is guided by the pagan poet Virgil through Hell.

This is a poem I’ve wanted to read for years and have always delayed because it’s so intimidating.  Having read a lot of medieval works in university, I can attest that translation matters.  A lot.  A good translation can pull you into a book and fire your imagination.  A poor translation can make the most interesting material into a slog, boring and tedious.

In looking for a translation of the Divine Comedy I took my own bookseller advice.  I grabbed a bunch of different translations and read the first few lines to see which one was the clearest in terms of language while being able to maintain my interest.  The copy I ended up with is translated by Mark Musa (Penguin Classics edition).  I was even happier with my decision after I read his introduction to the poem and translation notes.  This is a verse translation, but one that retains the cadence of the original Italian without imposing the limitations of rhyming.  It’s very clear, and that clarity helps maintain attention (something I often have trouble with when dealing with poetry).

The poem surprised me in many ways with regards to its complexity.  I didn’t realize how organized and structured it was through the three main parts of Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise.  I also didn’t realize how political the poem was, constantly mentioning figures from Dante’s own time and the Ghibbline/Guelph conflict of the different city states in Italy of his day.  Thankfully, Musa gives a tremendous number of end notes for the poem, explaining not only who all the characters are, but also mentioning areas when his interpretation and translation differs from that of earlier Dante scholars and translators.  I loved that the end notes come immediately after each canto, so you don’t have to constantly flip to the back of the book.  

I also liked that there were illustrations showing the different levels of hell and the path Dante and the pilgrim take through it.  The glossary at the end of the book going over all of the characters mentioned in the text, is invaluable for further study. 

This isn’t a book to read once and put away though.  The text is complex in that canto IV of Inferno parallels canto IV in Purgatory and Paradise as well.  I suspect it would take years of study to fully understand the genius of this poem.  

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