A brief word before suggesting a few translations: Dante’s Commedia presents real problems when it comes to bringing this work to another language, culture and time. Yes, of course the lessons, beauty, truth and power of this work transcend all times and cultures as it truly speaks into the human condition of any age. And yet, it is also uniquely tied to the political reality of Florence and medieval Italian city-states. The Italian of the Commedia did for Italy what Luther’s translation of the Bible did for German and Shakespeare’s works did for English. The very syntax and word structure of the Commedia changes from the coarse and brutal language of the Inferno to the communal communication of the Purgatorio all the way to the profoundly imaginative and translucent Italian of the Paradiso. If one wishes to achieve similar transitions in the vernacular of one’s own language, then the translator must be an artist of her or his own language before even beginning the translation from Dante’s Italian. Hence the plethora of translations that continue to be produced, and also, not unsurprisingly, the unfinished translations that abound: after translating the Inferno, many translators realize the enormity of the task that is before them in the Purgatorio, let alone the Paradiso!
Also, the translator must decide whether to duplicate the rhythm and rhyme scheme of Dante’s own creation of Terza Rima, which literally translated means simply “third rhyme.” It is a form of iambic verse, consisting of sets of three lines, the middle line of each set riming with the first and last of the succeeding (a b a, b c b, c d c, etc.). Dorothy Sayers attempted, at times very awkwardly, to match this rhyme scheme exactly in her translation (The Paradiso being completed after her death by Barbara Reynolds of Cambridge.) John Ciardi’s was the translation of choice in the latter part of the 20th century. He did not try to rigidly duplicate the terza rima scheme of Dante, but he did keep the poetic structure and simply tried to rhyme the first and third lines without attempting to carry the second line over into the next stanza. Most other translations do not even try to rhyme at all, since only in Italian is there even a chance of finding so many words which rhyme so easily.
Both are rather rigid, literal and dated, but both are also free. You can compare these two fairly easily in this selection from The Inferno:
There sighs, complaints, and ululations loud
Resounded through the air without a star,
Whence I at the beginning wept thereat.
Here sighs, with lamentations and loud moans
Resounded through the air pierced by no star,
That e'en I wept at entering.
Princeton Dante Project
I appreciate parts of Allen Mandelbaum’s translation but, like Musa, I do not know it fully. However, it is also available online from Columbia University and others. Free. Very cool. And Amazon has it in Kindle format for 99 cents, [one can hear cheers, or hisses and boos, depending on how Amazon is viewed].
Amazon Kindle link
Columbia website link
Visions and Voices
There are options as well for those who desire to hear the Divine Comedy being read, such as through the Georgetown University link or want to watch lectures about Dante. On iTunes U. one can find archived lectures from Yale, Oxford and other esteemed sites of learning. I find these to be only of a minor help. There is far more to experience by simply diving in and reading it. Indeed, Dorothy Sayers encouraged her students and readers to simply read it all the way through, as if reading a mystery or adventure book. One can pick up far more than one realizes if the story is given space to grow and carry one along. Then on the second or third reading, the nuggets of clarity shine out, one is slapped in the face by a sudden realization that in fact, this time around the Commedia is a mirror and not a motion picture.
Georgetown University link