The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

details
Title: The Divine Comedy.
Series: La Divina Commedia #1-3.
Writer(s): Dante Alighieri.
Publisher: Fall River Press.
Format: Hardcover.
Release Date: 2008 (First Published in 1320).
Pages: 693.
Genre(s): Poetry, Classics.
ISBN13:  9781435146914.
My Overall Rating:

Rating: 2 out of 5.

thoughts

There are fictional creations that are deemed to be the work of gods, pivotal in the evolution of humanity by the sheer impact and repercussions they have had on literature across the world. The mere mention of their title evokes a never-ending swarm of praise and summons an indisputable conviction of its purity from those who have dared crack open these acclaimed masterpieces. Among these titles is the Italian work of poetry by Dante Alighieri known as the Divine Comedy. Unbeknownst to its creator, this piece of literature went on to revolutionize the Italian culture, language, and literature by setting forth a new standard that has yet to be seen in any other work of fiction to this day.

What is The Divine Comedy about? Written between 1308 and 1321, this epic poem, split into three parts (Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso), tells the story of Dante Alighieri’s intimate journey into the afterlife, starting from Hell with his guide Virgil where they explore the terrifying punishments kept strictly for the sinful, then ascending to Mount Purgatory where he crosses paths with his dead love Beatrice and discovers the seven deadly sins, and finally arriving in Heaven where he meets Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and comes upon the nine celestial spheres where resides penitents, saints, and angels. Through this odyssey, Dante Alighieri is exposed to questions of faith, desire, and enlightenment, that allow him to reflect on the afterlife.

“All hope abandon, ye who enter here.”

— Dante Alighieri

There’s a lesson to be learned here that does not lie in the story, the author, or the cultural impact that The Divine Comedy and Dante Alighieri both had on world literature, and it resides in the translator and the edition of the book. This translation by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was probably the one translation that no one should get their hands on unless well-versed in this legendary poetic piece. Not only does this edition come with no annotation whatsoever, but the translation is also more often than not incomprehensible, and not just because it is unable to reproduce the terza rima rhyme scheme, but the flow is absent and choppy. Top it off with the fact that there are lines here that make no sense at all and invite confusion more than anything else in the reader, it simply makes for an arduous experience. This sometimes even had me wondering if my English just wasn’t there yet, like some kind of Jedi that didn’t yet master the Force.

Thankfully, this edition does contain over one hundred engravings by Gustave Doré that beautifully capture certain moments throughout Dante Alighieri’s journey through hell. If it weren’t for these drawings, a myriad of iconic moments depicted in this story would’ve remained incomprehensible, a jumble of words straight out of Scrabbles. With that being said, reading through this edition wasn’t entirely pointless, beyond just making one realize how crucial it is to pick your battles, as it does still allow even those who have little to no knowledge in theology and philosophy the opportunity to discover some of the most fascinating ideas of the afterlife that inevitably draw inspiration on known religions and scientific knowledge. While this might have been torture in itself, it won’t be the end of my journey through hell as I scar into my memory tissues to do my due diligence next time around and attempt a superior translation with annotations that will allow me to soak in this beloved masterpiece.

The Divine Comedy is a quintessential poem presenting a mesmerizing vision of the afterlife through Dante’s journey through Hell.


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35 thoughts on “The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

  1. That’s why I read all my books in English when they are of course written by English speaking authors! I always think that something is lost in the translation .

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  2. The more I read, the more I realize how absolutely vital a good translator is. And notes are even more essential for books before the 1700’s. too much has changed.

    As for poetry, I gave up on that a long time ago. I simply can’t deal with it. So good job sticking through this. Do you think you’ll try another translation at some point?

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    1. Tell me about it. There were so many real people referenced in this too. I’m convinced it would’ve been a far more interesting experience had I had annotations come with this. Poetry is a tough sell for me too now. I had my dose of “modern” poetry a while back and I was more shocked than anything by what people called poetry hahah I do still want to give “classic poetry” here and then just to at least say that I’ve tried them. I will give Dante another try in the future. My girlfriend’s mom is a teacher and she recommends a French translation where the translator actually keeps the original patterns. That will probably be my next attempt (especially when French is much closer to Italian).

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  3. I’m sorry that this experience proved to be so negative for you! Translations are always fraught with dangers, and even more so when one is translating poetry, so I understand your frustration and disappointment – even more so when you mention the total lack of notes: I remember that the text edition we used back in high school carried notes for the whole lower half of the page, which means they were quite extensive – and our teacher added the rest… 😉
    The only consolation can indeed come from the amazing illustrations of Gustave Doré: I have an edition in three volumes with all the illustrations, which was bought by my father way back when, and it’s simply amazing.

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    1. I envy that edition you have of these books! They sound marvelous and I’m convinced your experience with this was probably so much more fascinating than what I got through in this noteless and rough translation. My girlfriend plans on reading it in Italian soon and I’m curious to see how that will go. I’ve been recommended a French translation where the rhyme scheme was kept and I’ll definitely give that one a try in the future. I’ll need a break from all this Divine Comedy stuff for now! 😛 Thanks for reading, Maddalena! 😀

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    1. Hahahaa if you ever do want to try it out, I definitely recommend making sure that there are notes/annotations to help you better understand all the characters and references in it! 😛 I also heard there were some audiobooks for it but I’m not sure that would be any better than going through this edition of mine. 😀

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  4. Ah, how I can relate to that. So, a few days ago, I decided to read the Bible in its entirety (I’ve read parts and I’ve heard it all, but… I want to study it more) and… I found myself more confused than ever. Just like you mentioned – I questioned my English. It’s a pickle because I did want the version that is the closest to the original. I did not want someone to tell me how to interpret it. I feared that would cloud my understanding. Well, maybe those translations are there for a reason. Dunno… will continue to figure things out.

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  5. I love the diversity in your posts–from Batman to Dante 🙂 Sadly, they were both disappointing versions.

    I get picking Longfellow’s translation, but probably best to find a contemporary one–with plenty of footnotes! Knowing who all those people are (and what their relationship to Dante was) really helps.

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    1. Hahahah expect the unexpected! 😛 And yes, so many different interpretations out there and if you’re not wise about which ones you pick, you get the reading experience that goes with it…

      You’re absolutely right and I noticed how much I was missing out without the footnotes. There were names tossed in there that were clearly integrated by Dante assuming that the reader knew all about them. Hopefully, the next edition I read will help me appreciate this work so much more.

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  6. There’s no denying that the Devine Comedy is very influential. I’ve never actually read any of them in full – I’ve only seen snippets here and there. Based on your review, I get the impression that it could use a re-translation.

    I remember the Dante’s Inferno game from EA, which is actually a fairly good clone of the God of War Greek series. I wouldn’t recommend tracking it down unless your a big fan of those games though.

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    1. It’s not so much that it needs a re-translation but that anyone who wants to read it should look into another edition from another translator because of how much you’ll miss out without the notes, especially.

      I do remember Dante’s Inferno! I did try it and was annoyed by how much of a close it was to God of War (I’m a huge fanboy on that matter) hahaha

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  7. This one sounds like hard work. I would actually quite like to read it, but maybe in another version than yours? And ideally with lots of footnotes and illustrations in case, I still don’t get it. 😁

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  8. Hmmm, I don’t often give much thought to which translated version I try, but perhaps I should start. Sorry to hear this one didn’t work so well. I actually have this on my list to read in the next year or two as part of my reading of Around the World in 80 Books by David Damrosch. I’m attempting to read, or at least sample, as many of the books he mentions as I can. The Divine Comedy is book 17 and I’m currently on book 6, so it might be a while, though there are many between the two that I don’t currently have so won’t read yet. The version I was going to try is an audiobook reading from LibriVox based on a translation by Courtney Langdon. No clue how good that one will be, but keeping my fingers crossed.

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    1. Yep, I’ve read a couple of translated works in the past and oftentimes I always feel like there’s something lost in translation except for a couple of exceptions (so far I have good success with Russian and Japanese authors). As for work published centuries ago, I know now, with this experience, that I should look into annotated editions just to help me further appreciate the author’s vision. In the Divine Comedy, Dante often mentions real people but doesn’t do much presentation or exposition regarding them, assuming that his readers actually know them and their relation to him. I actually have no idea how an audiobook of this would work but I fear it might just be similar to reading this edition I read in the sense that I wouldn’t have caught all the references and would’ve needed loads of contextualization (regarding politics, famous people, or religion) to properly understand. Hope you have a better experience with The Divine Comedy when you get around to it though! I’ll have to look into that book by David Damrosch though. It sounds like a fun life project to have! 😀

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  9. Aww… sorry this didn’t work out for you, Lashaan! Well, at least you gave it a try and learned a few things about it 🙂 “This sometimes even had me wondering if my English just wasn’t there yet, like some kind of Jedi that didn’t yet master the Force.” <– this had me chuckling! 😀 Great review, my friend!

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    1. It was such a rough read, going through it with all those ankle weights hahahah At least I was able to convince myself that it wasn’t Dante Alighieri’s fault that it turned out like this. Hopefully, my future attempt will be far more successful. Thanks for reading, Jee! 😀

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  10. Fingers crossed you’ll find a better edition, Lashaan! At least you could’ve read it as a comic book, with all those illustrations! 😀 Here’s to hope your next encounter with Dante will be much more pleasant!

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  11. On one hand, most of the Italian struggle with Dante, because he is the father of the Italian language but his Italian is highly different from the modern one, and so in a way you had an experience really near “the original” one. On the other hand our editions are full of notes that help a lot!
    Jokes aside, I am sorry that this wasn’t the best reading experience, but at least the art sounds interesting!

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  12. Aaah I remember when I saw this score on your Goodreads account I was very surprised and immediately thought about the translation, which can certainly impact one’s experience! There are a lot of challenges and opinions/”schools” when translating poetry and “old” books (I mean books that are not written in the current/modern version of their original language) and depending on the decade (or century) of the translation, the “goal” of the translatpr was also very different, especially when it comes to the questions of rhymes, poetry, footnotes, cultural references, etc. That’s why it can be quite hard to find good translations of old classics! I am very impressed that you didn’t just give up halfay through and I hope you’ll find a version that you will enjoy more! 😊

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    1. I too am super impressed that I kept going despite knowing a couple of pages in that this wasn’t the way to go hahaha I did tell myself that it was probably going to be an important lesson in the end if I did get to the end so I kept going and I now know how crucial the right translator is to a good story and even more for poetry! I do look forward to giving this a second try with an edition that contains notes to help me appreciate it all more though. Thanks for reading, Juliette! 😀

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  13. Aww man, sorry this translation didn’t work out for you.
    I haven’t read many classics but the few I’ve read that are translated convinced me that how well the work is translated will determine how great a reading experience you have with the book.

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    1. I couldn’t be more convinced by how important that is to our overall enjoyment since my time with this edition of The Divine Comedy hahah I do still look forward to giving it a second chance after finding a solid edition but, that’s going to have to be a project to think about in a couple of years hahah

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