European studies blog

15 December 2021

Dante and Esperanto

Is Esperanto an artificial language? Yes, but neither more nor less than any other language spoken by humans. All languages are the result of an agreement between the members of a community – dating back to very distant times and evolving slowly and continuously from generation to generation – to communicate with each other by means of the voice.

Woodcut of Dante by the Hungarian artist Dezső Fáy

Woodcut of Dante by the Hungarian artist Dezső Fáy in Dante Alighieri, Infero, translated by Kálmán Kalocsay (Budapest, 1933). YF.2008.a.36795

Dante Alighieri, the great Florentine poet and author of the Divine Comedy, was aware of this distant origin of languages, connected to the multiform creativity of our remote ancestors. He recounts all this through the words of Adam, in Paradise, canto XXVI, verses 130-132:

Opera naturale è ch’uom favella;
ma così o così, natura lascia
poi fare a voi secondo che v’abbella.

Among the English translations of the poem, one of the most appreciated is that of Allen Mandelbaum (1926-2011), an American professor of literature. This has the advantage of being accessible online with Dante’s original Italian text alongside. Here is the tercet on the origin of languages, in Mandelbaum’s translation:

That man should speak at all is nature’s act,
but how you speak—in this tongue or in that—
she leaves to you and to your preference.

And what about Esperanto? Well, Esperanto was also ‘invented’, but that occurred much more recently than for any other language: Esperanto was created by Ludwik Zamenhof, a Polish ophthalmologist), who proposed it in a book published in 1887, as a possible international and ‘neutral’ language. Esperanto is also the result of an agreement among all those who accepted Zamenhof’s proposal and started to communicate in that language. Today Esperanto speakers are scattered all over the world and also transmit the language from generation to generation. There are probably about one million speakers.

Portrait of Zamenhof

Portrait of Zamenhof. Source: Wikimedia Commons 

Esperanto literature is particularly rich and has three different translations of the Divine Comedy. The British Library holds all of them. It is recognized that the best Esperanto translation is the most recent one: the complete version in terza rima written by Enrico Dondi (1935-2011), an Italian psychiatrist, and published in 2006. Here you can see the tercet on the origin of languages, in Dondi’s translation:

Por hom’ estas natura la parolo,
sed lasas la natur’, ke l’ manieron
oni elektu laŭ la propra volo.

Cover of La dia komedio. Infero

Cover of La dia komedio. Infero. Translated by Enrico Dondi (Chapecó, 2006). ZF.9.a.6610

Dondi’s Esperanto is an elegant language that has been gradually refined thanks to a literary tradition that has matured over the course of more than a century. Therefore, in this blog post we will follow a chronological order to illustrate how the language has gradually measured itself with the great Italian poem. And we will do that by considering the very famous opening lines of the Comedy:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

Verses that Mandelbaum translates as:

When I had journeyed half of our life’s way,
I found myself within a shadowed forest,
for I had lost the path that does not stray.

We owe the very first translation of the Divine Comedy into Esperanto to Giovanni Peterlongo (1856-1941), an Italian lawyer and civil servant, who lived in Trento. The town was under Austrian administration until 1918 and is now part of Italy. In 1922, Peterlongo was elected mayor of Trento and he spoke in favour of the use of both German and Italian in Alto Adige.

Page from Peterlongo’s translation of the Divine Comedy (Canto VIII) with a reproduction of a drawing by Sandro Botticelli

Page from Peterlongo’s translation of the Divine Comedy (Canto VIII) with a reproduction of a drawing by Sandro Botticelli (Milan, 1979). YF.2010.b.1079

Peterlongo’s blank verse translation of the Comedy was completed in 1914, when Esperanto was still a very young language. The work was later revised by him and was published only in 1963, with a reproduction of Sandro Botticelli’s drawings. The British Library holds a second edition.

Here you can see the first tercet:

En mezo de l’ vojaĝ’ de nia vivo
en arbareg’ malluma mi troviĝis,
ĉar mi de l’ rekta vojo forvojiĝis.

Kálmán Kalocsay (1891-1976) was a Hungarian doctor, and worked at a major Budapest hospital, but also was an outstanding Esperantist poet, who considerably influenced Esperanto culture, through original poetry and translations of literary works.

Cover of Dante Alighieri, Infero, translated by Kálmán Kalocsay

Cover of Dante Alighieri, Infero, translated by Kálmán Kalocsay (Budapest, 1933). YF.2008.a.36795

Kalocsay had learned Esperanto in 1913, the same year in which the Hungarian poet Mihály Babits (1883-1941) had published in Budapest a splendid translation of Inferno into Hungarian, in terza rima. Kalocsay was impressed by Babits’s work and decided to follow his example by translating Dante’s Inferno into Esperanto, in the same original metre. The work was published in Budapest in 1933 and includes 14 woodcuts by the Hungarian artist Dezső Fáy.

Woodcut 'Alta Helpo' by Dezső Fáy

Woodcut 'Alta Helpo' by Dezső Fáy in Kálmán Kalocsay’s translation of Inferno

Here is the freshness of Kálmán Kalocsay’s terza rima in the first tercet of his Esperanto Inferno:

Je l’ vojomez’ de nia vivo tera
mi trovis min en arbareg’ obskura,
ĉar perdiĝinta estis vojo vera.

Thus we arrive at the 21st century, when Dante studies in Esperanto culture find their most important figure in Enrico Dondi, who masterfully translated all of Dante’s poetical works into Esperanto, in the same metre as the originals. The entire Divine Comedy, whose terza rima flows with an unparalleled lightness, appeared in 2006, preceded in 2000 by an edition of Purgatory. The Vita Nuova (New Life) appeared in 2003, and in 2007 the youthful work Il Fiore (The Flower).

Finally, here is the first tercet of Enrico Dondi's Inferno:

En mezo de la voj’ de vivo nia
mi trovis min en arbareg’ obskura,
de l’ rekta voj’ estinte fordevia.

Giuliano Turone, Editor of Dante Poliglotta 

References and further reading

Dante Alighieri, La dia komedio, el la itala tradukis Enrico Dondi (Chapecó, 2006). ZF.9.a.6610

Dante Alighieri, La dia komedio, el la itala tradukis Giovanni Peterlongo (Milan, 1979). YF.2010.b.1079

Dante Alighieri, Infero, tradukis Kálmán Kalocsay (Budapest, 1933). YF.2008.a.36795

Dante Alighieri, Purgatorio, el la itala tradukis Enrico Dondi (Chapecó, 2000). YF.2010.b.116

Dante Alighieri, La floro, el la itala tradukis Enrico Dondi (Chapecó, 2007) YF.2008.a.12615

Dante Alighieri, Vivo nova, el la itala tradukis Enrico Dondi (Chapecó, 2009).YF.2009.a.26102.

Vittorio Russo, Danteskaj itineroj (Naples, 2001). YF.2009.a.37689.

.