Which Translation Should I Read?

Choosing which translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy to read is a very subjective and personal decision. Any translation involves balancing the meaning, feel, and artistry of the work, normally at the expense of at least one of these qualities. A major consideration is the topic of rhyme. The Divine Comedy has a complex rhyme scheme that suits itself well to the rhyme-rich language of Italian (where, unlike English, many words end in vowels). Translations that attempt to maintain any type of rhyme scheme often sound forced and usually compromise the meaning of the text.

At the other end of the spectrum are straight prose (spoken word) translations. Prose translations are great for communicating the story and it’s nuances, however any poetical structure is lost. A third choice is a translation written in blank verse (iambic pentameter). This format allows freedom to communicate the work without rhyme, yet maintains a metrical structure. In addition, it’s well suited for English (Shakespeare wrote much of his work in blank verse).

So, which translation should you read? I have no vested interest in selling a particular author’s work, my recommendations are just my personal opinion. My favorite version is by Mark Musa (written in blank verse). I also enjoy Anthony Esolen’s translation (blank verse with some rhyme).  They also both have good notes (a necessity). Ultimately, it’s great to read a few and decide which version you like best, each has strengths and weaknesses.

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8 thoughts on “Which Translation Should I Read?

  1. Dorothy Sayers translation is, in my opinion, one of the finest translations that maintains the original ryhme scheme, is imminently readable and classic and is blessed further by knowledgeable, interesting and useful notes.

    She may have only translated the Inferno – Im not certain on that.

  2. Charles Singleton’s translation for his understanding of textual nuance and its outstanding notes is strongly recommended.

  3. I also prefer Mark Musa’s version. I really enjoy the extra insights I receive from his notes, summaries, and essays.

  4. I’m using Allen Mandelbaum’s translation while writing my Master’s thesis. I found it easy to use. Also, Anthony Esolen has an interesting article published:

    Esolen, Anthony. “Body & Soul Uplifted: Dante’s Magnificent Vision of Resurrection of
    the Flesh.” Touchstone (2006): 26-32.

  5. Dorothy Sayers’ and John Ciardi’s are two reliable translations for me; Mandlebaum also works, though it is not my favorite. These things are always hard, choosing between manner and matter …

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