Fifteen translations of Dante compared

In my last post I compared John Ciardi and Allen Mandelbaum’s translation of the Inferno by looking at how they handled Canto XXVI, lines 112-120. Here I want to expand that exercise, comparing 15 different translations in a more systematic way. The 15 translations are those of Ciaran Carson, John Ciardi, Anthony Esolen, Robert and Jean Hollander, Robin Kirkpatrick, Stanley Lombardo, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Allen Mandelbaum, Mark Musa, J. G. Nicholls, Robert Pinsky, Tom Simone, John D. Sinclair, Charles Singleton, and C. H. Sisson.

I will be looking at the same passage as before, but I’ve broken it into 10 sections, each of which will be graded based on its fidelity to the original Italian. (I don’t actually know much Italian, but I do have a dictionary and 15 different translations of the passage in question.) The grading is as follows: 3 = perfectly faithful, 2 = defensible paraphrase (same basic meaning), 1 = dodgy paraphrase, 0 = unforgivable paraphrase (putting words in Dante’s mouth). The translators scored as follows:

  • Longfellow, Singleton (27)
  • Sinclair (26)
  • Mandelbaum (25)
  • Simone, Sisson (23)
  • Hollander, Kirkpatrick (22)
  • Lombardo (21)
  • Musa, Nicholls, Pinsky (18)
  • Ciardi (17)
  • Carson (14)
  • Esolen (13)
As might be expected, the three prose translations score highest in terms of fidelity, with Allen Mandelbaum close on their heels as the most accurate of the 12 verse translations. Ciardi unsurprisingly ranks rather low.
Here are the details of the scoring:

O frati, dissi,

  • Brothers, . . . I said (Carson) – 3
  • Shipmates, I said (Ciardi) – 1
  • O brothers (Esolen) – 2
  • O brothers, I said (Hollander, Simone, Sinclair, Singleton) – 3
  • Brothers, I said (Kirkpatrick, Lombardo, Musa, Sisson) – 3
  • O brothers, said I (Longfellow) – 3
  • Brothers, I said, o you (Mandelbaum) – 3
  • O brothers! I began (Nicholls) – 2
  • O brothers . . . I began (Pinsky) – 2

che per cento milia perigli

  • who . . . through perils numberless (Carson) – 1
  • who through a hundred thousand perils (Ciardi, Lombardo, Longfellow, Sinclair, Singleton) – 3
  • who have borne innumerable dangers (Esolen) – 1
  • who in the course of a hundred thousand perils (Hollander) – 3
  • a hundred thousand perils you have passed (Kirkpatrick) – 2
  • who having crossed a hundred thousand dangers (Mandelbaum) – 3
  • who through a hundred thousand perils have made your way (Musa) – 2
  • who . . . through perils without number (Nicholls) – 1
  • who . . . through a hundred thousand perils, surviving all (Pinsky) – 0
  • who through a hundred thousand dangers (Simone, Sisson) – 3

siete giunti a l’occidente,

  • have reached the west (Carson, Ciardi, Lombardo, Longfellow, Pinsky, Sinclair, Singleton) – 3
  • to reach the setting of the sun (Esolen) – 1
  • at last have reached the west (Hollander) – 2
  • and reached the Occident (Kirkpatrick) – 3
  • reach the west (Mandelbaum) – 3
  • to reach the West (Musa) – 3
  • to the west . . . now have reach’d (Nicholls) – 3
  • have come to the west (Simone) – 3
  • at last have reached the occident (Sisson) – 2

a questa tanto picciola vigilia d’i nostri sensi ch’è del rimanente

  • now that you’ve run the race of life, in this last watch that still remains to you (Carson) – 0
  • to the brief remaining watch our senses stand (Ciardi) – 2
  • from those few hours remaining to our watch, from time so short in which to live and feel (Esolen) – 0
  • to such brief wakefulness of our senses as remain to us (Hollander) – 3
  • For us, so little time remains to keep the vigil of our living sense (Kirkpatrick) – 1
  • to the last glimmering hour of consciousness that remains to us (Lombardo) – 0
  • to this so little vigil of your senses that remains (Longfellow) – 2
  • to this brief waking-time that still is left unto your senses (Mandelbaum) – 2
  • during this so brief vigil of our senses that is still reserved for us (Musa) – 3
  • to this the short remaining watch, that yet our senses have to wake (Nicholls) – 3
  • So little is the vigil we see remain still for our senses, that (Pinsky) – 2
  • for this so limited vigil of our senses which still remains to us (Simone) – 2
  • to this so brief vigil of the senses that remains to us (Sinclair) – 3
  • to this so brief vigil of your senses which remains (Singleton) – 2
  • to this short vigil which is all there is remaining to our senses (Sisson) – 3

non vogliate negar l’esperïenza

  • I ask you not to shun experience, but boldly to explore (Carson) – 0
  • do not deny . . . experience (Ciardi, Lombardo) – 3
  • do not refuse experience (Esolen) – 3
  • do not deny yourselves the chance to know (Hollander) – 1
  • Do not deny your will to win experience (Kirkpatrick) – 2
  • be ye unwilling to deny, the experience (Longfellow) – 3
  • you must not deny experience (Mandelbaum) – 2
  • do not deny yourself experience (Musa) – 2
  • refuse not proof (Nicholls) – 0
  • you should not choose to deny it the experience (Pinsky) – 2
  • do not be content to deny yourselves experience (Simone) – 2
  • choose not to deny experience (Sinclair) – 3
  • wish not to deny the experience (Singleton) – 3
  • do not deny experience (Sisson) – 3

di retro al sol,

  • beyond the sun (Carson, Ciardi) – 3
  • of the lands beyond the sun (Esolen) – 1
  • following the sun (Hollander, Longfellow, Singleton) – 2
  • behind the sun (Kirkpatrick) – 3
  • that lies beyond the setting sun (Lombardo) – 0
  • of that which lies beyond the sun (Mandelbaum) – 3
  • of what there is beyond, behind the sun (Musa) – 2
  • following the track of Phoebus (Nicholls) – 1
  • behind the sun leading us onward (Pinsky) – 0
  • Follow the sun into the west (Simone) – 0
  • in the sun’s track (Sinclair) – 1
  • following the course of the sun (Sission) – 1

del mondo sanza gente.

  • the vast unpeopled world (Carson) – 1
  • of the world (Ciardi) – 0
  • the world where no one dwells (Esolen) – 2
  • the land where no one lives (Hollander) – 2
  • of worlds where no man dwells (Kirkpatrick) – 2
  • of the unpeopled world (Lombardo, Nicholls, Sinclair) – 3
  • of the world that hath no people (Longfellow) – 3
  • and of the world that is unpeopled (Mandelbaum) – 3
  • in the world they call unpeopled (Musa) – 0
  • of the world which has no people in it (Pinsky) – 3
  • of the world without people (Simone) – 3
  • of the world that has no people (Singleton) – 3
  • of that world which has no inhabitants (Sisson) – 2

Considerate la vostra semenza:

  • Remember who you are (Carson) – 0
  • Greeks! (Ciardi) – 0
  • Think well upon your nation and your seed (Esolen) – 1
  • Consider how your souls were sown (Hollander) – 1
  • Hold clear in thought your seed and origin (Kirkpatrick) – 1
  • Consider the seed from which you were born (Lombardo) – 2
  • Consider ye your origin (Longfellow) – 2
  • Consider well the seed that gave you birth (Mandelbaum) – 2
  • Consider what you came from: you are Greeks (Musa) – 0
  • Call to mind from whence we sprang (Nicholls) – 2
  • Consider well your seed (Pinsky) – 2
  • Consider your seed and heritage (Simone) – 1
  • Take thought of the seed from which you spring (Sinclair) – 2
  • Consider your origin (Singleton) – 2
  • Consider then the race from which you have sprung (Sisson) – 1

fatti non foste a viver come bruti,

  • what you were made for: not to live like brutes (Carson) – 2
  • You were not born to live like brutes (Ciardi) – 2
  • For you were never made to live like brutes (Esolen) – 2
  • you were not made to live like brutes or beasts (Hollander) – 2
  • You were not made to live as mindless brutes (Kirkpatrick) – 2
  • You were not made to live like brute animals (Lombardo) – 2
  • ye were not made to live as brutes (Longfellow, Singleton) – 3
  • you were not made to live your lives as brutes (Mandelbaum) – 2
  • You were not born to live like mindless brutes (Musa) – 2
  • Ye were not form’d to live the life of brutes (Nicholls) – 2
  • You were not born to live as a mere brute does (Pinsky) – 2
  • you were not made to live like brutes (Simone) – 3
  • You were not born to live as brutes (Sinclair) – 2
  • You were not made to live like animals (Sisson) – 3

ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza.

  • but for the quest of knowledge and the good (Carson) – 1
  • but to press on toward manhood and recognition (Ciardi) – 0
  • but to pursue the good in mind and deed (Esolen) – 0
  • but to pursue virtue and knowledge (Hollander, Singleton) – 3
  • but go in search of virtue and true knowledge (Kirkpatrick) – 3
  • but to live in pursuit of virtue and knowledge (Lombardo) – 2
  • but for pursuit of virtue and of knowledge (Longfellow) – 3
  • but to be followers of worth and knowledge (Mandelbaum) – 2
  • but to follow paths of excellence and knowledge (Musa) – 1
  • but virtue to pursue and knowledge high (Nicholls) – 1
  • but for the pursuit of knowledge and the good (Pinsky) – 2
  • but to follow virtue and knowledge (Simone, Sinclair) – 3
  • but to pursue virtue and know the world (Sisson) – 2


Filed under Translation

18 responses to “Fifteen translations of Dante compared

  1. This was very helpful in selecting a copy of Dante. I was unfamiliar with the newer translations. Thanks!

  2. Yvonne Nickels

    This was a fantastic job. Exactly what I wanted. Wish that all of the works required by the college literature departments had already had this done this for us. Bet that would anger a lot of people . . .

    I read a recommended reading list prepared by a college professor where he specifically steered a person to read Dante’s Divine Comedy translated by either John D. Sinclair or Dorothy L. Sayers. I didn’t see Ms. Sayers among your 15 translators.

  3. Ms. Sayers renders the passage in question thus:

    ‘Brothers,’ said I, ‘that have come valiantly
    Through hundred thousand jeopardies undergone
    To reach the West, you will not now deny

    To this last little vigil left to run
    Of feeling life, the new experience
    Of the uninhabited world behind the sun.

    Think of your breed; for brutish ignorance
    Your mettle was not made; you were made men,
    To follow after knowledge and excellence.’

    Compared to some of the others, it isn’t terribly faithful. For example, “for brutish ignorance your mettle was not made; you were made men” is reading an awful lot into Dante’s “fatti non foste a viver come bruti.”

    • Mike Unher

      In addition, Sayers, while an admirable scholar whose notes are invaluable compendia to other people’s translations, forces the terza rima into her English. The result is awkward at best. And quite honestly, it made me squirm to read it. But I quite enjoyed reading H.R. Huse’s translation… wonder why he isn’t in the list.

  4. Pingback: Three versions of a choral lyric by Euripides « Bugs to fearen babes withall

  5. Neil Coward

    Thanks, I have recently purchased the 60 volume Britannica Great Books of the Western World, and the Divine Comedy volume is Singleton’s translation. I was surprised to see a prose translation (I didn’t know there was such a thing) and wanted to find out how Singleton’s translation was viewed. This site has been very helpful, thank you

  6. sombie

    I also found this useful thank you for posting

  7. Roberta Beverly

    I just discovered Dante even though I’ve known of his levels of hell for years. I own a set of Great Books and wanted to know more about the translations. Reading your examples, I invariably prefer Longfellow or Singleton. Thank you for this exercise. I’m ready to jump in, as it were. I realize now that I have been ‘reading’ Dante all my life without knowing it.

  8. Anne

    This is a great post!! I always find myself greatly indecisive when it comes to book translations! This post helps me decide. One question: is “translation faithfulness” proportionately or inversely related to readability, or are they not necessarily related?

  9. Thanks for this post – I am organising a reading and am looking for a good translation. I’ll read in Italian and someone else will then read in English. Would you advise on a prose or a verse English translation? Thanks

  10. Nichols translation is confused with Cary’s.

  11. Nichols:

    ‘O brothers who have reached the west,’ I cried,
    ‘With a hundred thousand dangers overcome,
    You will not let yourselves now be denied –
    Now your brief lives have little time to run –
    Experience at first hand of the unpeopled
    World we shall find by following the sun.
    Consider well your origin, your birth:
    You were not made to live like animals
    But to pursue and gain wisdom and worth.’

  12. What a wonderful resource you have provided. I have always preferred Mandelbaum. Partly for his translation of the description of Minos as the “connoisseur of sin.”
    Thank you for your work. Are you familiar with the Binyon’s translation? It is in terza rima. Pretty good at capturing the poetic force of Dante. Back in the 1980s Hugh Kenner wrote a review that compared Musa, singleton, sisson and Mandelbaum. In it he quotes from Binyon’s 1934 translation. Kenner quotes from the same passage you compared. Here is the Binyon version:

    Brothers, I said, who manfully, despite
    Ten thousand perils, have attained the West,
    In the brief vigil that remains of light
    To feel in, stoop not to renounce the quest
    Of what may in the sun’s path be essayed,
    The world that never mankind hath possessed.
    Think on the seed ye spring from! Ye were made
    Not to live life of brute beasts of the field
    But follow virtue and knowledge unafraid.

  13. Thank you very much for this most informative post. I’ve read a number of translations of Dante (well, Inferno, at least) over the years, and I agree with your positive evaluations of the faithful if not perfectly literal translations.
    – I read the Sayers translations of Inferno and Purgatorio when I was fifteen. Enjoyed them but didn’t really “get” it, wording strained to match the meter. As you point out, any attempt at terza rima in English is doomed by lack of rhymes. I still have the Inferno book, though, fifty years later.
    – I picked up the Ciardi from a library, didn’t like it, and was very glad I had not wasted any money on it. Too over-dramatic, overdone, sort of like a modern adventure movie.
    – In college, I took an intro course on Inferno from Prof. Hollander, with the Sinclair translation, and loved it. Then I took his full-term course on the entire Commedia, again with Sinclair. I loved the literal nature of the translation and Sinclair’s notes. I think the literal translation permits the power and pain and anguish — and ambivalence, and later joy — of Dante’s feelings to come through to the reader more than a poetic twisting of the wording can.
    – Prof. Hollander referred many times to Singleton’s notes and scholarship, so when Singleton’s translation was published, I got that and read it, too. Again, wonderful.
    – Recently, I took another course on Inferno that used the Esolen translation. Not bad but not great. The instructor and several people in the class spoke Italian fluently and pointed out many rough spots in the translation.
    – For contrast, I picked up the Longfellow translation from, and I agree that it is very good and conveys most of the feeling of the original.
    – Gutenberg also has the Cary translation, which is more a flight of fancy than a translation.

    Overall, I tend to prefer Sinclair, Singleton, Hollander, and Longfellow, and I am delighted to see that they came out near the top of your list. Thanks again.

  14. senexada

    This is incredibly useful as I tried to choose a translation. Very grateful for your work.

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