Dante’s Champion: An Interview with Robert M. Durling

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.

In the interview, Durling talks about what he likes most about teaching, how he learned Italian, why he decided to translate The Divine Comedy, and more importantly how. He also reveals what he likes to do in his spare time, who he likes to read, and whether he’s done with Dante’s opus.

To read the interview, click here, or the photo or title above. To read reviews, click on the book covers below.

Inferno Purgatorio Paradiso

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 robert.durling@gmail.com). 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.”

“The Divine Comedy, Volume 3: Paradiso” by Dante Alighieri, translated by Robert M. Durling, with Ronald L. Martinez (Oxford University Press, 2011)

Part Three of Three


Released in hardcover in January of 2011, Robert M. Durling and Ronald L. Martinez present their translation and editing of the final volume in the epic trilogy of Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, with Paradiso.  After the success of the first two volumes – Inferno and Purgatorio – with readers and scholars alike, fans will now be able to complete their collection.

After reuniting with his love, Beatrice, Dante now travels with her through the heavenly spheres, experiencing “the state of blessed souls after death.”  With paradise depicted as a series of concentric heavenly spheres surrounding the earth, they consist of the planetary bodies: the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, then on to the Fixed Stars, the Primum Mobile, and finally the Empyrean.     Allegorically, this volume represents the soul’s ascent to God.  Like in the previous volumes, each of the heavenly spheres bears a title and important messages, in this case associated with the angelic hierarchy.  Dante continues with what he’s done previously, providing historical setting and characters based on real people, along with an important lesson to be learned with each sphere reached.

In the introduction, Durling discusses when the text was likely written, exploring the setting for it, as well as investigating a number of interpretive issues surrounding Paradiso, the possible meaning behind the allegories, and what this volume represented in Dante’s complete body of work.  Again done in this preferred and beneficial bilingual edition, readers can enjoy the full translation, as well as the original fourteenth-century Italian, as it is revealed what a talented writer Dante truly was, making it clear why The Divine Comedy is revered as such an important piece of work with that of Shakespeare and Chaucer.  Notes at the end of each canto provide commentary and details that help the reader follow the text with full understanding and comprehension.  At the end is included Boethius’s famous cosmological poem that ends the third book of his Consolation of Philosophy, which bore a strong influence on Dante and his work, along with a translation and commentary.  The additional notes include discussions of myths, symbols, and themes that all play a part in the three volumes.  This comprehensive index includes Proper Names Discussed in the Notes, Passages Cited in the Notes, Words Discussed in the Notes, and an Index of Proper Names used in the text and translation.  Robert Turner’s illustrations, as with the previous volumes, again help to illustrate the text in a poignant and unique way, especially with his depiction of the heavenly spheres.

This concluding volume of The Divine Comedy completes one of the most important translations of the current era, with its crucial accuracy, extensive and comprehensive notations and explorations, as well as its thorough effort in being the most important translation of Dante’s opus, making it available and so readable to any person who is interested in the work.  The covers alone will capture anyone’s eye, and as they begin to read the incredibly beautiful, powerful, descriptive words of Dante, they will be swept away to this unique world, just as Tolkien did with his Lord of the Rings.

CLICK HERE to purchase your copy from Bookshop Santa Cruz and help support BookBanter.

Originally written on April 10, 2011 ©Alex C. Telander.

“The Divine Comedy, Volume 2: Purgatorio” by Dante Alighieri, translated by Robert M. Durling, with Ronald L. Martinez (Oxford University Press, 2004)

Part Two of Three


In the second volume of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Purgatorio, Dante continues his journey from hell into purgatory, continuing to be guided by the skilled hand and mind of Virgil.  Dante must climb up the Mount of Purgatory, beginning at the bottom with Ante-Purgatory, then the seven terraces – seven levels of suffering and spiritual growth – as associated with the seven deadly sins; at the very top is Earthly paradise.  Just as in the first volume, Inferno, Dante continues to discuss politics and the Church in general, as well as relating to his own experiences during the writing of the Divine Comedy in the fourteenth century.  Familiar characters in Dante’s life again play a part, as he makes his intentions of them all too clear.  It is in this volume that Dante is reunited with his long-lost love, Beatrice.

In this shorter introduction, Robert M. Durling and Ronald L. Martinez go into some detail on when this second volume was likely begun, how and when it was exactly written and how Dante was influenced by events and happenings in his life in the writing of it.  Just as with the first volume, detailed notes are provided at the end of each canto, explaining locations, historical references, and short biographies on the people mentioned and what relevance they had to Dante.  With these priceless details, any reader can pick up this translation of the Divine Comedy, and not feel lost or overloaded by all the historical setting, peoples and details, but are skillfully guided along Dante’s unique journey.

At the end of the text are further detailed notes and fifteen short essays covering Dante’s political views, his respect and use of Virgil and Ovid, his original conceptions of homosexuality, and on moral growth, to name a few.  Durling and Martinez also explore similarities and possible linkages with the three volumes in analyzing similar cantos, their possible relations to each other, as well as the numbering system used in each volume.  At the end is a bibliography and extensive index, allowing the reader to travel about the text freely and with little hindrance.

With this second volume, Durling continues what he began with Inferno, keeping the reader hooked with this accurate translation, along with the original Italian on the left-hand page, as Dante’s true skill as a storyteller and descriptive writer are brought to light as never before.

CLICK HERE to purchase your copy from Bookshop Santa Cruz and help support BookBanter.

Originally written on April 10, 2011 ©Alex C. Telander.

“The Divine Comedy, Volume 1: Inferno” by Dante Alighieri, translated by Robert M. Durling, with Ronald L. Martinez (Oxford University Press, 1997)

Part One of Three


The Divine Comedy is seen as one of the seminal works in the history of the written word, up there with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and the works of William Shakespeare.  Not just an interesting story, the work is also filled with many characters based on actual people, as well as events and references to actual happenings.  Originally written in the fourteenth century by Durante degli Alighieri, a nobleman who was very opinionated and involved in Italian politics of the time; in his Divine Comedy, he deals with politics, religion, and much more, but was not above letting readers know how he felt about certain people.  The key then to reading, understanding and enjoying this work is really in the translation and editing.

In the lengthy introduction, Robert M. Durling – professor emeritus from the University of California at Santa Cruz – along with Ronald L. Martinez do a great job of introducing the reader to this historical and important work, dividing it up with the biography of Dante, when he likely wrote The Divine Comedy, what Durling hoped to achieve with this translation, as well as what Dante sought to achieve as a writer and a poet in medieval Italy.  The epic poem, spanning three volumes, helped create and cement the Tuscan dialect, written in terza rima, which is hendecasyllabic or lines of eleven syllables, divided into cantos.

Inferno is the most popular of the three volumes, mainly because of its content featuring graphic descriptions of the nine circles of hell, as Dante paints vivid pictures with words of what those suffering in these respective levels are experiencing.  The story is of Dante himself traveling through hell, guided by Virgil.  Along the way he meets many people he recognizes, whether they be renowned people throughout history, or local Italians or people of Europe that Dante himself has known in his lifetime.

This translation does a great job of keeping things easy and user-friendly for the reader.  It is a bilingual edition, featuring the original medieval Italian on the left-hand side, and Durling’s English translation on the right.  Those who have some grasp of the Romance Languages will often be able to glance over the Italian and pick out certain words and phrasings, comprehending Dante’s original words and descriptions.  There’s also a detailed picture of all nine circles by Robert Turner, as well as further illustrations throughout the text.  It is filled with endnotes for each canto, further expanded notes and an index; so whether you’re well versed in Italian medieval literature, or someone wanting to read this renowned work for the first time, Durling’s translation of The Divine Comedy, Volume 1: Inferno is an excellent starting point that will quickly draw you into the unforgettable world that Dante created over six hundred years ago.

CLICK HERE to purchase your copy from Bookshop Santa Cruz and help support BookBanter.

Originally written on April 10, 2011 ©Alex C. Telander.