I have been teaching Dante in translation to American undergraduates for over 35 years. As a teacher, this is what I look for in a translation of Dante: an English variant of Dante's crisp volgare, his vision of Italian as a language not drawn merely from the pure Florentine but from all the dialects of the land; a fairly precise sense of the poetry's literal statements, preserving the roots and possibly the layers of resonances of isolated words and images; a rendition of Dante's technical, philosophical, and theological language; an awareness that Dante often constructs scenes that deliberately echo or prefigure other scenes in the poem; a sense of the shifting modulations of his voice, which avoids the monotony of the elegiac Virgilian style as well as the archaic solemnity of Renaissance epics.
I have long accepted that poetry—the incantations and music of the language—is lost in translation. Dante, himself a translator from the Roman de la rose, believed that translating poetry ends up only in a partial success. As he put it, "[N]o discourse harmonized with the Muses' bonds can be translated from its own dialect into another without the destruction of all its sweetness and harmony." My preferences, therefore, are for prose translations (such as the one by the unpretentious John D. Sinclair), where the question of the original rhythm is forfeited a priori but the intellectual matter is likely to be preserved. Above all, this allows me to teach Dante—not a translator who thinks Dante's poetry can be bettered.
Anthony Esolen prefaces his translation by tackling the problems of his art. He dismisses in one short paragraph the old shibboleth, traduttore traditore, a widely abused, misguided slogan that archly disparages the serious labor of translation as nothing less than a fraud. Behind this old notion there stands a conception of language articulated, among others, by Walter Benjamin. In Benjamin's familiar mystical thesis (put forth in a 1923 introduction to a translation of Baudelaire's poetry), any original Ur-text is a displaced version of a pure language, a reine Sprache, which can never be reproduced in ordinary languages. It is precisely this language "that is concealed, intensively, in translation." Upon such a view, as George Steiner, Jacques Derrida, and more recently Umberto Eco have pointed out, there looms the theological shadow of a Sacred Language in relation to which every translation falls short. Esolen will have none of this, for several reasons.
He grasps that translation is the inner reality of scholarship and of all creative art and culture. Nothing escapes translations, which is to say that all arts are engaged in an endless conversation. Gustave DorÃ©, for instance, translates Dante's poetry into painting, much as Dante translated Giotto's images of, say, St. Francis into the poetry of canto XI of Paradise; or the mosaics in the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna into the poetry of canto VI of Paradise. Through translations, in fact, we face the challenge of assimilating alien voices and of reading words that are both one's own and yet not one's own. Above all, Esolen rightly understands translation as a total enterprise, which means that translating the Divine Comedy is not simply a matter of finding often impossible equivalences between Italian and English. On the contrary, it entails translating the whole cultural context of the poem.
As the rich appendices to each of the three canticles show, the relevant context includes all of Dante's texts; legal and political documents from the Papal chancery; Old French, ProvenÃ§al, and Sicilian poetry as well as the poetry of the Sweet New Style; the Aeneid and the whole Latin epic tradition; the Summa Theologiae and the splendid hymns of St. Thomas Aquinas and the confessional writings of St. Augustine; the Church Fathers; the liturgical prayer books; the mystical and visionary writings of the Benedictines and Cistercians—the vast, encyclopedic array of the West's cultural memory. Esolen's powerful idea of translation pivots on the assumption that to "read" and absorb the discourse of Dante we have to be willing to embrace the deepest roots and aims of his culture and his vision.
And he understands that a genuine poetic translation must come to terms with the central issue of poetry: the music of the original composition. Esolen's introduction makes clear that he understands music in Pythagorean and Platonic terms as nothing less than philosophy, as the pursuit of justice in one's soul, and as the contemplation of beauty. By virtue of music or philosophy we are able to receive the illumination of harmony, scale the heights of truth, and ascend to what draws us to itself—the divine. The philosophical idea of music (which Dante gets mainly through Boethius and St. Augustine) undergirds Esolen's intensely, passionately theological/philosophical interpretation of the poem. But he understands the double question of music and poetry as a specifically technical problem of translating Dante, of capturing the clear quality of the original sound.
In De Vulgari Eloquentia Dante himself defines poetry as "a rhetorical art set to music," and the arresting formula conveys his sense of the necessary tension in a poetic text between rhetorical discipline and the resonances of rhythm. In this treatise he proceeds to give a detailed analysis of the structure of rhythm, metrical patterns, feminine rhymes, subdivisions of stanzas, the arrangement of a canzone, levels of style (middle, tragic, and comical), etc. This elaborate attention to the craft of poetry has led many readers of Dante, most notably Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, to reflect on how best to approximate in English Dante's terza rima, his original rhyming verse form consisting of three lines of eleven syllables. Eliot memorably advises against its English use, mindful that Shelley's The Triumph of Life attempted it but failed. Esolen successfully adopts blank verse, which consists of unrhymed lines of iambic pentameter. Occasionally he depends on internal alliterations and resonances. He also uses rhyme or, as he puts it: "If I find a rhyme in my path I will use it, but will not turn things inside out for its sake…. In diction…if Dante turns an intransitive verb into a transitive verb, I attempt to do the same…."
The practical effect of such a thoughtful procedure is to guarantee the presence of Dante's legendary flexibility and variations. Thanks to Esolen's superb rendition, one can finally delve into the Divine Comedy in English and catch the rigor of Dante's style and the polyphonic range of his voice. The unusual success of this translation is due, no doubt, to Esolen's gift as a poet in English. But it is also due to his ear as a critic. It is a pleasure to notice that he regularly catches the subtle echoes linking together deeply different scenes, such as, for instance, the words Francesca speaks in Inferno V and the words of Ugolino in Inferno XXXIII. On the face of it, Francesca, the heroine of romantic passion who is punished for her moral incontinence, is a far cry from Ugolino, a traitor who has plunged into the abyss of hatred and is caught in the fiery ice of fraud. Yet Dante wants the reader to perceive the invisible moral chain binding them together. And so Ugolino sounds like Francesca as both are made to speak "through my tears." Esolen forges the link between the two characters. He conveys that Ugolino—this is his tragedy—cannot tell the difference between love and hatred, anymore than Francesca can realize the tragic consequences of her love.
Inevitably, one could quibble with some details in the notes and the translations. For instance, the note to Purgatory XI, lines 4ff., should mention the allusion to St. Francis's "Canticle of Brother Sun" (a text that Esolen generously includes in Appendix D to Paradise). In Purgatory VI, line 75 and line 83, on the other hand, Dante uses the same phrase, l'un l'altro—each other—the first time to describe the reciprocity of the affection between Virgil and Sordello, and the second time, by contrast, to denounce the reciprocity of violence within the Italian cities. There is a difference in the two phrases: a reflexive verb is used the second time, in order to stress how reciprocal violence within the body politic ends up being violence against oneself. And finally, in Paradise XXIX, line 18, where Dante draws the extraordinary picture of the metaphysics of creation as an overflow of divine love, the verb he uses is s'aperse. Esolen's line captures creation's explosion of love: "into new loves burst the Eternal Love." This is a powerful rendition. And yet Dante's verb, s'aperse, etymologically from the Latin ad-pario, implies a coming to light, as in a woman's childbearing.
To point out such details may seem an act of ingratitude, an ungenerous response to the steadily lavish display of taste, inventiveness, depth, and love in every line of Esolen's translation. But it is not ingratitude. It is another way of saying that serious lapses cannot be imputed to him. Esolen has produced an incomparably good work, which is likely to become the standard poetic translation of the Divine Comedy for years to come. He correctly views the poem as the paradigmatically Christian vision and the very voice of Western spirituality. In a future edition, he may wish to list some secondary bibliography in order to allow his readers in the colleges and high schools, and at home, to keep discovering the many other layers that constitute the unending wonder of this extraordinary text.