Inferno: Canto I

The following is an excerpt from my translation of Dante's Inferno in terza rima, the rhyme scheme of the original Italian poem.

Doré, Dark Wood
The Dark Wood, by Gustave Doré

            In the middle of the journey of our life
            I found myself again in a dark forest,
            for I had lost the pathway straight and right.

4          Ah how hard it is to describe, this forest
            savage and rough and overwhelming, for
            to think of it renews my fear before it!

7          It is so bitter, death is little more;
            but to discuss the good I found, I’ll say
            the other things I witnessed there before.

10        How I got there, I cannot rightly say,
            I was so full of sleep at that point still
            at which I had abandoned the true way.

13        But where that valley ended which had filled          
            my heart with fear, I came upon a slope;
            and standing at the bottom of that hill,

16        I looked on high, and saw its shoulders clothed
            already in that planet’s rays of light
            that yet leads others straight on every road.

19        My fear was calmed a little at the sight,
            though the lake within my heart endured the dread
            while I’d passed with such pity through the night.

22        And as a man, who with exhausted breath
            emerges from the sea onto the shore,
            turns to the dangerous waters he has left,

25        so, as it fled away, my mind once more
            turned back to look again upon the pass
            that no one living ever left before.

28        I paused my weary body to relax,
            then took the way along the desert slope,
            the firm foot always lower on the path.

31        And behold, just where the hill begins to slope,
            a leopard light and lithe and very fast,
            and covered over with a spotted coat;

34        she did not leave before my face, but had
            my journey so impeded as I climbed,
            that most times I was turned and driven back.

37        The beginning of the morning was the time,
            and the sun was mounting upwards with those stars
            that had been with it when the Love divine

40        had first moved those beautiful things afar;
            so that, despite the beast with the dappled coat,
            the hour of time and the sweet season are

43        occasion nonetheless to have good hope;
            but not so much that I was not afraid
            when there appeared a lion on the slope.

46        Against me he appeared to make his way,
            with his head high and with furious hunger,
            so that the air itself appeared to quake.

49        And then a wolf, who seemed to be encumbered
            with every craving, looking lean and light,
            and she’s made wretched lives for many others—

52        with the fear that issued from her very sight,
            she put upon me such a heavy strain
            that I lost hope of getting to the height.

55        And as is he who willfully makes gains,
            and the time comes that causes him to lose,
            who weeps in all his thoughts and grieves with pain;

58        so then that peaceless beast had made me too,
            who, moving towards me, little by little came
            to drive me back to where the sun is mute.

61        And then before my eyes a figure came,
            as I was falling to a lower place,
            who through the long silence seemed soft and faint.

64        When I saw him in the great deserted waste,
            “Have mercy on me,” I cried through the expanse,
            “whatever you may be, a man or shade!”

67        He said: “No man, yet once I was a man,
            and both my parents were Lombards, and they
            were Mantuan by their native fatherland.

70        I was born sub Julio, though it was late,
            and lived in Rome under good Augustus’ reign
            in the time when the false and lying gods were praised.

73        I was a poet, and it was I who sang
            of Anchises’ righteous son, who came from Troy
            after proud Ilium went up in flames.

76        But why do you turn back, just to rejoin
            such trouble? why not climb the lovely mountain
            which is the start and cause of every joy?”

79        “Then are you that same Virgil and that fountain
            who spills out speech in such a fluent brook?”
            I answered him with shame upon my brow, then.

82        “O light and honor of the poets, look—
            may the long study and the great love garner
            your favor, which have made me search your book.

85        You are my master and you are my author;
            you are alone the one from whom I take
            the beautiful style that has brought me honor.

88        You see the beast for which I turn away;
            help me to get beyond her, famous sage,
            for she has made my veins and pulses quake.”

91        “There is another path that you must take,”
            he answered when he saw me shedding tears,
            “if you want to survive this savage place;

94        for this beast, for which you’ve cried out in tears,
            allows no one to pass across her path,
            but so impedes him that it kills him here;

97        and has a nature so wicked and bad,
            that never will she glut her greedy will,
            but has more hunger after her repast.

100      She weds with many creatures, and she still
            will breed with more, until the greyhound first
            arrives, who painfully will have her killed.

103      He will not feed on pewter nor on earth,
            but on wisdom, love and virtue, and soon
            between felt and felt will be his nation’s birth.

106      For that lowly Italy he’ll be a boon
            for which the virgin Camilla is deceased,
            and Euryalus, Turnus and Nisus died of wounds.

109      Through every city will he hunt the beast,
            until he sends her back to the Inferno,
            there where by envy she was first released.

112      It’s best if you, as I think and discern, will
            now follow me, and I will be your guide,
            and I will bring you through a place eternal,

115      where you will hear the hopeless desperate cries,
            and you will see the ancient spirits suffer,
            who scream and beg for second deaths to die;

118      and you’ll see those who are content to suffer
            in fire, because they hope that they will reach,
            whenever it may be, those blessed others.

121      If you’ll then want to climb as high as these,
            there is a soul much worthier than I:
            with her I’ll leave you, when I take my leave;

124      because that Emperor who reigns on high,
            since I rebelled against His law, declares
            that in His city, through me, none arrive.

127      From there He rules, and governs everywhere;
            there is His city, and there the high seat:
            oh happy, those He chooses to be there!”

130      And I to him: “Poet, I ask you please
            by that same God whom you had never known,
            so I from this evil and worse may flee,

133      to lead me to the place of which you spoke,
            that I might see the gateway of Saint Peter
            and those whom you make out to be so low.”

136      Then he moved on, and I kept after the leader.


  1. Hi, I really like what you did with this canto. The oral flow is there and the overall meaning, though at times difficult to follow in other translations, is easily followed in yours. I collect translations of Dante and have read quite a few, some of the better terza rima translations to check out (if you haven't already) are by Sibbald, Plumptre, and Haselfoot. So my compliment comes with a bit of background knowledge. Further, I am also working on my own terza rima translation (I am on canto 7 at the moment). Two questions, if you don't mind, when was this written and when will it be published? Again, great job and thank you! Russell

  2. Thank you! It's great to hear such a compliment from a fellow translator. I haven't read the translations you mentioned, but I will definitely check them out. Are they older? I think I have most of the more modern translations (Ciardi and onwards).

    I wrote the first draft of this canto in 2010. That early version bears little resemblance to this one, though. I think I finished the first draft of Inferno in 2014 and began rewriting immediately, so the revised version would have been done in 2014 or early 2015. I'm now working on notes and extra material for the book, but I hope to be published in 2021 (no set date yet).

    Congratulations on your own translation! Terza rima is not easy. But it has been very fun and fulfilling to write. I'd love to read some of yours if you ever feel like sharing it. Thanks for getting in touch with me.

    J. Simon Harris

  3. Hi again, thank you for your candid and quick response. I have been compiling a bibliographical list of English translations, first one was 1782 by the way, most recent was released either Dec 2020, or Jan 2021, Alasdair Gray's Paradise, can't remember off the top of my head. There have been over 100 translations, add to that random cantos and that would easily double. I would be happy to share a canto or so, but I would rather email it then post it here. Let me know if you are still interested. Here is a link to one of the Medieval Romances I have translated. It is just an excerpt.
    Peace, Russell

  4. Hi Russell,

    I apologize for taking so long to reply. I read the excerpt of King Horn you translated. It's tough to render such short lines faithfully while holding to the rhyme scheme; I think you did a great job. Have you published the whole translation? Send me a link, if so.

    As for Dante, if you still want to share a canto of your work with me, you could email it to (I use that address specifically for author correspondence; I don't check it as often as my personal address, but I don't want to post that here). I will happily read anything you want to send. Looking forward to hearing back from you.

    J. Simon Harris

  5. Re-sent my email from May 19th. I am sure it is buried by now. Yes, Podcast is great! Though I only recently discovered it. I'm running with Dante to catch up! Peace, Russell

  6. Hey Russell,

    Thanks for resending your email; I'm sorry it fell through the cracks. I just sent you a response. I love reading other translators' takes on Dante. I was impressed by your decision to use exact rhymes! I'll be first in line to get yours when it comes out.

    Also, yeah, the Walking With Dante podcast is amazing. I'm glad people are discovering it. I think new episodes are supposed to start coming again next week.

    Please keep me updated regarding your various writing projects (Inferno, King Horn, and the compilation of Inferno opening tercets).

    J. Simon Harris