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The Deep Passage:
Dante, Longfellow, and Pinsky
Io cominciai: "Poeta che mi guidi,
guarda la mia virtù s'ell' è possente,
prima ch'a l'alto passo tu mi fidi."
Dante Alighieri, Inferno, II. 10-12
And I began: "Poet, who guidest me,
Regard my manhood, if it be sufficient.
Ere to the arduous pass thou dost confide me."
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Inferno, II. 10-12
I commenced: "Poet, take my measure now:
Appraise my powers before you trust me to venture
Through that deep passage where you would be my guide."
Robert Pinsky, The Inferno of Dante, II. 9-11
In an online conference hosted by The Atlantic
Monthly in April, 1995, the American poet Robert Pinsky
commented on some of the problems inherent in translating a work like Dante's
Inferno (the first part of the Divina Commedia). Asked whether
poetry is essentially untranslatable, he answered: "Yes. Poetry is basically a
technology of the sounds of language, and one set of sounds is not another. . . .
But as a work of imagination one can--to use a very old term--'English' a
work of art into another derived work of art, meant to give pleasure and an idea
of the original in the new language."
Robert Pinsky is not, of course, the first translator to venture through
the "deep passage" of Dante's Inferno and attempt such a work of
imagination; there have been more than fifty "Englishings" of the
Inferno in this century alone. Yet Pinsky's The Inferno of
Dante (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994) has taken its place among the
most distinguished translations of Dante's poem. Not only has the work met
with critical and popular acclaim but it has also received the Academy of
American Poets' annual Landon Award for translation. In honor of Pinsky's
achievement, and to go along with the transcript of our online conference with
him, we are presenting excerpts of The Inferno of
Dante, along with recordings of Pinsky himself reading the
One of Pinsky's most renowned American precursors is Henry Wadsworth
Longfellow, a co-founder of The
Atlantic Monthly. We've unearthed a series of four
sonnets that Longfellow composed as a meditation on his own experience
translating Dante's Divina Commedia and that were published in The
Atlantic Monthly more than 130 years ago. Three cantos of Longfellow's
translation of the Paradiso (the third and final part of the
Commedia) were first published in The Atlantic Monthly in
January, 1864. We've made the text of Canto XXIII
As a companion to our feature we are providing a link to the
ILTweb Digital Dante
Project at Columbia University, which offers the complete Italian text of
the Commedia alongside the text of Longfellow's translation.
-- Wen Stephenson
Copyright © 1995 The Atlantic Monthly. All rights reserved.