Translating Dante’s Terza Rima

Translating Dante’s Terza Rima

Clive James has an extended article on translating the Divine Comedy in the London Daily Telegraph of last year. {1} It’s an informative and entertaining piece where all seems plausible, more or less, until we’re given a sample of what has worthily occupied the journalist’s retirement these past few years, the opening lines of which I quote here:

At the mid-point of the path through life, I found
Myself lost in a wood so dark, the way
Ahead was blotted out. The keening sound

I still make shows how hard it is to say
How harsh and bitter that place felt to me-
Merely to think of it renews the fear-

So bad that death by only a degree
Could possibly be worse. As you shall hear,

As verse, this is simply dreadful. The lines are limp:

How harsh and bitter that place felt to me-


I still make shows how hard it is to say
How harsh and bitter that place felt to me-


Merely to think of it renews the fear-
So bad that death by only a degree
Could possibly be worse.


The keening sound

And just plain ugly: lacking music, cadence, rhythm, balance, energy and naturalness. I’m sorry to put matters so bluntly, but to illustrate a lengthy and enjoyable article on translation with this sort of twaddle is asking for trouble. Free verse may have softened the rules, but the trained ear is not completely defunct.

To take matters further for this post, I picked up some research undertaken when beginning a long poem in terza rima myself (i.e. rhymed in aba bcb cdc, etc. stanzas) My interest was the form, not the Divine Comedy, which I don’t much like, though of course many do. {2}

There was Dorothy L Sayer’s version: {3}

Midway this way of life we’re bound upon
I woke to find myself in a dark wood
where the right road was wholly lost and gone.

Ah me! How hard to speak of it – that rude
And rough and stubborn forest! The mere breath
Of memory stirs the old fear in the blood;

It is so bitter, it goes nigh to death;
Yet there I gained such good, that, to convey
The tale, I write what else I found therewith.

How I got into it, I cannot say
Because I was so heavy and full of sleep
When first I stumbled from the narrow way.

Though this is a continuously popular translation, and the verse not at all bad, the rendering is rather free, as we shall see later.

A modern translation by Robin Kilpatrick is: {4}

At one point midway on our path through life,
I came around and found myself now searching
through a dark wood, the right way blurred and lost.
How hard it is to say what that wood was,
a wilderness, savage, brute, harsh and wild.
Only to think of it renews my fear!
So bitter, that thought, that death is hardly more so.
But since my theme will be the good I found there
I mean to speak of other things I saw.
I do not know, I cannot rightly say,
how first I came to be here – so full of sleep,
that moment, abandoning the true way on.

Fairly accurate, but not rhymed, and rather slack verse – or, if you prefer it, the rhythm not varied to some common base, i.e. more free verse that strict.

Longfellow’s version is well known: it doesn’t rhyme, but is at least properly cadenced: {5}

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.

So bitter is it, death is little more;
But of the good to treat, which there I found,
Speak will I of other things I saw there.

And there are several other translations, all pretty detestable, which I shan’t go into. But why does Dante’s terza rima prove such a stumbling block for translators? It shouldn’t. The stanza is not difficult to write provided, as in all strict verse translations, we:

1. Tell the story in equivalents, not word for word renderings.
2. Move the limiting rhymes from the line endings.
3. Use the pentameter for Dante’s eleven-syllable line, i.e. ignore the feminine rhyme of the strict terza rima.
4. Vary the pace and sentence lengths, aiming for a supple continuity of narrative:

The mid-part of our life already crossed
I found myself within a wood that bore
no path, the straight way into darkness lost.

How hard to speak of it. The forest wore
a look so stern and wild and threatening
that mere remembering brings on fear once more,

and premonition of death’s bitter sting.
But there was goodness too, and I shall tell
of sights encountered there in everything.

I know not where I found myself, nor well
remember how such sleep had fallen, nor
when erring from the narrow path befell.

And so on.  It takes a little ingenuity, and needs more work, but should be sufficient to give the lie to Clive James’ assertions on the intruding nature of the rhyme:

With the dubious exception of Shelley’s “The Triumph of Life”, nobody has ever written a terza rima poem in English that makes you forget the form in which it is composed, and a terza rima translation of Dante like Laurence Binyon’s makes a feature of Binyon’s virtuosity rather than Dante’s mastery.

Shelley notwithstanding, (whose opening lines of the Triumph of Life are, incidentally: {6}

Swift as a spirit hastening to his task
Of glory & of good, the Sun sprang forth
Rejoicing in his splendour, & the mask

Of darkness fell from the awakened Earth.
The smokeless altars of the mountain snows
Flamed above crimson clouds, & at the birth

Of light, the Ocean’s orison arose
To which the birds tempered their matin lay,
All flowers in field or forest which unclose

Their trembling eyelids to the kiss of day,
Swinging their censers in the element,
With orient incense lit by the new ray)

the terza rima is in fact easy to write. Far too easy. As readers may know, I’m currently working on an extended poem in the form, a contemporary Inferno, and much of the revision goes into boiling matters down to their bare bones of meaning. The opening lines of Still Abiding Fire, believe me, were very different from what exists now:

We buckle up and watch the needle spin
as, prospects narrowing to straight ahead,
the coloured cavalcade of days begin

to take us through that shadow-world the dead
will dandle out before us, constantly
beguiled and shifting in each wind-tossed head.

And then it’s light again, and we will see
some diner, garage or communal shop
tear up and blaze on past. A fence or tree

trails off companionably until we stop,
when clouds go on before us and the blue
of far horizons settles on some mountain top

whose climb is part of us, as though it too
rose out of adolescent lands, that space
we bear reluctantly in all we do.

Returning to Dante and translation, the golden rule, always, is to work from the original text, here: {7}

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
  mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
  che’ la diritta via era smarrita.

Ahi quanto a dir qual era e` cosa dura
  esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
  che nel pensier rinova la paura!

Tant’e` amara che poco e` piu` morte;
  ma per trattar del ben ch’i’ vi trovai,
  diro` de l’altre cose ch’i’ v’ho scorte.

Io non so ben ridir com’i’ v’intrai,
  tant’era pien di sonno a quel punto
  che la verace via abbandonai.

A Google rendering shows how simple and direct the original is:

In the middle of the journey of our life
   I found myself in a dark wood
   that ‘the straight way was lost.

Ah, how to say What was is what lasts
   this forest savage, rough, and stern
   that in the very thought renews the fear!

`So much so that a little bitter and is more death;
   but for the good that ‘there I found,
   tell the other things I `de ‘saw.

I do not know how to tell com’i ‘bring to mind,
   so full of sleep at that point
   who abandoned the true way.

From this it seems to me there are two ways of proceeding. If we find the simple rendering above too plain, we can either write a more ornamented and phonetic-patterned version:

Then, with mid-mark of life’s journey crossed,
I found myself within a forest dark
and frightening, with the straight way lost.

Ah me! How hard to say when I could mark
no friendly passage through its savage waste,
and even now its recollection stark

reminds me of that fear in bitter taste
as though of death itself. The further side
I mean to speak of presently, as based

on good things seen. But why so wide
I divagated  from the path, as though
asleep, my wits provided little guide.

Only I suspect this will lead to the Homage to Sextus Propertius problem: something too freely rendered to please school teachers and scholars, and too much a translation to be publishable as original work.

Or we can dispense with rhyme and write something close to the sense where the rendering is at least decent verse. A start might be something along these lines:

In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself within a shadowed wood
in which the straight way through was wholly lost.

How hard it is to say what I retain
of that fierce forest, savage, stern and rough.
The mere remembering of it wakens fear,

and speaks of bitterness as unto death.
But also of great goodnesses I found
and will relate in other things I saw.

I do not rightly know how there emerged
such apparitions, or my slumber came
to make me err and leave the narrow path.

So we have three renderings, two strictly rhymed and one not. Which one is best? Probably none of them, as I’ll explain in a subsequent post.


1. Clive James on Translating Dante. The Telegraph. July, 2013.

2. Dante: The Divine Comedy, translated by Dorothy L Sayers. Vulpes Libres.

3. The Divine Comedy, Part One (Hell).  Translated by Dorothy L. Sayers. Penguin, 1950.

4. The Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition). Translated by Robin Kilpatrick. Penguin, 2013.

5. Divine Comedy, Longfellow’s Translation, Complete by Dante Alighieri. Gutenberg.

6. The Triumph of Life by Percy Bysshe Shelley.The Triumph of Life
1792-1822. The Poetry Foundation. Http:// Triumph of Life&s=web&p=1

7. La Divina Commedia di Dante Alighieri. Gutenberg.

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