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Dante’s Inferno: Heaven or Hell for Translators?

Dan Brown’s novel ‘Inferno’ was released on 14 May 2013. It tells the story of a professor cracking codes in Florence that are connected to the famous Italian poet Dante Alighieri's classic poem 'Inferno'. In order to prevent any spoilers from reaching an international audience, the translations of the novel were released on the same day. This seemingly courteous gesture meant that the 11 translators were forced to work for nearly 2 months in an underground bunker. Releasing all of the books on the same day is likely to result in higher sales of the book. However, surely it would be easier to translate Dan Brown’s novel, rather than the one on which it is based: Dante’s ‘Inferno’.

But what about the original poem?

Dante's literature forms a large part of Italian history. Indeed, it has been claimed that Dante is the greatest poet who ever lived. The fact that Dante chose to write in the Tuscan dialect rather than Latin, helped to form the Italian language with which we are familiar today. As with Dan Brown, this was more of a financial decision than a linguistic one: more people would be willing to read the book in the Tuscan dialect as opposed to Latin!

Apart from the pressure of staying true to a text with so much cultural significance, Dante’s ‘Inferno’ is written in terza rima, a rhyme scheme that is very difficult to translate into US English.

How easy is it to translate other poems?

All poetry presents certain challenges for translators. Should you be more faithful to the rhythm or the vocabulary? Our In-house German Translator Silke Luehrmann states, “Poetry translation may be an extreme case, but it highlights many of the challenges inherent in any form of translation. For example, translation and other language-related services are generally charged and paid on a per-word basis – yet translating two words can sometimes take far longer than ten pages.”

Burton Raffel dedicated an entire book to the subject: ‘The Art of Translating Poetry. It points out that the unique nature of languages presents challenges for any translator, but especially one of poetry. All languages have different: sounds, literary history, and syntactical structures.

To end on a positive note, most translators welcome the opportunity to translate poetry. The translation is often an art, and what better way to express your linguistic prowess than through the medium of poetry?

Do you have experience in translating poetry? Or perhaps even Dante?


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