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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

November 1995

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 passages.

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 available here.

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.
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