Musings on the First Tercet of Dante’s Inferno

Dante's Inferno: Dore illustration for Canto IBack in December, before Godaddy broke my blog through technical incompetence, I had written a piece about the first stanza in Inferno, the first book of Dante’s trilogy, The Divine Comedy. Since that post seems irretrievably lost, I decided to write another in the same vein. So please bear with me if this seems redundant.

It all began innocently enough on Tuesday late last year when I was searching through my bookshelves in search of something I can no longer recall, and instead of what I was hunting (being easily distracted by books), I took down my copy of Mary Jo Bang’s modernized translation of Dante’s Inferno (Greywolf Press, 2012) and began to read her introduction and notes again.*

I have several (six or seven) translations of this book, from old hardcover reprints (Longfellow) through Penguin Classics (Dorothy Sayers) to modern editions like Bang’s, Ciardi’s, and Pinsky’s. While I don’t like each translation equally, what I do like are the footnotes, translator’s notes, introductions, and explanations I find in most of them. Dante can be a tough read without the reader’s own Virgil to guide us and provide contemporary associations to explain Dante’s archaic references.

I’m sure you all know the story: Dante, in middle age, lovelorn, finds himself purposeless and unfocused, with little to no meaning in his life. Lost, he blunders into Hell where Virgil guides him down through its various levels (circles), while Dante narrates the journey (Inferno). Eventually, after many adventures and remarkable sights, he reaches the bottom, climbs up the body of Satan and out into the next book (Purgatory) at the end of which the soul of his beloved Beatrice becomes his guide. He escapes with her to reach the pinnacle of heaven, in book three, Paradise, where she eventually is replaced by Saint Bernard.

The whole trilogy is filled with metaphors, allegories, history, Christian (medieval Catholic) theology, political commentary, strains of pagan mythologies, dangers and adventures, morality, revenge… all tied together by the story of a brave lover seeking his lost soulmate while looking for spiritual understanding. Whew. Dante began writing his Divine Comedy in 1308 and finished it in 1320, the year before he died.

Of the three, Inferno has been most popular and most translated. Perhaps that’s because we have a cultural fixation with the imaginary Hell and its demons, but also perhaps because it has not the moral exactitude of the other two books. It has “attractive sinners” for whom the reader often feels sympathy, almost as if Dante is challenging official church doctrine about Hell and salvation.

Inferno has spawned many metaphors itself since it was first written, and inspired many writers since to explore its space (like Larry Niven’s and Jerry Pournelle’s Inferno, and Dan Brown’s Inferno).

There are more than 200 English translations of the Divine Comedy, dating back to 1782 and continuing until within the past two years. Back in 1891, translator Charles Eliot Norton wrote in the introduction to his prose version that,

So many versions of the Divine Comedy exist in English that a new one might seem needless.

And yet translations have continued to be published. Norton justified his prose version because, “the intellectual temper of our time is impatient of a transmutation in which substance is sacrificed for form’s sake, and the new form is itself different from the original.” He also called translation in verse “an imperfect mirror that renders but a partial likeness, in which essential features are blurred or distorted.”

I first wrote about Dante and the powerful first verse (technically a tercet of three lines; see below for the original Italian) back in 2013. That verse has always moved me as if it were written for my own life. Here is the version I originally chose to include in my post (Canto I, trans. by John Ciardi, 1996 Norton edn.):

Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray
from the straight road and woke to find myself
alone in a dark wood.

I was always moved that Dante says “our.” Our life’s journey, not “my.” He makes the point that he and the reader share something: the journey we all take from birth to death. We accompany him on his journey, not simply observe it.

Midway through it puts him at about age 35 if you take his meaning from the 10th line in  Psalm 90: “The days of our years are threescore years and ten.” The psalm continues that if you are strong enough, you might live “fourscore years” and reach 80. However, Dante only lived to age 56, dying of malaria in the city of Ravenna on September 14, 1321.

You could trivialize the opening of the first canto by saying Dante was having a ‘midlife crisis,” but that term has come to be associated with insecure men who abandon their wives for younger mistresses, buy red sports cars or expensive motorcycles, and acting like teenagers again instead of maturing gracefully. Dante was pursuing deeply spiritual and philosophical answers, not his lost youth (as line 12 in Psalm 90 says “Teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.”) Dante’s response to his “midlife crisis” was to create a masterful work.

Mary Jo Bang gives us her modernized version of the first tercet as:

Stopped mid-motion in the middle
Of what we call our life, I looked up and saw no sky—
Only a dense cage of leaf, tree, and twig. I was lost.

What a difference! I don’t get the same sense of loss and confusion, but rather of action halted, a sense of busyness (and perhaps business) interrupted. Nor do I get from a “dense cage” the same dread that a “dark wood” conveys. She doesn’t use the word “alone” as Ciardi does to heighten the sense of isolation.

I am ambivalent about her translation. On one hand, I generally appreciate efforts to modernize the classics, and I like to see more women doing translations (I also lost my review of Emily Wilson’s recent translation of The Odyssey, which I will soon attempt to rewrite). On the other hand, I often find modernizations jarring, abrupt, and sometimes feel forced, as it were, to be “hip.” Having read other versions in the past, I have expectations of what to expect. But Bang’s notes and commentaries after each canto are superb in helping explain her version.

In her translator’s notes, Bang says she was inspired by Via, a poem written in 2000 by Carolynn Bergvall, in which the poet assembled 47 different translations of those first three lines, arranged alphabetically by the first word of the opening line. She then read them all aloud (listen to it here) in a performance piece. She also includes the last name of the translator and the year of publication for each tercet.

Bergvall set the cutoff date for inclusion at May 2000, which she notes at the end of the poem as being “Exactly 700 years after the date fixed by Dante for the start of the Comedy’s journey.” (Dante begins Inferno on the night before Good Friday, 1300, which would have been Thursday, April 8) I understand: humans have a preference for referential data that have symbolic numbers: the 100th anniversary, the 20th year since, the decade, the millennium. We don’t celebrate the 632nd year since, the 78th anniversary, or the 21st-and-a-half birthday. We are more comfortable with easily recalled integers.

While Bergvall’s Via doesn’t include the very earliest translations (Rogers, Boyd, and Cary), here is the opening of the first canto as translated by Henry Boyd in 1785 (published by P. Byrne, Dublin, available in Google Books):

When life had labour’d up her midmost stage,
And, weary with her mortal pilgrimage,
Stood in suspense upon the point of Prime;
Far in pathless grove I chanc’d to stray,
Where scarce imagination dares display,
The gloomy scen’ry of the savage clime.

To the casual reader, Via may all seem rather obsessive, carrying a patina of redundancy or sameness from verse to verse, but when you read the verses carefully, slowly, you pick up on the often subtle differences, the delicate shades each one has. It’s like looking at colour swatches in a paint store. There’s a different mood in each one that may take time to emerge.

As Bergvall says herself, the recording created a 48th version:

The 48th variation composed by Ciaran Maher as a fractal structure from the voice recording.

As a somewhat obsessive person myself (my wife might amend that to a very obsessive…), I immediately liked Bergvall’s collection and wanted to expand on it by including other variations, particularly those published since Via. One of the latter includes the translation by Anthony Esolen (Modern Library, 2003) which opens:

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself in a dark wilderness,
for I had wandered from the straight and true.

While not as gloomy as Ciardi’s (and no use of “alone”), the word “wilderness” adds a threat: the author has wandered away from the tamed world of civilization. However, “straight and true” suggests to me something more ideological (or perhaps theological) than I find in Ciardi’s “straight path.”

And there’s also Robin Kirkpatrick’s version (Penguin Books, 2013):

At one point midway on our path in life,
I came around and found myself now searching
through a dark wood, the right way blurred and lost.

I like this, but “At one point” makes the moment seem more transient than I feel is warranted. Blurred is a good description, but I’m not sure about “searching” because it doesn’t have the sense of worried confusion that I feel it should. perhaps “wandering” would do so.

Mark Musa’s version, originally from 1971 but also found in the 1995 Penguin “Portable Dante” I have on my bookshelf, reads:

Midway along the journey of our life
I woke to find myself in some dark woods,
for I had wandered off from the straight path.

I like Musa’s version a lot. And the translator of this older version is unstated (possibly Cary), but the illustrations are by Umberto Romano (Doubelday, 1947):

In the midway of this our mortal life,
I found me in a gloomy wood, astray
Gone from the path direct…

Good, although “mortal life” suggests there is an immortal life, thus making the phrase more religious than I feel Dante intended for this tercet.

Alaisdair Gray’s version in “in prosaic English rhyme” (Cannongate, 2018) reads,

In middle age I wholly lost my way and found myself within an evil wood far from the right straight road we all should tread.

Nope. Evil conveys an entirely different sense than words like dark or gloomy. It has a moral gravity to it that I don’t feel is warranted. And saying “we should all tread” suggests conformity that I think is the opposite of what Dante meant.

And here’s one from Robert and Jean Hollander’s translation (Anchor Books, 2000). The Hollanders’ version is the same one used in the Princeton Dante Project, by the way, and can be read online:

Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood.
for the straight way was lost.

Okay, but “I came to myself” suggests he was asleep or unconscious rather than not paying attention. I get the feeling from Ciardi the author was walking into the wood but not observing where he was. This phrase makes it seem he awoke from sleep.

And this version in “plain and simple English” by BookCaps (Golgotha Press, 2011)

Half-way through the journey of my life
I found myself in a dark forest,
Having lost the main path.

Clear and concise, although halfway strikes me as a bit too precise compared to mid-way. Dark forest doesn’t seem as threatening as “dark wood.”

And this by Fowler Wright (original © 1928, reprinted Wildside Press 2012):

One night, when half my life behind me lay,
I wandered from the straight lost path afar,
Through the great dark was no releasing way;

Releasing way? Clumsy, and the poetry is too strained.

And this from a graphic novel version adapted by Seymour Chwast (Bloomsbury Press, 2010):

In the middle of my life I awake to find myself alone in a dark valley.

Clear, but not poetic. I am unsure about the present-tense verb awake and would prefer past tense: awoke.

From the Brothers Grim & Grimy (5th Edition, Declan Moran 2015):

When I was thirty six years old
I found myself in mountains cold;
For I was lost, from path I’d strayed
In forest dark with shadows frayed.

Too much effort put into making it rhyme, 36 is too precise, and no one else mentions cold mountains.

By Robert Torrance (Xlibris Corporation, 2011):

Halfway through the journey of our life’s way,
I found myself in a dark wood, and here
was lost, uncertain where the straight path lay.

Okay, that works.

From Clive James (Picador, 2013):

At the mid-point of the path through life, I found
Myself lost in a wood so dark, the way
Ahead was blotted out.

That works for me, too.

From Ned Denny, (from B (After Dante), published in 2021; the first canto was printed in To Hell and Back: An anthology of Dante’s Inferno in English by Tim Smith and Marco Sonzogni, John Benjamins Publishing Co., 2017)

In the midst of the stroll of this life that some call good
I came to my senses in a corpse-hued wood,
having strayed from or abandoned the righteous way.

Stroll? Too flippant. Some call good? Who says that? That suggests a dichotomy of others calling it bad. I like the image of a corpse-hued wood, although the “righteous” way is too ideologically rigid for my taste.

From Ciaran Carson (Granta Books, 2002):

Halfway through the story of my life
I came to in a gloomy wood, because
I’d wandered off the path, away from the light

I liked this one, too. The notion of wandering or straying from the path seems to fit better with Dante’s vision than awakening or coming to along it.

I could go on, but I think my point is made: every translation is an exploration of meaning and language from a unique, personal perspective. Each one is like a different cook’s take on a particular recipe. You almost need each verse printed on a separate index card and displayed on a wall to appreciate the differences, sometimes. The slight changes in wording — midway or halfway, upon or on, dark, darksome, or dusky, in or within — give each version its own flavour.

At which point, I feel a great urge to pick up Mary Jo Bang again and give her version another whirl. After all, can one ever have too much Dante?

~~~~~

NB. This graphic chart might help decide on a version to read, although you will need to zoom in on it to read the text. You will also find a long list of editions on Goodreads.

NB. The original Italian (from the Princeton Dante Project) reads:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

* “It all began innocently enough on Tuesday…” is from the opening of the Firesign Theatre’s brilliant 1969 radio play, The Further Adventures of Nick Danger:

It all began innocently enough on Tuesday. I was sitting in my office on that drizzly afternoon listening to the monotonous staccato of rain on my desktop and reading my name on the glass of my office door. “Regnad Kcin”. My secretary lay snoring on the floor; her long, beautiful gams pinioned under the couch. I didn’t hear him enter,  but my nostrils flared at the smell of his perfume… Pyramid Patchouli. There was only one joker in L.A. sensitive enough to wear that scent and I had to find out who he was.

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One comment

  1. Translation is such a challenge, isn’t it? I usually aim for a contemporary English and contemporary prosody, but that leads (for me anyway) to the temptation to add my own impressions from the images the language is conveying. Doing that adds vividness, but then I worry that I’ve been unfaithful to the original text I’m trying to serve. After all, when I look at literal glosses of many works other translators have rendered, I see what appear to be novel images introduced by the translator. “That cheating!” I cry. “You’re replacing the original author with your own thing.” And then I find I do the same myself.

    Anyway, I’m glad you were able to recreate the original post and I enjoyed it.

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