Impossible Italian: Dante Alighieri

The Impossible Translations of Italian language. In focus is Dante Alighieri

Practice your Italian with the video: The Impossible Translations of Italian language. In focus is Dante Alighieri


Translations are undoubtedly good and necessary in all the fields of modern human endeavors. And, they are especially important when the languages involved do not share the same alphabet. If not for translations, how else could we learn about the advances and discoveries that take place elsewhere on different parts of the Globe? They serve us well in areas such as the news media, politics, literature, and so on. 

After all, what is the best thing to have in relation to an original statement when you do not know the language that the author is using? It’s a good translation, indeed. Of course, this is a fact. There is no argument here… 

Well, almost no argument. For I am going to be utterly honest with you. There is something that makes me feel uneasy about translations and I cannot get around this feeling. It is a deep sense of dissatisfaction. In this video, I am going to try to kindly put this into words. And, that is what is coming up today, on SciPro Math.

When you blindly accept translations, as necessary as they are, you give up experiencing the spirit of the language that is used to say the statement in the first place. And I cringe when I hear how some important statements sound like after they have been translated. 

By no means, I am trying to say that translations are bad, on the contrary, most of them are very good, but, as good as they are, they do not do enough justice to the original work translated. Such is the case of the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. 

Warning! There is one notable caveat when speaking of translations, and that is: The Alphabet. If the languages do not have the same alphabet, then all bets are off, and you are totally reliant on transactions to express meaning. 

Now Roberto, what do you mean by the spirit of the language, that does not make much sense? Well, many languages are known to have certain characteristics. English is well-known to be a very precise language, French is famous for its formality, Italian has an enticing musical quality, while Spanish is a very passionate language. 

It could also be noted that, unfortunately, the great benefits and comforts that translations provide also come to us at the expense of not being able to develop the ability to learn other tongues. Too much of a good thing is bad and over relying on translation is one of them. We have become a bit complacent. And as a result, it is often the case that we no longer care much for learning foreign languages. 

We could even argue that our memory has become weaker as a result of not exercising the ability to learn another tongues. Not to mention, that the connection to ancestors of ours from other countries is no longer as important. And this is due to the loss of the foreign language that connected us to them, in the first place. 

Translations are often mutations of what the author meant to say. And to fully appreciate the goodness of a translation we must hear the original statement for us to somehow get a better picture of what the author intended to say. 

Considering all this, we must be cautious. For now, there is one thing worth remembering from this argument: I say be mindful of translations. Now, let’s go on to the topic of the day.


Hello, you, fellow humans. Roberto, here, at SciPro Math, a channel that covers Mathematics and Languages. First of all, I would like to wish you health, joy, and lots of blessings. And, thanks for joining us on this occasion.

Today’s topic is: the impossible translations of the Italian language. In focus is Dante Alighieri, the author that is widely considered the greatest Italian poet of all times. His masterpiece is called the Divine Comedy. A satire made up of 3 books: Inferno, Purgatorio, e Paradiso. 

We will take a first hand look at different fragments from this masterpiece. And, then, listen to some brief comments about their meaning. The purpose of this exercise is to rediscover the Divine Comedy in its original language, Italian, to develop an appreciation for how Dante really wanted us to read and understand the text.


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Intro to the Divine comedy:

Canto 1: 

First, I would like to share with you the introduction to Inferno Canto 1, from “The Divine Comedy”, by Dante Alighieri:

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 è cosa dura
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier rinova la paura!

Tant’è amara che poco è più morte;
ma per trattar del ben ch’i’ vi trovai,
dirò 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.

Ma poi ch’i’ fui al piè d’un colle giunto,
là dove terminava quella valle
che m’avea di paura il cor compunto,

guardai in alto, e vidi le sue spalle
vestite già de’ raggi del pianeta
che mena dritto altrui per ogne calle.


A lot gets lost in the translations of The Divine Comedy. The rhymes and rhythms of the Cantos are no longer there and the impact on the reader is not the same.

In the introduction, Dante describes, in what sounds like a fairy-tail, how he gets lost in a dense, dark, and dangerous forest, whose pathways seem to lead nowhere, sort of like a dream or a nightmare. And how no words could describe this creepy, frightening place. 

However, he mentions the incredible goodness he was able to find hiding there. Drowsy walking, he cannot tell how he entered the place. Now, traveling across a valley that scares him to his core, he then comes upon a hill illuminated by the planet whose rays less directly shine upon all of us and everywhere.

Canto 3: 

The warning sign at the door of Hell:

Next, another fragment from Inferno, from “The Divine Comedy”, by Dante Alighieri, in my opinion these are the most famous words ever said in the Italian language, I hope you appreciate it as much as I do, thank you:

Per me si va ne la città dolente
per me si va nel etterno dolore.
Per me si va tra la perduta gente

giustizia mosse il mio alto fattore.
Fecemi la divina podestate,
la somma sapienza e ‘l primo amore.

Dinanzi a me non fuor cose create
se non etterne, e io etterno duro.
Lasciate ogne speranza. O voi ch’intrate.


In this Canto, Dante, reads a sign displayed atop the door of Hell, City of Sorrow. The sign captures the essence of the idea of Hell, so prevalent in the Western World.  And It enumerates the reasons for its external existence and exalts justice as the ultimate factor. The sign then ends with a dire warning to those who dare to trespass the doors of Hell, saying: Abandon all hope. Ye who enter here.

Canto 31: 

Fragment from Purgatorio: A Beatrice: Next, I’d like to share with you a fragment of Purgatorio, Canto 31, From “the Divine Comedy” by Dante Alighieri, Requesting Beatrice’s attention:

“Volgi, Beatrice, volgi li occhi santi”,
era la sua canzone, “al tuo fedele
che, per vederti, ha mossi passi tanti!

Per grazia fa noi grazia che disvele
a lui la bocca tua, sì che discerna
la seconda bellezza che tu cele”.

O isplendor di viva luce etterna,
chi palido si fece sotto l’ombra
sì di Parnaso, o bevve in sua cisterna,

che non paresse aver la mente ingombra,
tentando a render te qual tu paresti
là dove armonizzando il ciel t’adombra,
quando ne l’aere aperto ti solvesti?


Here, Dante explains what he witnessed in the presence of the goddess: Beatrice. The servants first sang to get her attention, then begged her to turn her eyes towards them, and finally asked of her to reveal her beautiful, angelical voice. Then the speaker described the nature of her eternal beauty, and stated that only a fool would dare to try to make a portrait of her in all her splendor, well-knowing that she would swiftly fly and vanish floating in the air.

Canto 27: 

Fragment from Paradiso:

Next, I’d like to share with you a fragment of Paradiso, Canto 27, From “the Divine Comedy” by Dante Alighieri

’Al Padre, al Figlio, a lo Spirito Santo’,
cominciò, ’gloria!’, tutto ’l paradiso,
sì che m’inebrïava il dolce canto.

Ciò ch’io vedeva mi sembiava un riso
de l’universo; per che mia ebbrezza
intrava per l’udire e per lo viso.

Oh gioia! oh ineffabile allegrezza!
oh vita intègra d’amore e di pace!
oh sanza brama sicura ricchezza! 

Dinanzi a li occhi miei le quattro face
stavano accese, e quella che pria venne
incominciò a farsi più vivace,

e tal ne la sembianza sua divenne,
qual diverrebbe Giove (Iove), s’elli e Marte
fossero augelli e cambiassersi penne. 


In Canto 27, Dante explains life in Heaven as conceived in the Christian tradition. He begins by alluding to the Divine trinity “The Father, and Son and Holy Spirit”. Then goes on to describe Heaven as the smile of the universe, full of joy and happiness that could be seen and heard. He says that Paradise is a place that preserves love, peace and security as the greatest of all treasures. Conclusion: 


The Divine Comedy is an example of a text that cannot be fully translated to another language because, at the very least, the musical quality of the poem is lost in the process. Therefore, it is truly worthwhile to hear the original poem so that we can better connect to the text in Italian. Even if you do not fully understand.

If you decide to learn Italian, I think it would be a good idea to make a goal of yours to able read, or listen to the great works of Italian literature, in the original language, here are some suggestions: 

Books to read:

“Il Principe”, by Niccolò Machiavelli,

“Le adventure di Pinocchio, by Carlo Collodi,

“Decameron”, di Giovanni Boccaccio“,

I promessi sposi”, by Alessandro Manzoni,

“Il nome della rosa”, by Umberto Eco.

And many others

I hope you enjoyed the experience of listening to this episode of the impossible translations of the Italian language.

Until the next time,

Take care of yourself.

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