Dr. Anthony Esolen, translator, on the Inferno, Purgatory, Paradise.

I’ve read the Divine Comedy, what is considered to be the authoritative translation by Dr. John Ciardi, which Dr. Esolen does mention very early in this interview. Dr. Esolen wanted to use the translation of Dr. Ciardi–Harvard–at his university but the cost was too high. So, Dr. Esolen decided to translate the text himself and sell it cheaper than Dr. Ciardi’s translation. Now, honestly, I struggled through Dr. Ciardi’s translation of Dante’s work, the text does do a marvelous job when translating to keep the text poetic from the Italian to English. However, I think it becomes clunky to the degree that phrases and words are not commonly used in modern English when attempting to create rhyming schemes. What Dr. Esolen does is not focus so much on the rhyming, but rather constructing good prose.

Here’s a good example from Canto 3 line 10 of the Inferno:

Dr. John Ciardi trans:

These mysteries I read cut into stone

above a gate. And turning I said: “Master,

what is the meaning of this harsh inscription?

And he then as initiate to novice:

“Here must you put by all division of spirit

and gather your soul against all cowardice.


Dr. Anthony Esolen trans:

I saw these words of dark and harsh intent

engraved upon the archway of a gate.

“Teacher,” I said, “their sense is hard for me.”

And he to me, as one who read my thoughts:

“Here you must leave distrust and doubt behind,

here you must put all cowardice to death.

Dr. Esolen’s comments about the Divine Comedy being the greatest poem ever written. The Inferno leaves a bad taste in my mouth every time I read its poetry. Perhaps, if one means the greatest such as Citizen Kane is the greatest movie ever made. The narrative at times I find more or less very petty, Dante seems to be settling scores in his struggles in Florence between the groups “Blacks” and “Whites” in which Dante himself was a “White.” The struggle did create violent conflict within Florence, in which Pope Boniface VIII used the opportunity to strengthen the political aspirations of the papacy. Of course, naturally, Dante uses the opportunity of his written work to settle the score with Pope Boniface in Inferno and Pope Celestine V, who abdicated the papacy which led to the election of Boniface VIII. Naturally, this is just one very small example. At the same time, I keep returning to work of the Divine Comedy, so there’s a greatest that I think lies beneath the surface that I just haven’t discovered, something that takes time to peel back from its pages. The idea of the whole text appeals to me and although the political aspects often seem to put me off, perhaps it is a good lesson to learn that as much as would like to pretend politics do not exist and only theology, it’s nothing more than pretending.

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