on July 11, 2001
About twenty years ago I read Dorothy Sayers's translation of Dante's "Divine Comedy" with great pleasure, finding an awesome grandeur in Dante's progression from Hell through Purgatory to Heaven. When I decided to re-read the work, I found the poetry tortured and the references obscure. So I went comparison shopping, settling on Mark Musa's version. He created an excellent, free-flowing, poetic, and easily understandable translation of the three canticles of Dante's "Divine Comedy" for Penguin Classics.
In addition to the direct translation, Musa provides an introductory summary to each canto, detailed notes following each canto, a glossary of names in the back of each volume, and an introductory essay for each volume. The introduction to "Volume 1: Inferno" gives a thorough introduction to Dante and to his other works as well as to the Inferno. Following the introduction is a translator's note. The introductions to "Purgatory" and "Paradise" do not go over the extra information presented in "Inferno". It is useful to read all three of Dante's canticles in the Musa translation to get a complete, consistent presentation of the work. Musa does make reference in his notes to one volume to ideas or people presented in the others.
The notes are vital for almost everyone. The references to Biblical, classical, and medieval personalities, myths, time systems, theology, and events come frequently. Few people are up on the ins and outs of Guelf vs. Ghibelline in medieval Italian politics. Musa makes it all as clear as it needs to be.
Musa's version of "Inferno" italicizes the introductory summary before each canticle and retains the detailed, interesting mappings of Hell used in the Sayers edition.
Dante's poem is central to Western civilization. Allowing for some poetic necessities, it pulls classical and medieval history into the framework of Christian theology to show how God's love powers the universe, how people can exercise free will, and how God can help and reward those who trust in Him. It is very easy for the reader to ask how he or she would fare in the afterlife and how to go about finding a better outcome. Some sins are punished severely [like traitors frozen near Lucifer in the ice of the Cocytus lake], and some sins have varying outcomes [E.g., there are some sodomites running on the burning sand of Lower Hell forever and some having their sins burned way in the last stage of Purgatory before going to Paradise.]. Some loves are more blessed than others too. There is much to reflect on. Dante the Pilgrim, drawn by his love for Beatrice gets the full experience.
Reading "The Divine Comedy" is valuable in any translation; Musa's flies along, bringing his audience along with understanding.
This review for "Inferno" applies to "Purgatory" and "Paradise" as well, since the productions are so comparable.
on April 20, 2001
Mark Musa's translation of the Divine Comedy is the smoothest, most enjoyable version I have read. (I've read a few.) Mr. Musa provides a brief summation at the beginning of each Canto of Dante's Inferno. He then follows the summation with the actual poem (his translation), and then, after each Canto, he gives in-depth notes on all the references Dante has made -- which may often be obscure to the modern reader. This version is perfect for high-school and college students as well as the leisure time reader who simply wants to become acquainted with this foundation of Western poetry.
The Inferno is the first volume of the Divine Comedy and tells the story of how Dante is taken by the spirit of Virgil through the depths of Hell. The scenes and characters that they encounter cover many different human emotions; mostly sorrowful ones while Dante and Virgil are in Hell. This first volume is the most famous of the three, but Mark Musa's translation makes it so quick and entertaining to read, that I think most will find themselves wanting to continue on into the final two volumes, which I would highly recommend in order for one to obtain the entire perspective of this brilliant poem.
"Midway life's journey I was made aware/that I had strayed into a dark forest..." Those eerie words open the first cantica of Dante Alighieri's "Inferno," the most famous part of the legendary Divina Comedia. But the stuff going on here is anything but divine, as Dante explores the metaphorical and supernatural horrors of the inferno.
The date is Good Friday of the year 1300, and Dante is lost in a creepy dark forest, being assaulted by a trio of beasts who symbolize his own sins. But suddenly he is rescued ("Not man; man I once was") by the legendary poet Virgil, who takes the despondent Dante under his wing -- and down into Hell.
But this isn't a straightforward hell of flames and dancing devils. Instead, it's a multi-tiered carnival of horrors, where different sins are punished with different means. Opportunists are forever stung by insects, the lustful are trapped in a storm, the greedy are forced to battle against each other, and the violent lie in a river of boiling blood, are transformed into thorn bushes, and are trapped on a volcanic desert.
If nothing else makes you feel like being good, then "The Inferno" might change your mind. The author loads up his "Inferno" with every kind of disgusting, grotesque punishment that you can imagine -- and it's all wrapped up in an allegorical journey of humankind's redemption, not to mention dissing the politics of Italy and Florence.
Along with Virgil -- author of the "Aeneid" -- Dante peppered his Inferno with Greek myth and symbolism. Like the Greek underworld, different punishments await different sins; what's more, there are also appearances by harpies, centaurs, Cerberus and the god Pluto. But the sinners are mostly Dante's contemporaries, from corrupt popes to soldiers.
And Dante's skill as a writer can't be denied -- the grotesque punishments are enough to make your skin crawl ("Fixed in the slime, groan they, 'We were sullen and wroth...'"), and the grand finale is Satan himself, with legendary traitors Brutus, Cassius and Judas sitting in his mouths. (Yes, I said MOUTHS, not "mouth")
More impressive still is his ability to weave the poetry out of symbolism and allegory, without it ever seeming preachy or annoying. Even pre-hell, we have a lion, a leopard and a wolf, which symbolize different sins, and a dark forest that indicates suicidal thoughts. And the punishments themselves usually reflect the person's flaws, such as false prophets having their heads twisted around so they can only see what's behind them. Wicked sense of humor.
Dante's vivid writing and wildly imaginative "inferno" makes this the most fascinating, compelling volume of the Divine Comedy. Never fun, but always spellbinding and complicated.
on June 4, 2007
In my search for a copy of Dante's epic poem, the Divine Comedy, I encountered over 10 different copies of the opening part, Inferno. This edition with notes by Mark Musa is exemplary, it offers analysis of each section, and follows the pilgrim Dante's voyage down to the dark pits of hell. The book is set up in Canto form, dividing the original Inferno into 34. Following each Canto is a great analysis that picks apart the Canto from every perspective, and I found that these few paragraphs granted me additional insight into the philosophy and allegory that the poem emanates. Musa's commentary radiates a passion for the Inferno, and is a great asset for a first time reader of Dante's works.
on January 8, 2003
The first book of The Divine Comedy (I write of the Inferno contained in the copyright 1980 Harvard Classics Edition) is a tale of the macabre and discovery. Although it chronicles Dante's journey through Hell with the Roman poet Virgil as his guide, who resides in Hell's limbo area because of lack of faith, and catalogues Dante's discourse with all kinds of shady characters, it is a novel built upon setting. The appeal of this book and the reason why it has lasted through the ages is the premise, a man's journey through Hell (and in the latter two books, Purgatory and Paradise) where living man has yet to set foot. He meets historical figures and fellow men of Italy; some in eternally burning flames, some transformed into trees, some afloat in rivers of lava, some nearly frozen, some merely loitering for eternity, some under constant attack by serpents, and others under various forms of torture.
The scene described where Virgil leads Dante through the gates of Hell I found hysterical, "And when his hand he had stretch'd forth...To mine, with pleasant looks, whence I was cheer'd...Into that secret place he led me on" (13). Pleasant looks! In front of the gates of Hell! Once sufficiently goaded to enter the perimeter we find that the first circle is synonymous with Limbo where those who lack baptism/faith are doomed to loiter for eternity (unless God wishes you to show an Italian around the afterlife). "The poet...descends into Limbo...where he finds the souls of those, who, although they have lived virtuously and have not to suffer for great sins, nevertheless through lack of baptism, merit not the bliss of Paradise" (16). One might say it's a rather harsh penalty for not believing in God, especially for those around before baptism was even practiced (notably Homer). It is a common mistake to confuse Limbo with Purgatory though according to Dante they are quite different; Purgatory's residents are made up of eternal loiterers who repented before death, souls that are making the journey up the mountain of Purgatory to Heaven, and souls that undergo torments like those in Hell but temporarily for they only continue until a soul has been cleansed of sin-- once cleansed the soul (or shade as Dante refers to them) may continue the ascent to Heaven. When a soul is cleansed, "the mountain shakes, and all the spirits sing Glory to God" (225). In the second circle carnal sinners are tossed about by the hot winds of Hell, and in the third gluttons are forced to lie under a continuous stream of hail, snow and discolored water (yes, discolored water-- purple rain anybody?). Suicides are turned into trees that are preyed upon by harpies and hypocrites must walk in circles wearing cloaks forever. The torments get worse as the story progresses; in the eighth gulf of the eighth circle (the eighth circle is known as Malebolge) Ulysses stands immersed in flame and in the final ninth circle amidst souls covered in ice, Lucifer sits munching on Brutus, Cassius and Judas (the three great traitors).
Dante was a master of poetry and of prose and his mastery is seen throughout the book, "A headless trunk...By the hair it bore the sever'd member, lantern-wise...Pendent in hand, which look'd at us, and said, 'Woe's me!'...His arm aloft he rear'd, thrusting the head...Full in our view" (118). His descriptions paint such vivid pictures and his way of expressing ideas is to say the least unique. Democritus, "who sets the world at chance," said Dante, believed the world was the product of the random concourse of atoms. Is that not an eloquent way to describe this logical thinker? My only gripe with Dante is that it sometimes seemed as if he was not mentioning souls he encountered in Hell and other related people for any good reason. It was like he was name dropping or giving shout outs to his Italian homeboys or naming historical figures that were the main characters in other stories so that he could talk about them and their lore. What a great idea though, taking famous characters from elsewhere so one does not have to make them up and putting them in a no less than awesome setting (Hell). If this book were rewritten today it would be likely to include more pop-culture characters, musicians and actors than political figures. A quite profitable venture I would wager too...
on September 18, 2002
I love Dante so much I cannot find words to explain it. His epic (all three parts, not just Inferno) leaves one gasping for adjectives. It's mind-boggling that he even TRIED to write such a thing. The fact that he actually succeeded at what he attempted to do is totally amazing.
And I have read many translations: Ciardi, Mandelbaum, Binyan, Sayers, etc. Some of them are quite good. But Mark Musa's is the only one where the translator has actually managed to accomplish something so wonderful that it is actually worthy of his great model. In fact, I would go so far as to say that, if an English translation is necessary, Paradiso almost HAS to be read in Musa's. Inferno and Purgatorio are both a bit more down-to-earth and accessible. But Paradiso - which is a GREAT poem - is almost unreadable in any other English translation I've seen. But not in this one.
His commentary also proves that even after 700 years, there are still great and strong insights to be gained into this greatest of epics.
Great job, Mr. Musa. I almost wished I lived in Indiana, so I could attend your courses at Indiana State University. Great, great job.
on March 9, 2002
The Inferno is a timeless classic that continues to inspire young authors. I recently ran a cross a modern version of the book,, A Journey to hell and Back by Charlotte Johnson, based on one individuals modern journey through hell in the Z-shop. It is intriguing to read both books and discuss the modern use of metaphors and allegory with classic literature. It is alos a good way to keep teenagers interested in classical literature. I have included this book introduction to show the parallel structures.
Journey To Hell and Back
By Charlotte Johnson
Journey To Hell and Back is a gripping saga of a young woman's journey from adolescence to adulthood at an accelerated pace. This book is an exploration of a troubled teen's journey into the underworld to emerge as an independent, confident, and self-assured woman. Pitfalls, tragedy, and trials that lure a young honor student into the mean streets of Atlanta and finally, New York mark the story. Her journey to hell led her through a fiery furnace that burned 70 % of her body with 2nd and 3rd degree burns, and an over three months hospital stay where God provided personal consolation and healing. After God miraculously saved her from a life in the streets heaped with sin, her zeal for God resulted in her making additional mistakes, including renewing the abusive relationship that had almost cost her life.
The story is a modern day version of Dante's Inferno. Each layer of Hell corresponds with a new low in the protagonist's life. Finally, from within the very bowels of Hell, she cries out to the Lord for salvation. This spiritual epiphany becomes a turning point in her life, thrusting her forward from Hell. The tremendous suffering and miraculous ending of this book will offer hope and comfort for anyone suffering from loneliness, heartache, or disappointment. It provides a realistic and human perspective on many social topics such as teenage rebellion and pregnancy, domestic violence, divorce, AIDS, substance abuse, prostitution, and the legal system. It is a necessity for anyone who has been a part or will work with any of these populations.
on December 2, 2001
The Inferno is one of the only of many books I've read that has actually changed the way I think. This was one of those books that melted its way into my mind and made its self comfortable because it know it'll be sticking around for a while. The levels that this book forced my already vivid imagination to were unreal! It was like I could feel the heat from the fires. Details are a beautiful thing afterall.
In my opinion, Mark Musa did an excellent job translating. Yes a few of the notes did leave you saying to yourself, "...okay?" but I know that I would get online and look up whatever it was Musa had left to the reader to figure out. He wasn't the spoon-feeding type with The Inferno. Musa actually forces the reader to think and determine things for themself as opposed to saying "this is exactly how this is." and I appreciate that from him.
I think that everyone, at some point, better young age than old if you ask me, should experience this book. I know that in my youth it has changed the way I look at my actions before I make them.
on May 21, 2001
My interest in classic literature did not arise until recently. I read many reviews which indicated that people with this such interest absolutely MUST read Dante's Inferno. With that hefty weight upon my "newbie" shoulders I decided to undergo the journey that so many others have made over the last 700 years.
As it turns out, Mark Musa's translation of Inferno is fantastic. Each chapter begins with a very brief but informative synopsis, followed by the prose, then finally capped off my Musa's notes on the text. Musa's notes give backgroud on all of the characters and situations that take place throughout the story. These notes are a MUST for any newcomer to Dante and classical literature in general. So, not only is there the original text in English for us non-Italian speakers, but there are notes to increase the readers comprehension.
Dante is guided by the author of the Aeneid, Virgil. Virgil takes Dante through the Nine Levels of Hell to show him the pain and suffering of all those who do not love and follow God. Dante learns a great deal on this journey as does the reader.
Mark Musa's translation of Dante is smooth, entertaining, and very informative. Anyone interested in Christianity, Hell, famous Greeks, and classical literature should definitely indulge themselves as this translation is not overwhelming in the slightest. Five stars across the board.
on May 19, 2001
Mark Musa has done a fine job in translating Dante's three part epic of a man's way of finding God. If his translation is all you read, you will get the gist of it. What makes it attractiive are his summaries at the head of the cantos and his same page notes at the bottom.
But I believe in reading a rival translation along with it. And so I am also going through Robert Durling's prose translation. What the difference is between this and Musa's "free verse" rendition I really don't understand. Durling offers a skimpy summary at the top of cantos and and rather academic notes at the back of the canto.I find this quite awkward and I am suggesting to him that in his Purgatorio and Paradise rendering, he beef up his skimp introductions to cantos and place the notes on the same page while making them a little less abstruse.
Durling notes go further than Musa who occasionally leaves the reader in the dark about allusions. I also suggestyou buy the Durling's paper back because it is easier to hold than its hardcover version and as easy to read.
Clearly, there can be no totally satisfying translation; a translator is torn between being scrupulously faithful to Dante and thus risking obscure renderings; or, being ardently lucid and thus providing a wrong translation.
What the Musa and Durling translations lack is that drive and immediacy of understanding of Robert Fagles' riveting rendition of the Iliad. The latter represents translation of classic at its finest.
What to do?
1. I would start with John Sinclair's 1939 prose translation to grasp the fundamentals of the story. 2. I would read Musa and Durling together. 3. I would look at the the latest "free verse" renderings by the wife and husband team, the Hollanders. 4. To really get it, I would learn Italian.
Finally, understand, that as with all great work, you must read it several times to truly appreciate it. And, just to make sure you do, buy the abridged reading of the epic on a CD from Naxos on your webstite.