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This article by Joan Crespi was prepared for the
April 11, 2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Poetic Justice, Just for Hell
by Joan Crespi
Raves for hell? That’s what the new English translation
of Dante’s "Inferno" by Dante scholar Robert Hollander and
his wife, Jean Hollander, a poet, is garnering. Jeffrey Hart, National
Review’s senior editor, says the translation "has so many
that it is certain to become the translation for our time." Others
have called it the "most accurate, most readable translation in
decades." Amazon.com readers have awarded it five stars, saying
the translation "combines the virtues of maximum readability with
complete fidelity to the original Italian and to Dante’s intentions
and subtle shadings of meaning." In independent bookstores, it
is often a staff selection.
The Hollanders’ English free verse translation of the
the first part of "The Divine Comedy" (their translations
of the two other sections, "Purgatorio" and "Paradiso"
are forthcoming), was published by Doubleday in December, in a first
printing of some 25,000 copies. In February the translation —
the original Italian and the English translation are printed on facing
pages — was selling so well that the publishers proceeded with
a second printing.
Poet Jean Hollander is also a teacher and director of the College
of New Jersey’s annual Writers’ Conference, a day of workshops,
panels with literary agents, editors, and noted authors. This year
the conference takes place on Wednesday, April 18, and this year Jean
Hollander, herself, will be among the noted authors giving readings.
She will read from "Dante’s `Inferno:’ a Verse Translation"
as well as from her own prize-winning collection of poems,
"The Divine Comedy" has given Dante a place among the greatest
poets of the Western literary canon (he even put himself alongside
the greats in the "Inferno’s" fourth canto). Countless
have written on the work; there’s long been a cult of Dante, which
Robert Hollander and his Princeton students continue.
The "Commedia," as Dante called it, has 100 cantos in three
nearly equal parts of 33 cantos each, except for "Inferno,"
which has 34. Robert Hollander believes that "Inferno" was
essentially completed during the first decade of the 14th century.
The poem was an immediate success and has been esteemed throughout
most of the succeeding centuries. (Voltaire and Walpole both derided
Dante, however, and his reputation reached its nadir in the 18th
There are about 10 English translations of part or all of "The
Divine Comedy" currently available (perhaps there are over 100
in history). Many are prose translations, and poets from Longfellow
to John Ciardi to W.S. Merwin to Robert Pinsky have published their
Why retranslate the classics at all, when there are
so many translations?
The Hollanders, a unique team comprising a Dante scholar and a poet,
have provided a translation offering maximum fidelity to Dante’s text
plus a contemporary poetic resonance. Although they say they began
the translation only for themselves, their work is expected to bring
hefty profits over the years, to authors and publisher alike, as the
paperback edition could sell to several generations of college
Add to this sales to those who had read the poem in college but lacked
the worldly understanding to appreciate it fully. (I was such a
Such adults, with an excellent translation at hand, would do well
to try again, suggests Gerald Howard, executive editor at Doubleday.
And — have been rewarded by such an experience myself — I
second his suggestion.
Here Dante reads like a fierce, horrifying, hideous travelogue. It
is highly imaginative — full of intrigue, murder, blood, betrayal,
fire, giants, shrieks, smells, scabs, gnawings, clawings, and hideous
punishments — as Dante assures the reader of the truth of what
he has seen. Add borrowings, or at least ideas, from Roman poets Ovid,
Lucan, and of course Virgil, who is Dante’s travel guide in this
walking tour through hell. While all are dead but Dante, and all are
shades and weightless, they do feel pain. There’s humor, albeit grim,
in "Inferno," too, as Robert Hollander notes.
Beyond professional critics, scholars and poets alike are praising
the translation. Says Richard Lansing, professor of Italian and
Literature at Brandeis University: "the translation wonderfully
captures the concision, directness, and pungency of Dante’s
Fellow translator and Princeton professor Robert Fagles (with
translations of Homer’s "Iliad" and "Odyssey") hails
it as "a distinguished act of poetry and scholarship." And
poet Alicia Ostriker calls it "a brisk, vivid, readable, and
subtle translation, coupled with excellent notes and commentary. Every
lover of Dante in English should have this volume."
Beyond the notes, scholars and students can appreciate the flow of
lines, for Robert Hollander’s extensive notes do not interrupt the
text at the bottom of each page but follow each canto. Students will
find the outlines of each canto preceeding the canto helpful, plus,
at the beginning of the book, there’s a geographic map of Dante’s
Hell, with its four concentric rivers, and on the facing page, an
outline of hell, its sins, rivers, and monsters. Untutored readers
of Dante will also find essential the notes on the various political
and religious figures in the poem. Dante’s hell is stocked with
Greeks and Romans, imaginary characters from mythology, and many
in world and especially then-recent Italian history. Dante placed
his enemies in "Inferno," sending them to eternal damnation;
hell also holds Dante’s beloved teacher among the homosexuals.
Dante called his work a comedy because it was not written in the
Latin but in the "low" vernacular, and because it had a
ending." "Divine" was added to the title in 1555 by a
Venetian printer. (The poem was dealing with a sacred subject and
was considered a work of genius.) Dante wrote the poem in terza rima
(aba,bcb,cdc, etc.) using the cosmology of Thomas Aquinas. It is a
political poem as well as a poem of graphic Christian imagination.
But it is no whitewash: hell holds avaricious clerics, popes, and
The progress of hell (if one may say that) is in concentric,
circles descending into earth, from where the least to the worst sins
are punished. Considered the lesser sins and put in the outer circles,
are sins of incontinence (lust, gluttony, avarice and prodigality,
anger and sullenness, heresy). Then begin various sins of violence
(circle 7), sins of simple fraud (circle 8), and finally, on the
floor of hell (circle 9), treachery.
Dante and the reader find the lovers Paolo and Francesca in Circle
2; Count Ugolino and his four children starving to death in Circle
9. Does he eat his dead children? Some critics say that, Jean
reports in a recent telephone interview. But she doesn’t think so.
Are we to feel sympathy and pity for the sinners (as the character
Dante often does)? Or are their punishments from God and so are just?
Their words are self-presenting and should be read from an ironic
viewpoint, Robert Hollander believes. The Hollanders would rather
be considered medieval moralizers than romantics, Jean says.
Robert Hollander’s origin intention was to reproduce
the 1939 John D. Sinclair English translation (in poetic prose) for
a large online Dante project he was preparing. He planned to simply
clean up "thee" and "thou" and other outdated usages.
Then he discovered a later translator, Charles Singleton, had done
just that in 1970. There were other known considerations as well.
And one unknown: Jean Hollander.
The collaboration, in fact, came about quite by accident. Jean
happened to look over her husband’s shoulder on day in February, 1997,
when the two were in an apartment in Florence, Italy. Robert sat at
the computer, a portion of the re-worked Sinclair translation on
She read the words she saw and told him, "It’s awful! horrible!
"Can you do better?" he asked.
Jean, who reads Italian, took the translation and two days later came
back with a poetic translation of Canto I that he liked enough to
ask her, "Are you willing to spend five years of your life on
The answer is the new translation.
The work of translation began in the apartment in Florence with a
terrace overlooking the Duomo, Jean says in the phone interview.
have that while you’re translating this Florentine poet, it was a
The collaboration did not proceed smoothly. The Hollanders had
shouting matches," says Robert. He was responsible for accuracy,
she for sound, but they’d invade each other’s turf.
"You call yourself a poet?" he demanded in one argument.
line limps!" And she retorted, "You call yourself a scholar?
And you’re standing behind such a ridiculous interpretation as
When Jean complained that Robert was winning most of the arguments,
they decided to keep score.
"We each won about half," Robert told an audience at a reading
at the Princeton U-Store in February. Jean shook her head and took
the microphone "It was my idea," she said, gently triumphant.
"Then I won more."
Often they would argue over one word. In one instance they argued
over whether the word should be "down," which Jean wanted,
or "below, which Robert wanted. "Doownn," with Jean lingering
in the U-store reading over the sonorous "o" and holding the
clipped "n," won. (. "…and then are hurled down."
Canto V, l. 15)
Some feuds may linger unto death. In another instance
they fought over whether the word should be "bugle" (Robert)
or "trumpet" (Jean) in the line "He made a bugle/trumpet
of his asshole." (Canto XXI, 1.139). "Since the word is
in Italian, Jean won that one," Robert told his audience. "But
if Jean goes first, it’s `bugle’." (Robert wrote the notes: it’s
`bugle’ in the notes.)
The arguments, when public, turned heads. "We would argue for
hours at a time as if it were something important," Robert
said gently, "but it was important to us."
Asked at the U-Store if the Hollanders would continue to collaborate
if they got divorced, Robert thought a moment, searched the air, then
said, "Yes, I think so." Jean Hollander stepped quickly up
to the microphone and declared, "Absolutely not! Then I couldn’t
threaten to leave him!"
The work went on, away from Florence for a few years. Jean likes to
write, put a work aside for a time, then read it as if for the first
time. She says she can catch alot of flaws that way.
"Also, it’s good to have two people," she says. "Most
translators work alone, but we criticize each other. When one ear
goes wrong, the other one hears."
"Of course," she adds, "with only one, there are fewer
There were numerous drafts. "We kept going over it and over it
and improving it, we hope. We worked separately and together, then
separately and together."
Did the work get easier as the Hollanders progressed?
"At the beginning," says Jean, "it is just terribly hard
work. As the drafts go by, it gets easier and more enjoyable."
The three years’ work of translation was finally finished in February,
2000, on the beach at Tortola. Now, says Jean in the phone interview,
"most of the Sinclair is completely altered."
In the "Inferno," Dante, at age 35 (midway to the Biblical
70), finds himself, or comes to himself, (the Hollanders stress
to himself" for its sense of sudden surprise) in the a dark wood
either on Good Friday, in April, 1300, or in March. Dante sometimes
alters facts to suit his purposes. (The year is certain for the poem
mentions the Jubilee Year.)
The Hollanders’ translation begins:
Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
For the straight way was lost.
(Canto I, l. 1-3)
kept the sense of the original in modern English, as well as at least
some of its feeling . . . We find that the loss that occurs in finding
rhymes so forces the sense that it is better to surrender on that
front and try to be most faithful to the shadings of sense in the
The Hollanders met when both were graduate students
at Columbia. They have been married 36 years.
Robert Hollander is a graduate of Princeton and Columbia (three
of Hollanders went to Princeton: Robert, his father, and his son).
Robert is a professor at Princeton where has taught Dante’s
Comedy" for 39 years. He is a member of the university’s
of Romance Languages and Literatures, former chairman of its
of Comparative Literature, and the author of 23 books and 80 articles
on Dante, Boccaccio, and others. Among his many awards is the Gold
Medal of the city of Florence in recognition of his Dante scholarship.
Jean Hollander was born in Vienna, lived in Cuba for a year as a
and was raised in New York City. She is an award-winning poet for
her first book of poems, "Crushed into Honey." Another
of her poetry, "Moondog," was a prize-winner in the Quarterly
Review of Literature Poetry Book Series. Her poetry has appeared in
more than a hundred literary journals. She has taught literature at
Brooklyn College, Columbia, the College of New Jersey, and Princeton.
Recently she has been teaching poetry writing. The couple lives in
Hopewell. They are the parents of two adult children, a son and a
Dante Alighieri was born in 1265, in Florence, where he grew up and
lived there until his perpetual banishment for political reasons in
1302. Return and he’d be burnt alive. (He was a Guelph, active in
the Guelph-Ghibilline strife.) He was the first major author to write
Dante met his idealized beloved, Beatrice, when he was nine; their
second meeting was nine years later, and she died in 1290 at 25.
he married and had three (or four) children with Gemma Donati, it
is Beatrice who provides the inspiration for his poetry, Beatrice
who enlists Virgil to be his guide, Beatrice (and not Virgil) who
can usher him through Paradise. Dante completed the entire
shortly before his death in 1321. Well short of 70.
(Beatrice was of the Portinari family. The last time the Hollanders
were in Florence, they rented a villa above Florence built by the
Portinari family, but Beatrice didn’t live there. It was built some
50 years after she died.)
Just as Virgil tells Dante in Canto VIII, "I will not forsake
you in the nether world," so Jean and Robert Hollander are not
leaving the reader in hell. Although the three sections are of roughly
equal length, the publishers have allotted three, then two, then one
year for each section. The Hollanders’ translation of
which they are still refining, is scheduled to be out in 2002.
Have they kept score? "Not yet," says Jean. "But we
had our final arguments yet." "Purgatorio" is obviously
going faster than "Inferno." "We have gotten more used
to the work," Jean says. "In `Inferno’ Dante uses many
voices. `Purgatorio’ just flows easier, it has a more consistent
— most of the time. It’s more poetic."
They’re working differently, too. On "Inferno" Robert
the cantos first; with "Purgatorio" each is translating some
of the cantos first. Their translation of "Paradiso" arrives
and Kendall Hall, 609-771-3254. The 20th annual conference features
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to $80. Wednesday, April 18, 9 a.m.
read at 2:30 p.m.
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