New book delves into Dante's Inferno, and back

Victoria University of Wellington got a head start on International Translation Day with a public reading of a new and unique translation compilation of Dante's 14th century literary masterpiece, Inferno.

Dr Marco Sonzogni and Tim Smith with their new book, To Hell and Back, an anthology of Dante's Inferno.

Edited by Master of Literary Translation Studies graduate Tim Smith and Reader in Translation Studies Dr Marco Sonzogni (School of Languages and Cultures), the compilation assigns each of Inferno’s 34 cantos to a different translator. Inferno famously follows the earthly protagonist through the nine circles of Hell, and in this compilation, To Hell and Back, the cantos repeat in reverse order, returning Dante to earth.

With two translations of each canto, the book’s editors have paired them to highlight the differences in translations across context, time and translation styles and strategies. Other pairings allude to commonalities.

Mr Smith points to Canto I as an example where one translation comes from the first major English translation of Inferno, and its counterpart is one of the most recent. The translations of Canto XXXII were both written to be read aloud.

Mr Smith says “no author, or single work, for that matter, has been translated more frequently into another language than Dante’s masterwork”. And with over 100 translations to choose from, Mr Smith and Dr Sonzogni felt selecting one translation for each of the 34 cantos would be unsatisfactory.

“We didn’t just want a catalogue of the best and most readily available translations,” Dr Sonzogni says.

“It is our intention to give life to some less prominent translations that deserve to be remembered for their linguistic skill, their verve or poeticism in English, or their challenge to translation norms.

“We have included translations that are culturally significant, linguistically daring, or those that represent some kind of landmark in the tradition of translating Dante.”

At the eleventh hour before printing, the pair received news of two other unpublished translations. Mr Smith said an extra two cantos were added at the end, indicating Dante’s return to Hell.

“The two translations adopt very different approaches and encapsulate the interminability of Dante in translation. By including them we wanted to give a sense that translating Dante is a continuous, infinite process.”

The unusual idea for To Hell and Back came out of a research project carried out by Mr Smith under Dr Sonzogni’s supervision, which resulted in an extensive annotated bibliography of the literature on Dante in translation. Realising the depth and diversity of translations available, the pair wanted to re-produce Inferno in a way that demonstrated the breadth of translations.

To Hell and Back has already been well reviewed by international translation scholars.