Triple–Rhyming in the Inferno

Is it worth the torture?

by Seth Zimmerman

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Dante's Comedy is propelled forward along three vectors: the action, the rhythm and the rhyme. The first is largely given, and the demand on the translator is to research its meaning and deliver it clearly. The second provides a metric continuity of hendecasyllabic verse. The third is a unique scheme, terza rima, in which the middle line of one three–line stanza, or tercet, sets the rhyme for the first and third lines of the next tercet. (LP test)

Any non–prose translation of the Comedy is, in some sense, achieved through a compromise between the second and third elements, the rhythm and the rhyme. My version relaxes the regimen of the original meter for the sake of adhering to the triple-rhyme scheme. This is not an arbitrary choice, nor a stubborn attempt to confront a nearly impossible rhyming challenge. Indeed, nothing would be more mistaken than to "imprint" onto the terza rima pattern, assuming, as some have done, that it must be duplicated just because it exists.

If we imagine Dante's tercets laid out horizontally, not vertically, we see that the kernel of each tercet splits into the peripheries of the next, so that a repetitively emergent burst of energy travels straight through each canto:

____              ____                    ____               ____                          
   ____              ____                   ____                ____
____              ____                    ____               ____                   

What we label a triple–rhyme scheme, and usually visualize as an interlocking geometric pattern, is merely the static outline of a dynamic thrust which carries us through the poem. The premise of this translation is that this thrust is fundamental and must not be sacrificed. Thus for this translator the "torture" is worth it. Indeed, the tension of constantly being involved in two demands for rhyme, each needing experimentation both forward and backward, stretches one into a general alertness, while the labor of achieving the rhyme puts one in perpetual sympathy with the exhausting journey of the protagonist.

The opening tercets of the very first canto can perhaps convey some of this, as well as demonstrate the concessions one is forced to make almost at once:



 1        In the middle of our life's way

             I found myself in a wood so dark

          That I couldn't tell where the straight path lay.


4        Oh how hard a thing it is to embark

             Upon the story of that savage wood,

          For the memory shudders me with fear so stark


7        That death itself is hardly a more bitter food;

             Yet whatever I observed there I'll convey,

          In order to tell what I found that was good.


Confronted at the outset with the demand for intricate rhyme, the translator's attitude may well parallel the confusion, regret and resolution of the first three tercets. If adhered to, this kind of congruency between the translator's internal dynamics and the dynamics of the poem can be a useful facilitator of sympathetic translation.

As for compromise, clearly the rhyme in line 7 is inexact. Yet the translation would suffer severely if, in order to satisfy an inflexible quest for perfect rhyme, the line – or even the entire tercet – were twisted in meaning or crippled in rhythm. Fortunately the spelling is parallel in the three rhyming words, and the visual match may soothe the sense of audible deficiency for the reader. For the translator, however, these early lines point to the double "torture" in store: first, that of having to attempt the triple–rhyme some fifteen hundred times, and second, that of having to accept the compromises attendant upon so many of these attempts.

The description of the three–headed monster, Cerberus, in Canto VI, offers an example of a well–defined challenge. While not itself to do with rhyme, it will introduce a new tool to deal with rhyming problems. Here is the original:



16       Li occhi ha vermigli, la barba unta e atra,

              E 'l ventre largo, e unghiate le mani;

           Graffia li spirti, scuoia ed isquatra.


19       Urlar li fa la pioggia come cani;

              De l'un de' lati fanno a l'altro schermo;

           Volgonsi spesso i miseri profani.


Line 16 goes well beyond eleven syllables, echoing with its verbal excess the beast's great belly, extra throats, and general monstrosity. In spite of this, the words are not visually overextended on the page, demonstrating the author's poetic control, and forecasting the tangible control which Virgil, Dante's guide, will soon exert. In translation:



16   His eyes are bloody, his belly that of a hog,

          His beard slobbered black; his clawed hands disembowel,

       Flay and rend the spirits in the bog


19   Into little pieces, leaving them to howl

          In pain, using one side of their bodies to screen

       The other from attack while they yelp and growl.


Initial attempts to emulate the original overloading spilled line 16 sloppily onto the level below, confusing the portrayal of crudity with a crude portrayal. Thus to convey the untamed sense which Dante emphasizes, the translation bloats line 17 slightly, but does something more pervasive as well. It begins the monster's vicious activity – quite awkwardly – in the middle of line 17, and from then on moves ahead without a semi–colon or period at the rhymes. This enjambement, or "overrun", removes any visual or aural pause which might occur at the end of the lines, and – still held within the framework of the now unaccented rhymes – induces a controlled sense of monstrosity.

This device of overrun has uses which are broader and more significant than the localized one we just saw in the depiction of Cerberus. Let's utilize Canto XXVI, one of the most famous in the Inferno, to study its use in combatting what might be called the "jingle" effect. By this is meant the sound of obvious rhymes sitting plumply at the ends of bouncy lines, such as the reader might produce with a childish rendition of "Mary had a little lamb..." or "Little Jack Horner..." First consider the opening lines of this canto, which in Italian end squarely and deliberately on the rhyme, accentuating the ironic celebration of the fame of Florence:



1        Godi, Fiorenza, poi che se' si grande,

             Che per mare e per terra batti l'ali,

          E per lo 'nferno tuo nome si spande!


The translation does the same, without inducing any sense of unwanted jingle:



1        Rejoice, Florence, for you are so great that you fan

             Your wings over sea and land, and your fame

          Spreads through hell's depth and span!


This has no pause at the end of the first line, but echoes "fan" with "land" as well as "and" in the second, and comes to a full stop at the end of the third. Although this might be an unnecessary refinement, it's nevertheless an attempt to retain the ironic rhyme without being too blatant. By contrast, consider the culmination of Ulysses' account in the canto's last thirteen lines, where the translation will use overrun as an "anti–jingle device":



130      Cinque volte racceso e tante casso

               Lo lume era de sotto dalla luna,

            Poi che 'ntrati eravam ne l' alto passo,


133      Quando n'apparve una montagna, bruna

               Per la distanza, e parvemi alta tanto

            Quanto veduta non avea alcuna.


136      Noi ci allegrammo, e tosto tornò in pianto;

               Chè della nova terra un turbo nacque,

            E percosse del legno il primo canto.


139      Tre volte il fè girar con tutte l'acque:

               Alla quarta levar la poppa in suso

            E la prora ire in giù, com' altrui piacque,


142      Infin che 'l mar fu sopra noi richiuso."


In the original, there are only four overruns (lines 130, 133, 134, and 140), whereas the translation requires – or at least makes use of – ten. Of the three non–overruns in the translation, two (134 and 140) culminate a middle line, where the rhyme is initiated and thus cannot yet "jingle", while the third ends the canto, where there must be a period:



130      Five times the light of the moon had surged

               And then diminished since we'd entered by

            That narrow pass; before us there emerged


133      A great mountain, dim in the distance, and so high

               That among all those I'd seen it seemed the tallest.

            My companions and I were elated, but as if to deny


136      Our joy there rose a violent, swirling tempest

               From the new land, battering the bow

            Of our boat while in despair we witnessed


139      Our doom at Another's pleasure.  Three times now

               Our vessel was whirled around in a watery spin;

            And the fourth time the stern lurched up, the prow


142      Plunged down, and above us the sea closed in."


Although Dante did use overrun for his own reasons, he had little need to employ it as an anti–jingle device. Italian carries so much natural rhyme – the number of its distinct vowel sounds being about one–eighth the number in English – that ending on a rhyme is not nearly so startling as it is in English. Indeed, an inadvertent rhyme in Italian conversation usually goes unnoticed. Because the original poem does often overrun, however, the translator can do the same with a clear conscience, even if his purposes differ from the poet's.

To get a general sense of the flow of triple–rhyme, with several of its compromises exhibited, let's look at the well known episode in Canto XXXIII in which Ugolino describes the death of his sons. The original is omitted:



37    "...................I awoke as daybreak neared

           And heard my sons weeping for bread

        As they slept beside me.  What my heart feared


40    Then was so grievous that your own heart would be dead

           With cruelty if you didn't already ache

        At the thought of it.  Indeed, if your eyes aren't red


43    With weeping now, what would ever make

           Them weep?  The hour at which they brought our meal

        Drew near, and all of my sons were now awake,


46    Agitated from their dreams.  I heard them seal

           The door to that horrible tower down below,

        And without a word I looked at the mute appeal


49    In the faces of my sons.  I did not weep, so

           Stony did I grow inside; but my sons did,

        And my little Anselmuccio wanted to know:


52    'Father, you look strange, what's wrong?'  I hid

           My feelings, shedding no tears and staying silent

        All day and all night until the dawning sun slid


55    A thin ray of light into our dismal compartment;

           In their faces I could see my own reflected

        Fourfold, and in anguish at our imprisonment


58    I bit into both my hands.  Believing that I acted

           Out of  hunger, my sons at once arose and drew

        Nearer to me, saying: 'Father, we'd be less afflicted


61    With pain if you'd feed on us; for it was you

           Who gave us this wretched flesh, and therefore

        You can take it away.'  Then I deliberately grew


64    Calm so as not to sadden them any more.

           That day and the next we said nothing at all;

        Oh hard earth!  Why did you not open up before


67    That fourth day, when Gaddo could merely crawl

           Toward my feet and cry: 'Why don't you help me,

        Father!'  He died right there, and I saw the others fall


70    During the fifth and sixth days, one by one, all three.

           By now I'd gone blind, and had begun

        Groping over the beloved bodies I couldn't see.


73    Though they were dead, I called out for two days to each son;

          But then grief was overcome by the power of hunger."  

        And with eyes contorted, his narrative now done,


76    He attacked the wretched skull with renewed anger,


Although the rhymes flow comfortably in a passage such as this, there is often a clipped quality in English rhyme compared with Italian, sometimes even a skimpiness. Because Italian words end in a vowel, rhymes are always two–syllabled, making them seem more ample. The very last syllable is all one can reasonably hope to rhyme in English, and when one manages more than this, such as the "ct" in lines 56, 58, and 60, or the "ng" in lines 74, 76, and the unprinted 78, one feels fortunate. A more common occurrence is the unexceptional rhyme of lines 53, 55, and 57, lines which have the added deficiency of imprecisely correlated accents, as do lines 62, 64, and 66. Once again, this is not a problem in Italian, and while one tries to make the accents correlate in translation, it is not always possible.


Having touched on overrun, visual rhyme and misaligned accent as devices for dealing with the difficulties of terza rima, let's look at a final device which might be called "blatant interpolation." It's fitting that the culminating rhyme of the last canto should be particularly torturesome – indeed, virtually impossible. Just as Dante and Virgil finally see the "bright world" above them, but have to emerge through one specific, tiny hole, so the translator sees the goal, but has to go through one particular rhyme, tighter than any other. Here is the original:



127      Luogo è là giù da Belzebu remoto

               Tanto quanto la tomba se distende,    

            Che non per vista, ma per suono e noto


130      D'un ruscelletto che quivi discende

               Per la buca d'un sasso, ch'elli ha roso,

            Col corso ch'elli avvolge, e poco pende.


133      Lo duca e io per quel cammino ascoso

               Intrammo a ritornar nel chiaro mondo;

            E sanza cura aver d'alcun riposo,


136      Salimmo sù, el primo e io secondo,

               Tanto ch'i' vidi delle cose belle

            Che porta 'l ciel, per un pertugio tondo;


139      E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle.


The last word is the challenge. Not only the Inferno, but also the Purgatorio and Paradiso end with this word, and clearly "stars" must be the final word of each. Yet any rhyme one can imagine for "stars" in line 137 seems far–fetched and distracting.

Once I'd found my own solution, I was curious to see how others had dealt with the problem. Two previous translations had used the word "cars" – in the sense of chariots – to end line 137, which does have some logic to it, but seems terribly disconcerting at this ultimate moment. The reader should not have to wonder what cars are doing in the sky. What this translation does is insert two items which, like cars, are admittedly not mentioned in the original, but which are appropriate enough in the physical circumstance to be unobtrusive. Further, they will themselves constitute two of the Heavens in the Paradiso, and therefore seem doubly fitting to be seen overhead by the travelers:



127    Somewhere below, at the farthest bound

             Of Beelzebub's tomb, there is a place

          Recognized not by sight but by sound;


130    One hears a stream winding through a space

             It has hollowed in rock and continues to erode

          In a gentle incline.  Vigorous of pace,


133    My guide and I entered that hidden road

             To reach the bright world once more,

          And with no thought of rest we strode


136    Ahead, he first, I following, as so often before,

             Until, through a round hole, I looked up toward Mars,

          Venus, and all the beautiful things in Heaven's store;


139    And we came out again to see the stars.


* Adapted from an essay in the Proceedings of the American Translators Association, 1993; by permission of Learned Information, Inc., Medford, NJ., and a later version in Metamorphoses, vol. 3, #1, Dec. 1994

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Chronology of Dante's Life and Time

Events of the time period appear in italics



1250   Emperor Frederick dies.  The first Popolo proclaims a constitution. 


1260   With the Battle of Monteperto on Sept. 4, Ghibelline dominance

          of Florence begins.


1265   Dante is born under the sign of Gemini.


1266   Dante is baptized on Holy Saturday, March 26, in the church of San



           The Battle of Benevento restores Guelph rule

           under the protection of Charles of Anjou.


1274   Dante meets Beatrice Portinari.


1277   Dante's father arranges his future marriage to Gemma Donati.


1283   Dante's father dies.


1289   Dante participates in the Battle of Campaldino, June 11, and is

          probably present at the taking of the Pisan castle at Caprona.


           The Guelphs of Florence defeat Arezzo and the Tuscan Ghibellines.


1290   Beatrice dies on June 8.


1293   Dante compiles the Vita nuova.      

           Pope Boniface is elected about this time


1294   Dante meets Charles Martel in Florence.


1295   Dante joins the guild of physicians and apothecaries on July 6 and

          engages in the political life of Florence.


1300   Dante is sent in May as a special envoy to San Gemignano.  On June 15

          he is elected one of the seven priors of Florence for a two month

          term.  In September the Pope excommunicates the priors, but Dante

          is spared as his term has expired.


           Boniface VIII proclaims a Jubilee year.


1302   As Charles of Valois approaches Florence, Dante is one

          of three envoys sent to Rome to negotiate with Boniface VIII.

          On January 27, while returning, he is exiled from Florence

          for two years by the ruling Black faction.  On March 10,

          having failed to appear and plead guilty, he is permanently

          exiled and condemned to be burned if he enters the territory.


1303   Dante's sons are condemned to follow him into exile at their

          fourteenth birthday.


1304   Dante works for three years on Convivioand De vulgari



           Petrarch is born.


1305   A French pope, Clement V, is elected.


1308   Henry of Luxemburg is elected emperor.


1309   The Papacy moves to Avignon.


1310   Dante writes his Epistle to Henry.


           Henry enters Italy.


1311   Dante is excluded from amnesty for many Whites.


1312   Dante writes   Monarchia about this time.


           Henry is crowned emperor.


1313    Henry dies.  Bocaccio is born.


1314   By now  Inferno and much of  Purgatorio has been

          completed.  Dante begins a six year stay at Verona under

          the protection of Can Grande della Scala.  He writes an epistle

          to the Italian Cardinals urging the return of the Papal See

          to Rome.


          Pope Clement dies.  No pope is elected for two years.


1315   Dante refuses Florence's offer to repeal his exile if he admits

           his guilt.  He begins  Paradiso.


1319   Dante moves to Ravenna.


1320   On January 20 Dante gives a lecture entitled   Quaestio de Aqua et

           Terra,in Verona.


1321   Dante dies at Ravenna on September 14.

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About the translator


Seth Zimmerman was introduced to the Comedy of Dante as a Dartmouth undergraduate by Professor Thomas Vance. He began this translation of the Inferno while residing in Florence, pursuing it through several revisions (see essay on triple-rhyme). Formerly a professor of mathematics at Evergreen Valley College, San Jose, California, his version of the Inferno is used there as a humanities text. Earlier versions of several cantos appeared in Willow Springs, Spoon River Poetry Review, Metamorphoses, Two Lines, RE:AL, Exchanges,and The Proceedings of the American Translators Association, 1993.

His translations of the later poems of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Spoon River Poetry Review, The Literary Review, Nimrod, RE:AL, Metamorphoses, Rattle, Rhino, The Carolina Quarterly, Blue Unicorn, Poetry International, Asheville Poetry Review, Tampa Review, Mobius, Circumference, Ars Interpres and Beacons. His mathematical and scientific papers have been published in The College Mathematics Journal, The American Mathematical Monthly, Mathematics Magazine, The Gazette of the Australian Mathematical Society, The International Journal of Mathematics Education, Human Evolution, and Physics Education.

You can contact him about this Inferno translation, about how you or your students can make use of this web site, or about the site itself, (for whose construction he is responsible), at .


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