The Inferno of Dante: A New Verse Translation by Robert Pinsky

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Robert Pinsky's acclaimed translation of The Inferno was awarded the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Poetry and the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award given by the Academy of American Poets. As Edward Hirsch wrote in The New Yorker, "Robert Pinsky's translation is fast-paced, idiomatic, and accurate. . . It maintains the original's episodic and narrative velocity. . . . Pinsky succeeds in creating a supple American equivalent for Dante's vernacular music where many others ...
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Overview

Robert Pinsky's acclaimed translation of The Inferno was awarded the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Poetry and the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award given by the Academy of American Poets. As Edward Hirsch wrote in The New Yorker, "Robert Pinsky's translation is fast-paced, idiomatic, and accurate. . . It maintains the original's episodic and narrative velocity. . . . Pinsky succeeds in creating a supple American equivalent for Dante's vernacular music where many others have failed".
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Though transforming Dante's terza rima into readable English has bogged down many a distinguished translator, Pinsky (The Want Bone) more than meets the challenge. His rendering has an efficient feel; the lines seem slimmer and less unwieldy than most contemporary verse translations. Each one of the cantos features a good number of stanzas dominated by monosyllables-his answer, along with intriguing patterns of assonance, to approximating the splendor of Dante's profusion of rhymes, which are impossible to replicate in English. The coherent narration of the translation is also welcome, as it keeps a harness on the sometimes meandering diction of the original. Pinsky's voice is nearly irresistible when rounding out the grotesqueries of Dante's Hell: his versions of the ninth and final circle bring the bizarre terror of the fiery pit to life. Plainspoken yet elegant, this Inferno sustains a tactile succession of images over 34 cantos, and lends itself to being read aloud. Illustrations not seen by PW.
Library Journal
Since Charles Rogers published the first complete translation of the Inferno in 1782, nearly 80 versions of Dante's masterpiece have appeared in English. Poet Pinsky (English, Boston Coll.) offers another. This book includes the Italian version at the end of the book, notes on textual allusions, a foreword by scholar John Freccero, and illustrations by Michael Mazur. Unlike other modern verse translations, notably those of Dorothy Sayers, John Ciardi, and Allen Mandelbaum, Pinsky's attempts to capture Dante's terza rima, the interlocking rhyme scheme aba, bcb, cdc, etc., which is difficult to sustain in English. A good poet, Pinsky is fluent if less literal than Ciardi and Mandelbaum, flattening Dante's diction. His version is a pleasure to read, but ultimately it does not supersede Ciardi's or Mandelbaum's.-T.L. Cooksey
From the Publisher
"Splendid . . . Pinsky's verse translation is fast-paced, idiomatic, and accurate. It moves with the concentrated gait of a lyric poem . . . It maintains the original's episodic and narrative velocity while mirroring its formal shape and character . . . Pinsky succeeds in creating a supple American equivalent for Dante's vernacular music where many others have failed."—Edward Hirsch, The New Yorker

"Pinsky's rare gifts as a poet, a wild imagination disciplined by an informed commitment to technical mastery, are superbly well suited to the Inferno's immense demands. Pinsky has managed to capture the poem's intense individuality, passion, and visionary imagery. This translation is wonderfully alert to Dante's strange blend of fierceness and sympathy, clear-eyed lucidity and heart-stopping wonder. It is now the premier modern text for readers to experience Dante's power."—Stephen Greenblatt

"A new translation of Dante's classic poem uses slant rhyme and near rhyme to preserve the original terza rima form without distorting the English meaning, providing a lively and faithful rendition of the poem. " —Ingram

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781574531329
  • Publisher: Audio Literature
  • Publication date: 4/28/1997
  • Format: Cassette
  • Edition description: Abridged, 2 Cassettes
  • Product dimensions: 4.39 (w) x 7.02 (h) x 0.76 (d)

Meet the Author

A former Poet Laureate of the United States, Robert Pinsky was born and raised in Long Branch, New Jersey. He teaches in the graduate writing program at Boston University and has also taught at the University of California at Berkeley. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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Reading Group Guide

Questions for Discussion

1. Robert Pinsky has described the process of translation as “always a compromise,” as “never complete,” as “an activity in which you know you’re going to fail.” What do you think he means by this? Do you agree with his own assessment that his completed translation is “above all a poem” and “a work of metrical engineering?” Is the Inferno in English essentially a different poem from what it is in its original language? What aspects of the poem seem to you to be most “translatable?” Which least?

2. On its face, the Inferno dramatizes the medieval Christian belief in a literal Hell, where sinners are punished eternally for disobeying the moral law as understood by the Church, however sympathetically human they might otherwise be. Why, in spite of this stark vision, do you think the Inferno has remained compelling and vital—and even beloved—to so many twentieth-century readers? Do you think we respond to the poem differently than fourteenth-century readers did? How do the very different circumstances of contemporary Western culture influence our reading of the poem?

3. The pilgrim Dante’s first meeting in Hell is with Francesca, whose moving account of how she is seduced, in part by literature, into an act of adultery has caused many readers to question why the poet renders her so compassionately. To what extent is Dante, then renowned in Florence for his courtly love poetry, implicating himself in her fall? Why might Francesca be the first to speak in Hell? Is there a difference between the way the pilgrim Dante responds to her tale and what the poet Dante intends? Why do you think this meeting comes first in the poem?

4. Though Dante is commonly thought of as a medieval poet, thirteenth-century Florence was a democracy and Dante’s own political views stemmed from his allegiance to a faction of the Guelph party that advocated steadfast independence from both king and pope. In what ways might democratic ideals be said to manifest themselves in Dante’s vision? How does the poet reconcile them with his belief in a rigorous and hierarchical Christian moral system? By having Brutus, Cassius, and Judas share the deepest pit in Hell, does Dante imply that crimes against the state are morally equivalent to the betrayal of Christ?

5. Do you see ways in which Dante’s writing anticipates the Renaissance? What is Dante's attitude toward human reason (see especially Canto XXVI)? How do his ideas about art as embodied in the Commedia differ from predominant medieval and/or Renaissance attitudes?

6. The scholar John Freccero says in the Foreword, “There is no sign of Christian forgiveness in the Inferno. The dominant theorem is not mercy but justice, dispensed with the severity of the ancient law of retribution.” In this view, whatever empathy the pilgrim (and the reader) feels for the sinners represents incomprehension of the Divine. In contrast, Alan Williamson has proposed in The American Poetry Review that “Dante [is] often at his strongest as a poet when his feelings seem to strain aggainst the limits of his system.” In Canto XXXIII, for example, he chooses to dramatize not the sin that landed Count Ugolino in hell, but the tragic suffering of Ugolino’s innocent children. What might account for this choice? If the poem was meant to illustrate an inflexible moral theology, why might Dante have chosen to tell Ugolino’s story from a point of view that encourages empathy, when he could have chosen to have Ugolino speak instead of his own odious acts of betrayal? Do you agree that Dante’s “feelings seem to strain against the limits of his system?” How do we know what the poet feels?

7. Dante seems to have written the Inferno in part to take revenge on his own enemies. What, in his own moral cosmology, are the implications of taking justice into his own hands in this way? Is there an appropriate Circle of Hell for such a sin? Why or why not?

8. Many twentieth-century readers have been interested almost exclusively in Hell—in the Inferno, the first section of the poem. What are some possible implications of reading the Inferno in contextual isolation from Purgatorio and Paradiso?

9. T.S. Eliot, among others, has asserted that the encounter with Satan in the last canto is anticlimactic. Do you think this is so? What might account for this? Do you think the poet was cognizant of it?

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