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A Chat with Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander

Robert Hollander's picture
Date:Jan 17, 2001
Topic:Dante's Inferno
Duration:One hour

Robert Hollander, a professor of European Literature at Princeton University, and his wife Jean Hollander have collaborated on a new translation of Dante's Inferno. More about the Hollanders.

Jean Hollander's picture

Transcript of the Chat

Anu Garg (Moderator)
Welcome to the third online chat at Wordsmith! Today our guests are Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander. Their new verse translation of Dante's Inferno was published by Doubleday last month. They are joining us from Hopewell, New Jersey.

Welcome, Jean & Robert!

Hollanders (Guest Speakers)
Hello, Anu, and all your wordsmiths.

Dory - United States
I am wondering what the Hollanders believe is revealed about Dante in his work that they have translated, and I am wondering what they wanted to reveal about him in their work. What are some of the critical areas in working with a text like this?

Hollanders (Guest Speakers)
The most difficult thing is to try to keep the text's meaning as clear as possible while yet sounding like an English poem. That is extremely difficult. as for what is revealed about Dante, a short answer won't be able to deal with that question. The basic bibliography for this poet is some 50,000 items--which gives a sense of what a hard question that is.

Tom Crown-US
In translating a masterpiece what do you consider more important, a literal translation or a beautiful rendering of the work in English.

Hollanders (Guest Speakers)
Easy answer: both. Doing it is not easy.

Tom Crown-US
Is the language of Dante close enough to modern Italian to be read by an Italian speaker.

Hollanders (Guest Speakers)
Very much so, and far closer to modern Italian than Shakespeare is to our English. But we cannot forget that Dante is sometimes a difficult poet, that Italian readers, too, have to labor to attempt to understand his deliberately difficult passages.

Walt
I would enjoy seeing your translation of the first tercet: "Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, etc."

Hollanders (Guest Speakers)
Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.

Anu Garg (Moderator)
Roger Dean of Brussels, Belgium has sent a few questions in email:

1. Why another translation of the 'Inferno' was felt necessary. What was the market gap the Hollanders were trying to fill?

2. Is the aim to let us into Dante's world or to transpose that world into a third millennium idiom?

Hollanders (Guest Speakers)
1. We didn't feel that anyone but ourselves needed a new translation. I was developing a prose English text for a large Dante computer project; it was my wife's view that what I had was not very poetic. We ended up deciding to do a new verse translation. As for "market concerns," we did not have any. But we did (and we do) hope that this translation will be of use both to "professional" readers of Dante and to a wider audience.

We hope that we have kept the sense of the original in modern English, as well as at least some of its feeling.

Walt
I don't think Roger Dean's question really needs an answer. If you loved the work, and it permitted you to immerse yourself in the thought of one of the great minds of the ages, that is enough reason to do it. If you got it published, all the better.

I am aware of 7 translators, and you make the 8th and 9th. How many are there in toto.

Hollanders (Guest Speakers)
Walt: thanks for your first remark, which is exactly right. Your question: I think there are about ten English translations of Dante currently available. In history, there are perhaps over one hundred.

Ray - USA
I have not studied Dante, but when I read the Divine Comedy, I could not help that he was ridiculing the "Hell Concept"

Hollanders (Guest Speakers)
First Ray: there is a LOT of humor in the Inferno, sometimes grim, to be sure, but nonetheless very funny. This is not to say that Dante is making fun of hell. He seems to take the notion of eternal punishment pretty seriously.

Walt
Chilton Williamson, the book editor of Chronicles of Culture (magazine), is a Dante enthusiast. You would enjoy corresponding with him. He wrote two novels (at least) in which he used two tercets out of the Commedia as the epigraphs.

Hollanders (Guest Speakers)
Thanks for that, Walt

Carol - SF
It seems to me, in the middle of the scholarly work, that the temptation must have been strong to throw a few recognizable modern-day characters into the various levels of hell ..

Hollanders (Guest Speakers)
Carol, we were tempted but resisted. But the poem has this effect anyway. Students frequently draw parallels from Dante's sinners to contemporary figures, including their classmates...and teachers.

Anu Garg (Moderator)
Question from Roger Dean - Brussels: Is the aim to let us into Dante's world or to transpose that world into a third millennium idiom?

Hollanders (Guest Speakers)
We answered that one, but it may have got lost in your glitch a while ago. Roger, we were trying to keep as much of the sense and feeling of Dante's text as we could in modern English. In other words, we were hoping to write a fourteenth-century translation more than a twenty-first century one. But we also wanted to avoid archaism, a gambit of most 19th-c. translators. Dante's Italian is NOT "old-fashioned. it is fresh and vital, angular and alive. Archaism can kill that quickly.

Walt
A word in the first line of the poem (cammin) is not in my Italian dictionary, although its cognate is common in the Spanish language. Are there many words like that in the Commedia?

Hollanders (Guest Speakers)
Walt, "cammin" is the abbreviated form of "cammino," the same word as Sp. "camino": road, way.

KristineM
To read the Divine Comedy has been a goal of mine since seeing an enticing documentary on it a few years ago on BBC TV. Do you have any tips to help the novice in tackling and enjoying this masterpiece? Thank you.

Hollanders (Guest Speakers)
Kristine, people are often "afraid" of Dante. They have heard so much about him; he seems imposing. Here's what I advise my first-time students to do. Sit down after supper with the entire poem and just read it as though it were a novel. I have done this myself, and it is a wonderful experience. No notes, no analysis, just the movement of the narrative.

KristineM
Thank you for the advice. I will read it straight through then. Just like Goethe. I thought he would be imposing, but he, too, is quite the opposite.

Heather - US
How much emphasis did you place on representing the rhyme scheme or meter of the Italian in your translation? For instance, I know Robert Pinsky, in his translation, tried to end lines with words that "sounded alike," even if they didn't exactly rhyme; while some translators don't bother.

Hollanders (Guest Speakers)
Heather, in our century two major translations were done in TRUE terza rima. John Ciardi did an approximate version of terza, and Robert Pinsky did one using "slant" rhymes. We find that the loss that occurs in finding rhymes so forces the sense that it is better to surrender on that front and try to be most faithful to the shadings of sense in the original. People disagree about this, but that is where we stand.

Jackie USA
Could you give an example of what you mean by Dante's Italian being fresh and alive, and especially "angular"? I like that term!

Hollanders (Guest Speakers)
When Dante learns that a man he knows as still alive on earth has his soul already immersed in hell he expresses his surprise (Inf. 33.139-141): "I think," I said to him, "you're fooling me. / For Branca d'Oria is not yet dead: he eats / and drinks and sleeps and puts on clothes."

Tom - USA
I read in the New Yorker (I don't yet own a copy of your translation) that you are of a decidedly "anti-romantic" point of view regarding the Divine Comedy. In other words, you believe that Dante views all of the souls in hell as evil and pitiless. Why, then, does he often stop and personally speak w/ many of his former acquaintances? Not that I disagree with you, but I'm interested in your opinion.

Hollanders (Guest Speakers)
Tom, a great question, one that gets to the heart of the matter about how we interpret this poem. We could go on for a while but will try to be brief. As far as I am concerned, as commentator, it is true that I would rather be thought of as a "medieval-moralizer" than a "Romantic" reader. But in fact Dante himself is a widely ranging respondent to the souls of the damned. But there is a problem here, since the CHARACTER Dante has a lot of growing up to do. Thus we need to try to distinguish among his various reactions. What remains true is that some of the sinners in hell are a lot more likeable than others, on anybody's moral scale. But they are all damned, and we mustn't forget that. Romantic readers at times almost seem to boast, e.g, those who say they prefer damned Francesca to prissy Beatrice. In my view they are poor readers of text. But of human interpretation there is no end, no matter what anyone has to say about it.

Carol - SF
I had a teacher who had us read the translations at night, then follow along in class each day as she read from the original, so we could hear the poetry while understanding the story (she did this for the Inferno, Don Quixito, and Faust)

Hollanders (Guest Speakers)
Sounds like an effective technique. In the computer version of this text my colleague Lino Pertile (Harvard) reads the Italian aloud.

Carol - SF
Wow .. does the 'computer version' come neatly boxed with the text, or is there a site to find ..

Hollanders (Guest Speakers)
The computer version is reachable at www.princeton.edu/dante. You must subscribe, but there is no charge and there will not ever be a charge.

Walt
Do you know of any "side by side" translations of Paradiso?

Hollanders (Guest Speakers)
Walt, there are any number. Among others in the recent past, Sinclair (prose), Sayers, Musa, Ciardi, Mandelbaum, and others. Ours (we hope you care) is supposed to be out in 2003, Purgatorio in 2002.

bombadil
Whose translation of Paradiso and Purgatory are you using in the Princeton Dante Project?

Hollanders (Guest Speakers)
Right now we have the Sinclair, cleaned up a bit. But soon our new Purgatorio will replace it. And eventually Paradiso.

Tom - USA
As translators, do you find it both difficult and enjoyable to find the right word in English for the right word in Italian? I assume that it can feel at times like you are writing yourself.

Hollanders (Guest Speakers)
Tom, at the beginning it is just terribly hard work. As the drafts go by, it gets easier, and more enjoyable. When one of us can read aloud to the other for 40 or 50 lines without having to stop over a bad line, it all begins to feel worth the effort. But it never feels like _our_ work, but an approximation of his. It is an amazing poem in Italian.

abc-usa
What made you choose The Inferno as your first work instead of the Paradise or the Purgatory?

Hollanders (Guest Speakers)
Because that is where the poem begins.

Anu Garg (Moderator)
And a final question: Would you say something about your upcoming book "Dante: A Life in Works"?

Hollanders (Guest Speakers)
Thanks, Anu, I'd be glad to. This is a short book trying to give those somewhat familiar with the Comedy a sense of Dante's "intellectual biography." Yale University Press is publishing it in April.

Anu Garg (Moderator)
Thanks to all who participated, and asked questions, even if we couldn't field your questions due to limited time.

Thank you, Robert and jean, for being our guests at Wordsmith.org, and thank you to all the linguaphiles for joining in.

Hollanders (Guest Speakers)
Thanks to you, Anu, and to your colleagues in Wordsmith. Good bye, Bob & Jean Hollander


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