Comparison of the Usage of Terza Rima or Its Absence in English Translations Dante’s Inferno

June 22, 2022 by Essay Writer

The terza rima, or third rhyme, makes a poem easier to read. Dante Alighieri, an Italian poet, uses this structure throughout his poem. Throughout The Inferno, the terza rima is present. However, in English translations of the poem, the translators either focus on the symbolism or the rhyme. John Ciardi holds to the figurative language of the poem where Michael Palma holds to the terza rima.

In John Ciardi translation of the book, John Ciardi is more focused on the figurative language than in Michael Palma’s translation.

“So we went down to the second ledge alone;

a smaller circle of so much greater pain

the voice of the damned rose in a beastial moan.

There Minos sits, grinning, grotesque, and hale.

He examines each lost soul as it arrives

and delivers his verdict with his coiling tail” (Ciardi Canto V l. 1).

The terza rima is non-existent in Ciardi’s translation. In the terza rima, the first and third line rhyme and the second line rhymes with the first and third lines of the next stanza. In Palma’s translation, Palma sticks to the terza rima.

“Thus I went down from where the first circle lies

into the second, which surrounds less space

but much more pain, provoking wails and cries.

There Minos stands with his horrid snarling face.

He examines the sinners at the entranceway.

Entwining, he assigns each one its place” (Palma Canto V l. 1).

The terza rima is present in Palma’s translation. The rhyme and rhythm of the lines make it easier to read than for punctuation. The rhyme makes it easier to recall and remember. Ciardi’s purpose is to translate a well developed and inspiring poem that is easier to understand by many. Palma’s purpose is to make the poem easier to understand and to make the reading easier with rhymes. The terza rima consists of three-line stanzas. The terza rima combines iambic meter with a rhyme scheme. Palma translates the poem still in its terza rima to help prolong and perpetuate the unique style. The terza rima has appeared in many other poems after The Inferno. For example Ode to the West Wind by Shelley.

The terza rima poem usually ends with a stanza of only one line. The line rhymes with the middle line of the second to the last stanza. Since English is a mixed language and has so many words, it is hard to stay with the terza rima that Dante has in his poem. Which is why Ciardi translates in the unrhymed blank verse. Although it is not impossible because Palma achieves this in his translation. With the rhyming of Palma’s translation, it is easier to discover deeper meaning and to discover something new every time.

The terza rima rhyme scheme passes new rhymes from one stanza to the next, creating a feeling of a forwarding motion. The forward motion follows Dante the character and Virgi’s journey through hell. Second, with its three-line stanzas reflects the groupings of three’s found throughout the poem. The number three is a stable number and is very important. There’s three people in one God, the Trinity, there are three beasts that Dante encounters, three heads of Satan, three women sent Virgil to lead Dante, three major gods, Jupiter (Zeus), Neptune (Poseidon), and Pluto (Hades). The Inferno is even apart of a trilogy.

When looking at the Inferno, readers can discover that the number three appears often, or referenced. There are nine circles of Hell which is three times three, three giants mentioned, three people in each circle that Dante talks too and more. The terza rima rhyme flow makes it easier for readers to follow how sinners can go from the sins of the wolf to the sins of the leopard. The first three circles are the sins of the wolf, the middle circles are the sins of the lion, and the last three are the sins of the leopard.

The numerous mentions to the number three are only a small part of the intricacy and structure of Dante’s plan. While holding to the terza rima, Dante incorporates figurative language throughout. For example, a simile in Canto XXI line twenty-one, “which swelled and sank, like breathing, through all the pit” (Ciardi Canto XXI l. 19). Personification in Canto XXII lines seven and eight, “I have seen columns of foragers, shocks of tourney, and running of tilts” (Ciardi Canto XXII l. 7). Alliteration in Canto XXII line eighty-one to eighty-five, “It was the shade of Friar Gomita of Gallura, the crooked stem of every Fraud.” (Ciardi Canto XXII l. 81).

Using figurative language in a terza rima rhyme scheme seems difficult, but Dante accomplished it, and he had invented the style. His unique style of writing made an impact on the world of poetry. Still, the Inferno is a classic book and one to remember. The unique way of the structure and the way it reaches to everyone is commemorable. Dante uses contrapassos and in hell the reprehensible, at least those who deserve punishment.

In conclusion, Palma’s translation of the infamous Inferno is easier to read than the Ciardi translation of the poem. Palma holds to the third rhyme scheme and is still able to hold to the uses of figurative language and intricacies of the original. Ciardi’s work is good to read if looking for hidden messages. In both, people can perceive something different every time they read the poem. Maybe they have a sense of betrayal behind the words, or anger. In thirty-four cantos, Dante expresses his feelings towards the Catholic Church and its leaders fully. He doesn’t state his anger clearly, but the mentions and nods to the supposed leaders of the Church are in hell for sins they committed though they claim to be full Catholic believers.


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