An Interview with Robert M. Durling (April, 2011)

An Interview with Robert M. Durling

Robert Durling

Robert M. Durling is Professor Emeritus at University of California at Santa Cruz. He received his Ph D. from Harvard and taught at Haverford College, Cornell University, and University of California at Santa Cruz. He is most known for his incredibly detailed, accurate and literal translation and editing of Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy with Ronald L. Martinez.

Alex: When did you know you wanted to be a teacher?

Robert: I knew, as soon as I completed my undergraduate studies, during which I’d learned to measure my ignorance, that I wanted to go on studying and learning. The only way to do that was to prepare to be a teacher, so I did (by taking a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature). But until I actually began teaching, I had no idea what it would be like, let alone how hard one has to work.

Alex: What is your favorite thing about teaching?

Robert: Interacting with students, sharing their excitement at having fields of knowledge open up to them, and developing many friendships among them.

Alex: Did you learn Italian as a child?

Robert: No, I began studying Italian on my own at fifteen, with the goal of learning to sound like the great operatic baritone Ezio Pinza. It’s a wonderful language.

Alex: When did you become interested in Dante and the Divine Comedy?

Robert: As soon as one begins learning Italian, one is confronted with the importance of Dante in Italian culture. So I was reading Dante (the Vita nova and his lyric poetry) and a few other authors on my own as a freshman and sophomore in college. I was majoring in English with a minor in French, but in my senior year I took Charles Singleton’s year-long course on the Divine Comedy (conducted in English but read in Italian), and that literally changed my life. According to my rank in my graduating class, I received a fellowship for a year of study at a French university, and thanks to the kindness of my French professor, Jean Seznec, I was able to spend the year in Florence at the French Institute of Florence, where I spent my time reading as much of Italian literature as I could. As a graduate student, I vowed I’d never try to write on Shakespeare or Dante, because of the mountains of scholarship one has to plow through. I kept the vow about Shakespeare!

Alex: How does one make the decision to translate such a large body of work?

Robert: For me the decision was sudden and unexpected. I had taught the Divine Comedy in translation almost every year, and in the last year before I retired I read the translation I’d assigned as well as the Italian; I was appalled, and I found that I spent about twenty minutes of each class period pointing out what the Italian really meant. The next quarter, I was discussing the bad translations with a student, who said “We students all thought you should do a translation.” I started it that evening. Six weeks later I had a first (FIRST) draft of the translation. Then I had to figure out what to do!

Alex: How did you get involved with Ronald L. Martinez?

Robert: Ron Martinez was a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz, where I taught; he took my courses and we became close friends, partly because he was the most gifted student I’d ever had. He did his marvelous Ph.D. dissertation, on Dante and his Latin sources, with me, and in the 1980s we collaborated on a book about Dante’s “rime petrose,” poems about a woman as cold as a stone but as beautiful as a precious stone. So naturally, when I had a draft translation of the Comedy, I called Ron and proposed that he be the senior author of the notes. Thank goodness he accepted!

Alex: What was the dynamic of your relationship in working together?  How did you organize the work?

Robert: Initially , for every “cantica” (each third of the Comedy), we divided the cantos into odd and even, and arbitrarily assigned each of us one of the lists, to be the author of the notes for those cantos. Then the bargaining began. We were able to agree when either of us had a strong preference, and in most cases we ended up with each of us having a certain number of paired cantos. Ron got assigned 51 (out of the 100), and I only had to write notes for 49 of them. As we worked along, we were in frequent communication, reading each other’s work and making suggestions. It was great fun, though it did take a long time. Email helped a lot.

Alex: Was there a specific schedule you kept to with goals and deadlines?

Robert: No. I was retired, so had lots of free time, but Ron eventually became the chair of the Italian department at Brown and was teaching full time. We each had other responsibilities, too. The work got done when it got done!

Alex: Did you know it was going to take as long as it did?

Robert: No. I never dreamed it would take almost a quarter of my life so far!

Alex: After completing the entire trilogy, what do you hope readers get out of reading your translations?

Robert: First, a better idea of Dante’s greatness as a poet and as a human being. We hope to clear the air of the hagiographic fumes that imagine he actually did voyage to the other world, as opposed to making it all up on the basis of his extensive reading and his thinking. He was a great imaginer and a great poet, not a mystic but a human being with a special love of, and gift for, his native language. We try to indicate also the limitations on his knowledge and understanding–we don’t think he was always right, by any means.

Alex: Would you say your work is now done with the Divine Comedy, or is there more to be done, and if so what?

Robert: No sooner did I get the first copies of the Paradiso, than I thought of things that I ought to have said in the book! So I’m still writing about Dante, and I’ve begun to get interested in his popular status, which is unlike any other writer’s. As for other projects, I’d like to translate the Aeneid.

Alex: Would you say that your translation is the closest to the original medieval Italian, or how does yours differ from other translations?

Robert: Yes, I’m confident that it’s more faithful than any other English translations (except for a few goofs; I have a list of corrections that I’ll be glad to email to any of your readers who wish to receive it: they should email me at The notes are an integral part of our work, too, and I believe there are more new ideas (and sound ones) in our volumes than in most others.

Alex: What do you like to do in your spare time?

Robert: Play and listen to music, be with my children and grandchildren, and read interesting books in as many languages as I can navigate.

Alex: Who do you like to read for fun?

Robert: I particularly like to read history, historical novels, and historical mysteries. Bruce Alexander’s wonderful series  of mysteries starring Sir John Fielding are particular favorites (one should start with the first, Blind Justice). Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s series Las Aventuras del Capitàn Alatriste is tremendous fun. Another great favorite is Proust.

Alex: Where do you think The Divine Comedy stands as a body of work in the history of the written word?

Robert: At the top. Fortunately there are hundreds of great writers, from all the ages of human history, but Dante’s linguistic and imaginative power is unique. He summons up a whole universe of thought and feeling in an original and unforgettable way. And his analyses of what’s wrong with the world hold up very well, although his remedies are no longer acceptable–no one today would choose to go back to his world. But we need to learn about it, because it’s where our civilization came from. As the Italian poet Carducci expressed it; “Jove dies, but the hymn of the poet lives on.”

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