Divine Comedy-I: Inferno

La Petit Mort: Dante and Mortality After The Lovers

The difference between death and dying can often seem minute. The dying are merely those on the way to death. Yet the intrinsic difference between the process of dying and the moment of death is one of great literary obsession, in particular in Dante’s The Inferno. Robert Pinsky’s otherwise transcendent translation makes a provocative error in translating the following line:

My pity

Overwhelmed me, and I felt myself go slack:

Swooning as in death, I fell like a dying body.

When in reality, the original Italian reads “as a dead body." This moment of frailty, realized after the interaction with the doomed lovers Paolo and Francesca, is entirely dependent on the word choice. If Dante falls like a “dead” body, then the lovers have made him realize his own mortality. By changing the word to “dying,” Pinsky implies that Dante is less aware of his own death.

Dante realizes that he is falling like a dead body, meaning that he is not exactly one. One cannot fall like oneself, like one’s state of being. The simile is in fact a state of removal; it suggests that Dante is so unlike a dead body that to compare the two makes for a memorable analogy. Rather, to point out that he falls almost as though he is dead only points out that he is...

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