Twenty translations of Dante ranked by fidelity

One of the most popular things I have ever written has been my 2010 post "Fifteen translation of Dante compared," in which I used a sample (Inferno Canto XXVI, lines 112-120) to compare the fidelity of various translations to the original Italian. The current post is an expansion of that, with additional translations added to the analysis, an error corrected (I had misattributed Cary's translation to Nichols) and all the scoring redone, with explanations of exactly why points were deducted.

I am publishing this as a page rather than a post so that I can update it from time to time, adding new translations. If you have a translation of the Inferno which is not included here, post the text of Canto XXVI, lines 112-120 in the comments, and I will add it.

Here is how the various translations rank, expressed in standard scores. (Zero is average fidelity, 1σ is one standard deviation better than average, -1σ is one SD worse.) As in my original analysis, Longfellow and Singleton come out on top, with Mandelbaum and Sinclair close behind.

  • Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Charles Singleton (1.4σ)
  • Allen Mandelbaum (1.3σ)
  • John D. Sinclair (1.1σ)
  • J. Simon Harris (0.7σ)
  • Robert and Jean Hollander, Stanley Lombardo, C. H. Sisson (0.6σ)
  • Robert Pinsky (0.5σ)
  • Henry Francis Cary (0.0σ)
  • Tom Simone (-0.1σ)
  • Robin Kirkpatrick, J. G. Nichols (-0.3σ)
  • Mark Musa (-0.5σ)
  • Dorothy L. Sayers (-0.7σ)
  • Anthony Esolen (-0.9σ)
  • Ciaran Carson (-1.1σ)
  • James Romanes Sibbald (-1.2)
  • Laurence Binyon (-1.7σ)
  • John Ciardi (-1.8σ)

1. O frati, dissi,
Most deductions are for slight modifications of the meaning dissi ("I said") -- rendering it I began or I cried, or omitting it altogether. The only major deduction is for Ciardi's translating frati ("brothers") as shipmates. While it is clear in context that Ulysses is in fact addressing his shipmates, not his biological brothers, calling ones shipmates "brothers" is nevertheless significantly different from calling them "shipmates."
  • No deduction
    • Brothers, I said (Binyon, Kirkpatrick, Lombardo, Musa, Sisson)
    • Brothers, . . . I said (Carson)
    • O brothers, I said (Harris, Hollander, Simone, Sinclair, Singleton)
    • O brothers, said I (Longfellow)
    • Brothers, I said, o you (Mandelbaum)
    • Brothers, said I (Sayers)
    • I spake: O Brothers (Sibbald)
  • Trivial semantic modification of dissi, not affecting overall meaning (-1)
    • O brothers! I began (Cary)
    • O brothers . . . I cried (Nichols)
    • O brothers . . . I began (Pinsky)
  • Dissi omitted, but implied by context (-1)
    • O brothers (Esolen)
  • Significant semantic modification of frati (-3)
    • Shipmates, I said (Ciardi)

2. che per cento milia perigli
Loose translation of cento milia ("a hundred thousand") incurs only a minor deduction, since the number is clearly not intended literally. Most of the larger deductions are for adding semantic content that is nowhere to be found in the text.
  • No deduction
    • who through a hundred thousand perils (Ciardi, Lombardo, Longfellow, Sinclair, Singleton)
    • who through a hundred thousand dangers (Simone, Sisson)
  • Non-literal translation of cento milia (-1)
    • who . . . through perils numberless (Carson)
    • who . . . through perils without number (Cary)
  • Non-literal translation of per (-1)
    • who in the course of a hundred thousand perils (Hollander)
    • a hundred thousand perils you have passed (Kirkpatrick)
    • who having crossed a hundred thousand dangers (Mandelbaum)
    • who through a hundred thousand perils have made your way (Musa)
    • who . . . with a hundred thousand dangers overcome (Nichols)
  • Addition of a random word of uncertain meaning (-2)
    • who have come through still a hundred thousand dangers (Harris)
  • Non-literal translation of both cento milia and per (-2)
    • who have borne innumerable dangers (Esolen)
  • Addition of semantic content more-or-less implied in the original (-3)
    • who . . . through a hundred thousand perils, surviving all (Pinsky)
  • Addition of semantic content nowhere implied in the original (-5)
    • who manfully, despite ten thousand perils (Binyon)
    • that have come valiantly through hundred thousand jeopardies undergone (Sayers)
  • Addition of major semantic content (-7)
    • who through such a fight of hundred thousand dangers(Sibbald)

3. siete giunti a l’occidente,
There is a small deduction for the use of the infinitive, since it implies that they passed through dangers for the purpose of reaching the West, an idea that is not in the text.
  • No deduction
    • have attained the west (Binyon)
    • have reached the west (Carson, Ciardi, Lombardo, Longfellow, Nichols, Pinsky, Sinclair, Singleton)
    • and reached the Occident (Kirkpatrick)
    • reach the west (Mandelbaum)
    • have come to the west (Simone)
  • Addition of now or at last (-1)
    • to the west . . . now have reach’d (Cary)
    • at last have reached the west (Hollander)
    • at last have reached the occident (Sisson)
  • Use of infinitive (-1)
    • to reach the West (Musa, Sayers)
  • Omission of siete giunti, implied by context (-2)
    • to the west (Harris)
  • Semantic modification of giunti (-3)
    • West have won (Sibbald)
  • Addition of poetic imagery not in the original (-5)
    • to reach the setting of the sun (Esolen)

4. a questa tanto picciola vigilia d’i nostri sensi ch’è del rimanente
Translating nostri ("our") as your incurs a moderate deduction. Surprisingly many translators did this, for reasons that are not clear to me, since our fits the meter just as well.
  • No deduction
    • to this the short remaining watch, that yet our senses have to wake (Cary)
    • of this small vigil of our senses . . . what little we have left (Harris)
    • to such brief wakefulness of our senses as remain to us (Hollander)
    • during this so brief vigil of our senses that is still reserved for us (Musa)
    • to this so brief vigil of the senses that remains to us (Sinclair)
    • to this short vigil which is all there is remaining to our senses (Sisson)
  • Trivial addition of semantic content (-1)
    • So little is the vigil we see remain still for our senses, that (Pinsky)
  • Addition of a random word of uncertain meaning (-2)
    • to the brief remaining watch our senses stand (Ciardi)
  • Mistranslation of nostri as your (-3)
    • to this so little vigil of your senses that remains (Longfellow)
    • to this brief waking-time that still is left unto your senses (Mandelbaum)
    • to this so brief vigil of your senses which remains (Singleton)
  • Addition of living (-3)
    • For us, so little time remains to keep the vigil of our living sense (Kirkpatrick)
  • Translation of picciola as limited (-3)
    • for this so limited vigil of our senses which still remains to us (Simone)
  • Addition of poetic imagery (-5)
    • To this last little vigil left to run of feeling life (Sayers)
    • from those few hours remaining to our watch, from time so short in which to live and feel (Esolen)
  • Major addition/modification of poetic imagery (-7)
    • in the brief vigil that remains of light to feel in (Binyon)
    • to the last glimmering hour of consciousness that remains to us (Lombardo)
    • now that you’ve run the race of life, in this last watch that still remains to you (Carson)
    • now your brief lives have little time to run (Nichols)
  • Even greater addition of poetic imagery (-10)
    • In this short watch that ushers in the night of all your senses, ere your day be done (Sibbald)

5. non vogliate negar l’esperïenza
This is tricky to translate because non vogliate ("do not want," imperative mood) has no direct English equivalent; no one would say "Don't want to do that!" as a command. I allow some flexibility, but translations which do not use the imperative, or do not have some indication of wanting/willing, are penalized. Part of Musa's deduction is for his bizarre use of the singular yourself in a speech addressed to "brothers."
  • No deduction
    • be ye unwilling to deny, the experience (Longfellow)
    • choose not to deny experience (Sinclair)
    • wish not to deny the experience (Singleton)
  • Imperative weakened to question or recommendation (-2)
    • will you yet deny . . . the experience (Harris)
    • you should not choose to deny it the experience (Pinsky)
  • Omission of vogliate (-3)
    • do not deny . . . experience (Ciardi, Lombardo)
    • do not refuse experience (Esolen)
    • you must not deny experience (Mandelbaum)
    • do not deny experience (Sisson)
  • Omission of vogliate, use of singular yourself for plural audience (-4)
    • do not deny yourself experience (Musa)
  • Imperative weakened or vogliate omitted, addition of new (-4)
    • you will not now deny . . . the new experience (Sayers)
    • Refuse not to obtain experience new (Sibbald)
  • Omission of vogliate, significant semantic modification of l’esperïenza (-6)
    • refuse not proof (Cary)
    • do not deny yourselves the chance to know (Hollander)
  • Imperative weakened, major addition/modification of poetic imagery (-9)
    • I ask you not to shun experience, but boldly to explore (Carson)
    • you will not let yourselves now be denied . . . experience at first hand (Nichols)
  • Omission of vogliate, major addition/modification of poetic imagery (-10)
    • Do not deny your will to win experience (Kirkpatrick)
    • do not be content to deny yourselves experience (Simone)
  • Major modification of semantic content and poetic imagery (-12)
    • stoop not to renounce the quest of what may . . . be essayed (Binyon)

6. di retro al sol,
It is extremely difficult for a non-Italian speaker like myself to ascertain the meaning of this expression, which I take to be equivalent to the modern Italian dietro al sole, "behind the sun." Translators generally interpret it either has "beyond the [setting] sun" (which seems unlikely for a poet as astronomically perspicuous as Dante; Ulysses didn't have a spaceship!) or "following the sun." In either case, the basic sense is "the west." Since authorities seem divided, I penalize neither reading, though the latter seems much better to me personally. Those who say west directly are penalized, though, since Dante does not do so.
  • No deduction
    • beyond the sun (Carson, Ciardi, Esolen)
    • following the sun (Hollander, Longfellow, Singleton)
    • behind the sun (Kirkpatrick, Sayers)
    • of that which lies beyond the sun (Mandelbaum)
    • of what there is beyond, behind the sun (Musa)
  • Addition of idea of "setting," possibly implied by context (-3)
    • beyond the sun, behind where the sun sets (Harris)
    • that lies beyond the setting sun (Lombardo)
  • Addition of mostly-implied semantic content (-3)
    • we shall find by following the sun (Nichols)
    • behind the sun leading us onward (Pinsky)
  • Addition of yonder (-3)
    • yonder, past the sun (Sibbald)
  • Addition of idea of "path" (-4)
    • following the course of the sun (Sisson)
  • Addition of idea of "west" (-5)
    • Follow the sun into the west (Simone)
  • Omission of di retro, addition of idea of "path" (-7)
    • in the sun's path (Binyon)
    • in the sun’s track (Sinclair)
  • Addition of idea of "path" and of "Phoebus" personification (-9)
    • following the track of Phoebus (Cary)

7. del mondo sanza gente.
This is straightforward enough: "of the world without people."
  • No deduction
    • of the unpeopled world (Cary, Lombardo, Nichols, Sinclair)
    • of the world that hath no people (Longfellow)
    • and of the world that is unpeopled (Mandelbaum)
    • of the world which has no people in it (Pinsky)
    • of the world without people (Simone)
    • of the world that has no people (Singleton)
  • Addition of idea of "land" or "earth," implied by context (-2)
    • of the lands . . . the world where no one dwells (Esolen)
    • of the unpeopled earth (Harris)
  • Non-literal translation of sanza gente (-2)
    • the land where no one lives (Hollander)
    • of the uninhabited world (Sayers)
    • of that world which has no inhabitants (Sisson)
  • Use of plural worlds (-3)
    • of worlds where no man dwells (Kirkpatrick)
    • Of worlds unpeopled (Sibbald)
  • Minor addition of semantic content (-5)
    • the vast unpeopled world (Carson)
  • Major addition of semantic content (-7)
    • the world that never mankind hath possessed (Binyon)
    • in the world they call unpeopled (Musa)
  • Omission of sanza gente (-12)
    • of the world (Ciardi)

8. Considerate la vostra semenza:
This is impossible to translate with perfect fidelity. It is literally "consider your seed" -- which in English (influenced by biblical use) can only mean "your posterity." However, Dante is clearly using it to mean the opposite, "your ancestry," the seed from which you sprouted. I penalize translations that omit the "seed" imagery entirely, those which allow a "posterity" reading, and -- most harshly -- those that paraphrase the whole thing as "Greeks!"
  • No deduction
    • Think on the seed ye spring from! (Binyon)
    • Consider the seed from which you were born (Lombardo)
    • Take thought of the seed from which you spring (Sinclair)
  • Minor semantic addition (-1)
    • Consider well the seed that gave you birth (Mandelbaum)
    • Consider now the seed that gave you birth (Harris)
  • "Seed" imagery omitted (-3)
    • Call to mind from whence we sprang (Cary)
    • Consider ye your origin (Longfellow)
    • Consider well your origin, your birth (Nichols)
    • Think of your breed (Sayers)
    • Consider your origin (Singleton)
    • Consider then the race from which you have sprung (Sisson)
  • "Posterity" reading of semanza possible (-5)
    • Consider well your seed (Pinsky)
  • Moderate semantic modification (-5)
    • Consider whence the seed of life ye drew (Sibbald)
  • Semanza expanded to mean "your origin and your posterity" (-7)
    • Think well upon your nation and your seed (Esolen)
    • Hold clear in thought your seed and origin (Kirkpatrick)
    • Consider your seed and heritage (Simone)
  • Addition of poetic imagery (-7)
    • Consider how your souls were sown (Hollander)
  • Wholesale paraphrase (-12)
    • Remember who you are (Carson)
    • Greeks! (Ciardi)
    • Consider what you came from: you are Greeks (Musa)

9. fatti non foste a viver come bruti,
"You were not made to live like brutes." Given the shifting meaning of brute in English, I allow a variety of paraphrases without deduction.
  • No deduction
    • Ye were not form’d to live the life of brutes (Cary)
    • you were not made to live like brutes or beasts (Hollander)
    • You were not made to live as mindless brutes (Kirkpatrick)
    • You were not made to live like brute animals (Lombardo)
    • ye were not made to live as brutes (Longfellow, Singleton)
    • you were not made to live your lives as brutes (Harris, Mandelbaum)
    • You were not made to live like animals (Nichols, Sisson)
    • You were not born to live as a mere brute does (Pinsky)
    • you were not made to live like brutes (Simone)
  • Very minor semantic modification (-1)
    • what you were made for: not to live like brutes (Carson)
    • For you were never made to live like brutes (Esolen)
  • "Born" instead of "made" (-3)
    • You were not born to live like brutes (Ciardi)
    • You were not born to live like mindless brutes (Musa)
    • You were not born to live as brutes (Sinclair)
  • Minor addition of poetic imagery (-5)
    • Ye were made not to live life of brute beasts of the field (Binyon)
    • Ye were not born to live like brutish herd (Sibbald)
  • Major semantic modification (-10)
    • for brutish ignorance your mettle was not made (Sayers)

10. ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza.
Virtute can mean "virtue, character, excellence, courage, manliness"; canoscenza can mean "knowledge, consciousness, acquaintance." I consider the good to be too loose a translation of virtute.
  • No deduction
    • but to pursue virtue and knowledge (Hollander, Singleton)
    • but for pursuit of virtue and of knowledge (Longfellow)
    • but to be followers of worth and knowledge (Mandelbaum)
    • but to follow virtue and knowledge (Simone, Sinclair)
    • But righteousness and wisdom to ensue (Sibbald)
  • Semantic content added (-3)
    • but follow virtue and knowledge unafraid (Binyon)
    • but virtue to pursue and knowledge high (Cary)
    • but go in search of virtue and true knowledge (Kirkpatrick)
    • but to live in pursuit of virtue and knowledge (Lombardo)
    • but to pursue virtue and know the world (Sisson)
    • you were made men, to follow after knowledge and excellence (Sayers)
  • Loose translation of virtute (-3)
    • but for the quest of knowledge and the good (Carson)
    • but to pursue virtue, knowledge, and worth (Harris)
    • but for the pursuit of knowledge and the good (Pinsky)
  • Loose translation of seguir (-3)
    • but to follow paths of excellence and knowledge (Musa)
    • but to pursue and gain wisdom and worth (Nichols)
  • Very broad paraphrase (-10)
    • but to pursue the good in mind and deed (Esolen)
  • Complete mistranslation (-12)
    • but to press on toward manhood and recognition (Ciardi)

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