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  • “Poscia, più che ‘l dolor, poté ‘l digiuno”: Translation and Interpretation in Inferno XXXIII
  • Julia M. Cozzarelli

Anyone who has read or taught Dante Alighieri’s Divina Commedia in translation has been faced with the vital question of which edition to select. This choice is not made easy by the great abundance of English editions of one of literature’s most translated texts. Although the profusion of translations, nearly all completed within the last two centuries,1 pales in comparison with the 700-year history of Italian editions, the texts vary tremendously in structure, style, and accuracy. Such differences reflect not only historical shifts of translation methodology and theory over time but also the individual translator’s understanding and interpretation of the original text. The choices that the translator makes can have a profound effect on the experience of the casual reader as well as the more committed student or scholar. The most dramatic example of the translator’s influence over Dante’s text is found, perhaps not surprisingly, in the famously controversial Inferno XXXIII, line 75: “Poscia, più che ‘l dolor, poté ‘l digiuno.” In this article, I examine a wide range of English renderings of this line and ponder their implications.2 The resulting exploration underscores the power of the translated word and its influence over not only the interpretation of the original text but also, perhaps more significantly, our ability to confront uncomfortable cultural realities.

The notoriously ambiguous line 75 concludes Count Ugolino’s account of his horrific death in what later became known as Pisa’s “Torre della fame.” In Dante’s Hell, Ugolino is bound by ice together with Archbishop Ruggieri, the man who had betrayed and then imprisoned him, causing his [End Page 151] death. Their bodies are frozen below the surface, merged into one rigid form, with heads exposed and Ugolino’s teeth eternally gnawing at the skull and nape of his captor’s neck. Ostensibly, Ugolino inhabits this circle of Hell for the sin of treachery, but his tale does not include the narration of this offense. Instead, Ugolino describes how he was locked into the tower with his sons and grandsons – who are represented by Dante as children although, historically, they were adults at the time – and eventually left to starve to death. This is one of the most memorable passages to any reader of the Inferno, with the suffering of the children vividly narrated and then followed by their macabre offer: telling their father to unmake them by stripping them of their flesh, to eat them in order to relieve his own pain. Ugolino did not act on their proposition, and one by one the children died of starvation. His condemned spirit relates how he alone remained, crawling over the bodies of his descendants in despair, concluding his tale with the verse, “Poscia, più che ‘l dolor, poté ‘l digiuno.” After uttering these words, Ugolino buries his teeth once again into his adversary’s skull.

What exactly does Ugolino mean by these words? Did Dante intend to say that although grief did not kill him, hunger did so? Or was he implying that hunger overcame the reticence of grief and sorrow, driving Ugolino to eat the flesh of his deceased offspring before he, himself, died? The controversy has raged for centuries, with strong and sometimes heated arguments on both sides.3 I will not attempt to give a definitive answer to this much-debated issue; my interest lies instead in the question of what the translators believed when they translated and/or commented upon the line and how their opinions may or may not be reflected in the end result.

The very first English text based on the Divina Commedia was, fittingly, Chaucer’s paraphrase of the Ugolino story in the “Monk’s Tale,” dating from c. 1370. Ugolino’s episode later became the most widely translated of the Commedia (Crisafulli 12), and he reappeared as a popular figure in many loosely translated fragments from the 18th century, reflecting the era’s fascination with the macabre (De Sua 9).4 Following the first translation of the entire Commedia by Henry Boyd in 1785, the floodgates opened and one translation...


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pp. 151-160
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