I was introduced to Ciardi's translation of "The Divine Comedy" in an anthology of continental literature I read in college. At that time, after experiencing fragments of Fagles' horrible "verse" translation of Homer's works, I had low expectations for the translations in that anthology.
However, the instant I started reading John Ciardi's verse translation of "The Inferno", my hardened heart once again began to beat with the vibrancy it had when I read poems of Wordsworth or Browning.
John Ciardi, with a poetic talent that seems to be unmatched -- except for what I?ve read of W.S. Merwin's "Paradiso XXXIII," -- creates a poetic flow that feels, tastes, and even smells Italian. A poetic flow that delightfully contrasts Fagles', whose poetic flow is limited by popular styles and even phrases of the 20th century.
Instead of trying to lift Dante to the 20th century, Ciardi gracefully carries us to the early 14th century.
Instead of assuming that Dante is arcane, old fashioned, and in need of John's own poetic help, he believes that the original Italian is fresh, exciting, and poetically graceful.
The translation of Dante would have been diluted if Ciardi were to try and bring the 14th century to us through the modernization of the language, symbolism, and even the geography of Dante's world. (Fagles even geographically modified his "Odyssey" at one point to rename a Greek river the Nile because readers may get 'confused'.)
I?m glad that Ciardi tries to bring us back in time when the universe was cosmically full of life, where even the stars were more than the mere byproducts of abstract forces, chance, that can only be systematically analyzed and dissected.
The medieval worldview is far richer than the purely logical and scientific mindset that?s now common. By bringing Dante to us unfiltered by that mindset, Ciardi helps move us towards the bright and vibrant medieval world.
I strongly recommend John Ciardi's poetic translation of "The Divine Comedy," a lot is missed when reading only "The Inferno." The whole work is amazingly balanced.