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The Inferno lines that went astray

April 8, 2013

Will the real John Ciardi translation please stand up?


Midway through our life’s journey I went astray
from the straight road and awoke to find myself
alone in a dark wood.


Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray
from the straight road and woke to find myself
along in a dark wood.


Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray
from the straight road and woke to find myself
alone in a dark wood.

Today, there are a number of internet reports (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here, for example, that quote the version 1 option above). It seems to be Ciardi’s, but is it? Well, we all knew it was supposed to be. For Slate’s blog “Brow Beat,” had already scooped the Mad Men episode 6 story way back in October of 2012, to ask, “Why Is Don Draper Reading The Inferno?” And she observed exactly which translation:

A few photos from the filming of the sixth season of Mad Men hit the web today, and one of them showed Don Draper indulging in a not-so-light beach read alongside his wife, Megan. The book? Dante’s The Inferno. The version in Don’s possession is John Ciardi’s English translation—specifically, the paperback version, which was first published in 1964. (The hardcover came out a decade before.) Ciardi’s version remains highly respected and is still in print. So why is Don reading it? And when?

Today, after watching the first episode, we can hear “Executive Producer Matthew Weiner and the cast discuss how the characters of Mad Men have changed from last season.” The video clip is here: So that may help us get some of the intended allusion to Dante in the tv series premiere episode of the season. We may get answers, or infer the answers, to Harris’s questions. But is version 1 quoted many different places in cyberspace today really the Ciardi?

Maybe it’s version 2 above. Version 2, as you can see, has a different preposition in the first line, and it adds a comma. Moreover, it has a different verb in the second line and an odd word in the third that sounds a little like a typo (i.e., “along” mistakenly typed for “alone”). Version 2 above is given by two different university professors, respectively. Each gives version 2 here as part of a compiled and a comparative list of various English translations of the opener of Dante’s Inferno, here and here.

And then there’s version 3. If you watched the episode of Mad Men (or if you do watch it), then this version is the one you hear Don Draper reading aloud as you watch him reading it on the beach silently. The cover of the paperback he’s holding proves it’s John Ciardi’s translation. And yet is what you hear the real Ciardi?

Easily, you should be able to use the Internet, a google search, or the download of an ebook, to find the correct answer. Or you could go to the library or the bookstore or your own collection of books. But, after researching a little, I think, you’ll not only be able to find the right Ciardi; you should also be able to see just how a few famous lines went astray.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. April 8, 2013 11:01 pm

    I’m not familiar with the TV series, but I thought it is was set in the 1950s (so how could he have a 1964 paperback).

    In any case, during the 1950s until the early 1970s, the Ciardi translation of Inferno must have been the hot new translation, competing directly with Dorothy Sayers. I imagine the other translations popular at that time would be by Laurence Binyon — and maybe Longfellow.

    You can see how the range of English translations of the Inferno (and the entire Divine Comedy) has grown dramatically over the last 60 years. We now have such high standards for translations of Dante that commentators now talk about the deficiencies of the Ciardi translation at length — although I would not say that Ciardi was a bad translation by any means.

    By the way, Longfellow and Sayers are still in print. Binyon translation is out of print, but readily available used.

    It is interesting to me that Penguin currently has three translations of Dante in print under it Penguin imprint: Sayers, Mark Musa, and Robin Kirkpatrick. (As I mentioned above, Penguin let Binyon go out of print.) I do not believe Penguin has this level of coverage of any other translated work (except, perhaps, the Bible — I know the Penguin imprint has published the Rieu, the NEB, and the KJV, although I believe only the KJV is in print currently.)

    (Under its Signet and NAL imprints Penguin has a fourth translation of Divine Comedy: Ciardi.)

  2. April 9, 2013 6:47 am

    Fascinating information about Penguin and its “level of coverage” of this translated work by Dante. Doesn’t Penguin also still have in print several different translations of Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey? Robert Fagles’s, E. V. Rieu’s, Martin Hammond’s, W. H. D. Rouse’s.

    Back to translations of The Inferno; one of my absolute favorites is Michael Palma’s, in English terza rima that really works and flows; Norton was not afraid to publish it, as the translator insisted, as a diglot, with Dante’s original Italian verse on the facing pages. (And subsequently Norton chose the Palma for its “Critical Editions” series.)

    Of course, Mad Men this week has started its new season in September of 1968. Don Draper at that point in time only had a few translations to choose from.

  3. April 9, 2013 10:04 am

    Kurk — yes, you are right — Penguin publishes Homer in different editions (I had forgot that it publishes Fagles under the Penguin imprint, since it also keeps those volumes in print in hardcover under the Vintage imprint.) Rouse, I believe, is published under the Signet imprint.

    This post was lots of fun; thanks for making it.

  4. April 9, 2013 10:54 am

    The poem “VIA” by Caroline Bergvall is a compilation of 47 different translations of the opening tercet of the Inferno, arranged alphabetically by word.
    There is also an audio discussion of the poem at

  5. April 10, 2013 7:09 am

    Thank you for sharing Bergvall’s compilation. (I wonder how she chose these but not others, the translations of Michael Palma and of Anthony Esolen for example). I did enjoy her reading and the subsequent discussion of it. (Am I the first to notice that she didn’t read that printed text verbatim? The ones discussing it are most impressed, rightly, by the repetitive form as an echo of and absolutely no escape from Dante’s verse.)

  6. April 10, 2013 7:33 am

    All I know is that the performance, done in 2000, predated the text publication by a few years–and also predated the two translations you mention.

  7. April 10, 2013 7:52 am

    That makes sense, Courtney. Thanks for clarifying.

  8. April 11, 2013 12:09 am

    Courtney, that was quite interesting. Thanks for sharing it!

  9. April 21, 2013 2:28 am

    Ouch! I just realized, the selva is Sylvia (Sylvia Rosen, the dark-haired Italian-American woman with whom Don goes astray.)
    Those clever Mad Men…

  10. April 21, 2013 7:56 am

    Good catch, Courtney! Matthew Weiner is clever; we’re not surprised he has an M.F.A. and an undergrad degree in which his major combines History, Philosophy, and Literature.

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