The Divine Comedy: Inferno; Purgatorio; Paradiso Paperback – Oct 30 2009
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The volume is remarkably attractive, with a lovely dust jacket (not shown in the Amazon book photo), covers wrapped in cloth, non-acidic, nonreflective paper, and a ribbon bookmark. Also, the volume features a large number of Botticelli's illustrations of Dante, which obviously adds immensely to its value and its attractiveness. Also enhancing the volume's value is the marvelous introductory essay by Eugenio Montale and the comprehensive notes by Peter Armour. The only conceivable criticism of this volume is the absence of the Italian original, but that is not to be too regretted since its presence would have required so many additional pages that it would have been an unwieldy and unusable volume. One can get the Mandelbaum translation in either mass market paperback or hardback editions featuring each part with facing Italian.
The final thing to note is that one gets all these features in what is a very reasonably priced volume. I think for most readers of Dante, this is going to be the single volume of choice. Indeed, unless one especially wants the Italian text facing the English, this might be the edition of choice under any circumstances. The one edition that is clearly the supreme edition of Dante in English, that of Charles Singleton published by Princeton, is simply too expensive for all but the most serious readers of Dante. I will merely add that this is probably one of my favorite editions of any classic in my personal library. Obviously, I strongly recommend this version to anyone contemplating either reading or rereading Dante.
The glossing of the book is also strong, but, like the translation, does contain a few flaws. The notes are very thorough, but sometimes gloss the obvious, which can be quite tedious.
Also, I would have preffered a higher quality of paper and print. While I realize that this series of books is intended to be inexpensive, a work with the length and depth of the Comedy warrants the extra expense necessary to make the reading experience less ardous.
So, while I would recommend this edition to anyone just getting started on Dante (it was my first), serious Dante scholars might want to look elsewhere. The strengths of this volume (not the least of which is that it has the entire Comedy, rather than just a third) make it a worthwhile addition to the body of Dante translations, but it lacks any one tremendous strength to set it apart from the others.
Now, as to the translator. I know that it's always hard to maintain a balance between the literal translation and the feeling of the poetry. In my opinion Mandelbaum has done the right thing in staying more on the side of literacy. Yes, Dante was a poet and he wrote beautiful poetry, but in order for us English speakers to really get what his Comedy is saying we have to have a little clarity. Dante is veiled enough, he's a poet, when you translate poetry into more poetry you run the risk of just obfuscating more. If you haven't ever read the Divine Comedy then try this translation first. If you know Italian then go read the Italian and skip this translation silliness. Or try the paperback versions that split up Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven into separate books. The Italian is on one side and the translation on the other. But after gaining a good understanding of the text then by all means go read more poetic versions to get a better feel of the beauty of Dante's language.
Not knowing Italian, I can't comment on the translation except to say that it seems to be highly regarded. Mandelbaum puts the Divine Comedy in meter, but it's not rhymed the way some translations are (Dorothy Sayers, for instance). But he sticks to the same Dantean meter throughout, so the translation has a very nice rhythm to it.
Peter Armour has added a really nice set of notes: very concise yet very informative. They are are placed at the back of the book (pp. 543-791). The Divine Comedy is chock-full of references and allusions to figures and events both from Dante's own day and from classical mythology, so the notes are indispensable if one wants to arrive at a decent understanding of the text. A list of references on pp. 792-798 gives the exact place of reference in the biblical or classical literature Dante is referrring to. For instance, if in the notes Armour simply writes "Aristotle," one can turn to this reference section in order to find the exact place within Aristotle's writings. At the front of the book (pp. 40-53) is a handy timetable which sets events in Dante's own life alongside parallel political and cultural developments. Finally, interspersed throughout this volume are 42 sketch drawings by fifteenth century artist Sandro Botticelli (c. 1445-1510). This feature has its own historical interest, as it's fascinating to see how a mind from that period would have pictured the often bizarre scenes of Dante's imagination.
What is really nice about this edition, however, is the binding: beautiful hardcover cloth and a really nice jacket (not shown in the Amazon photo) with a reproduction of a vivid fifteenth century portrait of Dante (also by Botticelli). Especially nice is the concave-shaped spine (I'm not sure what the proper word is for this feature) which allows the book to lay open flat, just like a good Bible. There's also a ribbon to keep one's place, and the typface is very clear and easy on the eyes.
The Mandelbaum translation also comes in an Italian-English parallel edition. The only one I've seen so far is a small, 3-volume paperback set. If you know some Italian and are going to devote some serious study to the Comedy, this set might prove a handy companion.