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"Poscia, piu che 'l dolor, pote 'l digiuno": translation and interpretation in Inferno XXXIII.

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, piu che 'l dolor, pote '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 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, piu che 'l dolor, pote '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 followed another, among them the first American version, published by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1867.

Readers of a translated work often assume that the translator's role is to transmit an original text as faithfully as possible and that his or her voice will be hidden in the work. If this were true, the translations of line 75 would differ primarily due to structure and style decisions addressing the challenges of rendering an epic poem written in terza rima. In my research, I examined over 60 English translations, and, in reality, what often had a greater impact was the viewpoint of the translator on the interpretation of Ugolino's actions and the cannibalism question.

Throughout the 19th and early 20th century, line 75 was translated in a variety of ways, typically without any commentary. Without notes, we cannot determine the translators' thoughts or even if they were aware of the cannibalism debate although it had been raging for centuries in Italian. There were also critical editions published in the same period although their notes and/or commentary usually only briefly outline the scene's historical context, simply explaining that Ugolino and his progeny were left to starve in the tower. Those that fall into this category include the first American translation of the full Commedia, whose line 75 reads: "Then hunger did what sorrow could not do" (Longfellow, in 1867).

None of these translations gives us a definite understanding of the translator's position on the cannibalism question although their phrasing does not exclude the idea. But other translators take pains to express their views through their comments. (5) For example, William Rossetti translated the line in 1865 as "Then fasting more availed than sorrowing," but he follows it up with this remarkable note:

I see no rational ground for supposing, with several of the commentators, that this means that Ugolino ate the flesh of his dead children or grandchildren, or anything beyond that, though grief did not kill him, hunger did. Indeed, the fact that he was found dead on the ninth day of his fast is scarcely perhaps compatible with the idea of this horrid repast [...]

The translator's interpretation is clear, as is his disgust at the idea of cannibalism. This reflects the fact that cannibalism is a deeply rooted cultural taboo, and even the mere thought of the act can trigger a primitive revulsion. Our reticence at facing cannibalism is evident through centuries of literature, and is so strong that even authors who did not shrink from portrayals of horrific violence resisted addressing cannibalism directly, resorting instead to metaphor and allusion (Rawson 8).

Putting aside the question of how Dante himself approached the taboo of cannibalism, the reticence described above can be very clear in the work of his translators. Some of them evade the issue altogether in their commentary, yet they translate the line in such a way as to leave no doubt about their position, which is usually staunchly anti-cannibal. This is despite the fact that translators in this period saw themselves as agents of a faithful and literal transmission of the text (De Sua 44, 82). Examples include:

"Then famine silenced my grief by death" (O'Donnell, in 1852) "till famine, more severe/ Than grief itself, and more alert to kill, / In three days more concluded my career" (Whyte, in 1859) "And fasting killed me before grief could kill" (Shaw, in 1914)

Of particular interest are the early critical translations that were most widely read, as they would have had the greatest impact on students and scholars of Dante. The standard English version of the Divina Commedia for most of the 19th century was that of Henry Francis Cary, first published in 1806. (6) Cary translated the line as "Then fasting got/ The mastery of grief." Cary's edition has very little to no commentary, providing only a brief historical outline. But what makes this version especially significant is not the translation itself, which as worded is open to interpretation, but the reaction to it. In the 1897 edition of Cary's translation, Oscar Kuhns added his own commentary to the line, saying:

This translation seems to indicate that Ugolino, overcome by fasting, devoured the flesh of his own children, an interpretation which Scartazzini discards as untenable. The meaning is simply that hunger killed him, what mere sorrow had not done.

Kuhns is betraying his own aversion to the cannibalistic interpretation, and is careful to dispel this idea in his readers.

An even stronger revision was made to another very widely read edition of the text. The 1849 Carlyle translation, "Then fasting had more power than grief," included the translator's comment stating outright that the line could be interpreted either way. Carlyle wrote:

Many volumes have been written about verse 75. Does the piu pote ("was more powerful") indicate only that hunger killed Ugolino? Or that fasting overcame his senses, and made him die eating as his poor children had invited? The words admit of either meaning [...]

This rare admission, for the period, of the possibility of a cannibalistic reading did not sit well with the next generation of commentators. In the Temple Classics release of Carlyle's translation, dating to 1900 and reprinted countless times over the next several decades, H. Oelsner simply eliminated Carlyle's original note and replaced it with his own, writing:

This verse has given rise to much controversy. The meaning obviously is, not that Ugolino was forced by the pangs of hunger to feed on the bodies, but that hunger brought about his death.

Once again, our writer is anxious to erase any possibility of a cannibalistic interpretation, even to the extent of ignoring the original translator's stance, and his language ("the meaning obviously is ...") reflects this sense of urgency. (7)

More subtle revisions also appeared in the 20th century. For example, Lawrence Binyon translated the line in 1933 as "Then fasting did what anguish could not do," to which Charles Grandgent later felt compelled to add his own unambiguous translation through the comment, "Hunger did more than grief could do: it caused my death" (1947).

This desire to avoid any "misinterpretation" of the line as implying cannibalism persisted. The 1954 John Ciardi translation, still readily available today, renders the line as "Then fasting overcame my grief and me," followed by the comment "i.e., He died." Some interpret the line to mean that Ugolino's hunger drove him to cannibalism but the fact is that cannibalism is the one major sin Dante does not assign a place to in Hell. So monstrous would it have seemed to him that he must certainly have established a special punishment for it. Certainly he could hardly have relegated it to an ambiguity. [...] Ciardi's stance cannot be misunderstood.

Since the mid-20th century, critical editions of Dante's text in English have proliferated, and nearly every critical edition addresses line 75. Interestingly, in the texts I reviewed, those who chose to translate the line using the verb "did" as in Sayers's 1949 rendition "Then famine did what sorrow could not do" typically express the opinion that this means, as Sayers writes simply, "i.e. kill him"--if they don't skip over the line entirely, avoiding any discussion of its content. (8) Some, within the last two decades in particular, use the same verb, but acknowledge in their notes that the cannibalistic interpretation exists and also has merit. (9) The widely read 1970 Singleton edition, too, renders the line as "Then fasting did more than grief had done." More interesting than the line itself is Singleton's note:

Some commentators have held the curious view that by this last line of Ugolino's narrative Dante meant to imply that the count, in the extremity of starvation, did actually attempt to prolong his life by feeding on the bodies of his sons [...] that "hunger" prevailed over "grief" in that sense. But such a view of the meaning here is hardly worth a serious rebuttal [...]

The translator's language not only makes his own views clear but also shames his readers for even considering the other, more repulsive, alternative. As Herzman writes, "The definitiveness of this statement, from such an eminent critic, makes holding the opposite opinion sound fearfully subversive" (54). In my own experience, strong statements such as this, and that of Ciardi, often have the opposite effect on students than that intended by their writers: ironically, the reader is inspired to explore the cannibalistic interpretation more seriously when the writer's revulsion is so vehement.

It seems only within the last few decades that English translations assert, at first with hesitation and later with greater courage, their translators' stance in support of the cannibalistic interpretation. Mark Musa cautiously supports the idea in the early editions of his translations (1971 and 1984), and then does so very strongly in his most recent (1996) edition, stating:

Almost all the early commentators agree [...] that this line refers to Ugolino's death--that hunger killed him as grief could not. Several more recent commentators, however (myself among them), see the line as meaning that hunger brought Ugolino to cannibalize his sons.

Musa's translation of the line is "Then hunger proved more powerful than grief." His not uncommon comparison of grief and hunger in terms of "power" or "strength" might be the version that correlates most strongly with those translators who lean towards the idea of cannibalism. Pinsky, for example, supports the same interpretation and renders the line as "And then hunger had more/ Power than even sorrow had over me." It is notable that, while this line began to be translated in a similar fashion in the decades before Musa's edition, all but one of the editions I found completely omitted any discussion of the line itself, an indication that the translators may have been acknowledging the possibility of cannibalism through their language but were uneasy about it. (10)

The recently renewed visibility of the cannibalistic reading might not be unexpected when seen in the context of a media-driven world inundated by sensational images, both real and fictional. The episode's morbid appeal is epitomized by a version that renders the text in unambiguous, and visual, terms. This is Seymour Chwast's 2010 adaptation, a contemporary blending of art and language in graphic novel format, a medium very appealing to contemporary readers. Chwast provides an illustration of the episode with the caption "when the sons died hungry, Ugolino ate their flesh" (57; artist's emphasis). Sometimes, the writer's view is impossible to misinterpret.

While all of these printed texts offer a fascinating review of line 75, today's students are much more likely to go to the Web than to the library to study Dante's work, bypassing printed translations to find a very limited number of digital versions. As a result, the online versions will undoubtedly exert a disproportionate influence over current and future generations of Dante's readers. The most prominent translations on sites that do not provide commentary are the 1867 Longfellow first American edition and the 1980 Mandelbaum translation, whose line 75 reads "then fasting had more force than grief." (11) The readers are left to ponder the line's meaning on their own.

But there is another major web presence: Robert Hollander's online text and commentary, based on a print edition dating from 2000. Ironically, this version is also the most prominent exception to the general correlation of the cannibalistic interpretation with the terminology of "power." Hollander's translation reads "Then fasting had more power than grief," and his commentary appears on both the Princeton and Dartmouth Dante Project sites, which were created under his guidance. These sites are the richest source for online commentary today. On both sites, Hollander provides a lengthy explanation of his opposition to the cannibalistic reading of line 75, including, "To most, the position represented by Herzman and others, mainly (in recent years) Americans, seems a not convincing interpretation. In Singleton's view, it is a 'curious view,' one 'hardly worth a serious rebuttal.'"

More fascinating is what is found on the Dartmouth site. Searching line 75 results in a long list of citations from centuries of commentaries, including that of John S. Carroll from 1904. Carroll provides a detailed note on the line, directly addressing the debate and giving more support to the cannibalism idea than most in his time although he labels the line as "ambiguous." (12) But appearing below his notes on the website is something I did not find when reading the other commentaries reproduced there: a bracketed note added, presumably by either Hollander or the other editor listed on the site, Andrew Shifflett

Against this interpretation Rev. H. F. Tozer says: "After eight days" fasting eating flesh is an impossibility, as a competent medical authority has definitely stated. Besides this, Buti, himself a Pisan, relates that after eight days--i.e. at the expiration of the time mentioned by Dante--the bodies were taken out dead, and he gives no hint of any of them having been mutilated.

This supplemental comment appears reactionary given the fact that the original note claimed neutrality. Of the 66 commentaries cited for this line on the website, why is this the only one that has such an addendum? And why is the "alternative view" not then provided in a bracketed comment below Tozer's argument? To a reader, it seems that the editor is attempting to ensure against the cannibalistic interpretation, even though the site is already awash in a sea of comments opposing the cannibalistic reading. (13) These efforts reflect the editor's aversion to the idea and signal that reticence towards cannibalism is still a cultural constant today. And it also makes the reader ask: how far should a translator or commentator go in order to ensure that their readers agree with their own interpretations? These comments and revisions are not very different from the changes and "corrections" that scribes once made to texts as they copied them. Those texts ultimately attained equal footing with, or surpassed, their originals. As translated texts do the same, we are left to wonder if cultural reticence will prevail, avoiding or even denying the repulsive possibility that Ugolino ate his offspring.


Bermann, Sandra. "In the Light of Translation: Dante and World Literature." Foundational Texts of World Literature. Ed. Dominique Jullien. New York: Peter Lang, 2011. 85-100. ProQuest. Web. 15 Feb. 2012.

Butler, Arthur John, ed. and trans. The Hell of Dante Alighieri. By Dante Alighieri. London: Macmillan, 1892.

Carlyle, John A., ed and trans. Dante's Divine Comedy: The Inferno: A Literal Prose Translation. By Dante Alighieri. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1849.

Cary, Henry Francis, ed. and trans. The Inferno of Dante Alighieri: Canto XVIII-XXXIV. By Dante Alighieri. London: James Carpenter, 1806.

Chipman, Warwick, trans., and Kenelm Foster, ed. The Inferno from La Divina Commedia. By Dante Alighieri. London: Oxford, 1961.

Chwast, Seymour. Dante's Divine Comedy Adapted by Seymour Chwast. New York: Blooms bury, 2010.

Ciardi, John. The Inferno. By Dante Alighieri. 1954. New York: Penguin Signet Classic, 2001. Crisafulli, Edoardo. The Vision of Dante: Cary's Translation of The Divine Comedy. Leics:

Troubador Publishing, 2003. Cunningham, Gilbert F. The Divine Comedy in English: A Critical Bibliography, 1782-1900.

New York: Barnes & Noble, 1967.

--. The Divine Comedy in English: A Critical Bibliography, 1901-1966. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1965.

Dante Alighieri--Biography and Works. Search Texts, Read Online. Discuss. The Literature Network. 2000-2013. Web. 19 Feb. 2013.

Dante On line. Societa Dantesca Italiana, n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2013.

Dante's Divine Comedy - Presented by ELF. The Electronic Literature Foundation, 19972012. Web. 15 Feb. 2013.

De Sua, William J. Dante into English: A Study of the Translation of the Divine Comedy in Britain and America. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1964.

Digital Dante Project--ILT. Institute for Learning Technologies at Columbia University, 199297. Web. 10 Mar. 2012.

Esolen, Anthony, trans. Inferno: A New Translation. By Dante Alighieri. New York: Random House (Modern Library), 2002.

Franceschini, Fabrizio. "Un'interpretazione strutturale di inf., XXXIII 75 nel primo ottocento (Giovanni Carmignani, 1826)." Rivista di Studi Danteschi 1.1 (2001): 128-46.

Gilbert, Allan, ed. and trans. Inferno. By Dante Alighieri. Durham: Duke UP, 1969.

Grandgent, C. H., ed. and Lawrence Binyon, trans. The Portable Dante. By Dante Alighieri. New York: Viking, 1947.

Herzman, Ronald B. "Cannibalism and Communion in Inferno XXXIII." Dante Studies. 98 (1980): 53-78.

Hollander, Robert, ed. Dartmouth Dante Project. Dartmouth College, 1982-2012. Web. 20 Feb. 2013.

Hollander, Robert, ed. "Ugolino's Supposed Cannibalism: A Bibliographical Note." Quaderni d'italianistica 6.1 (1985): 64-81.

Kuhns, Oscar, ed. and Henry F. Cary, trans. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. By Dante Alighieri. New York: T.Y. Crowell, 1897.

LibriVox>>The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. LibriVox, 20 Jan. 2007. Web. 20 Feb. 2012.

Lockert, Lacy, ed. and trans. The Inferno of Dante: Translated into English Terza Rima Verse. By Dante Alighieri. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1931.

Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth, trans. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri: Inferno. By Dante Alighieri. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1867.

Mandelbaum, Allen, trans. and Peter Armour, ed. The Divine Comedy. By Dante Alighieri. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Musa, Mark, ed. and trans. The Divine Comedy. By Dante Alighieri. 1996. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2004.

--. The Divine Comedy: Vol. 1: Inferno. By Dante Alighieri. 1971. New York: Penguin, 1984.

O'Donnell, E., trans. Translation of the Divina Commedia of Dante Alighieri. By Dante Alighieri. London: Thomas Richardson and Son, 1852.

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Pinsky, Robert, trans. and Nicole Pinsky, ed. The Inferno of Dante: A New Verse Translation. By Dante Alighieri. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994. The Princeton Dante Project (2.0). Princeton University, 1997-2011. Web. 5 Mar. 2012.

Raffel, Burton, trans. and Henry L. Carrigan, ed. The Divine Comedy. By Dante Alighieri. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 2010.

Rawson, Claude. "Unspeakable Rites: Cultural Reticence and the Cannibal Question." New School for Social Research 66.1 (Spring 1999): 167-93. Academic Search Premier. Web. 3 Mar. 2012.

Rossetti, William Michael, ed. and trans. The Comedy of Dante Allighieri: Part One: The Hell. By Dante Alighieri. London: Macmillan and Co, 1865.

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Shaw, E. M., trans. The Divine Comedy. By Dante Alighieri. London: Constable and Company, 1914.

Sinclair, John. D., ed. and trans. The Divine Comedy: Vol. 1: Inferno. By Dante Alighieri. 1939. New York: Oxford UP, 1961.

Singleton, Charles S., ed. and trans. The Divine Comedy: Inferno. By Dante Alighieri. 2 vols. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1970.

Sisson, C. H., trans. and David H. Higgins, ed. The Divine Comedy: A New Verse Translation. By Dante Alighieri. Chicago: Regnery Gateway, 1981.

Tinkler-Villani, Valeria. "Translation as a Metaphor for Salvation: Eighteenth Century English Versions of Dante's Commedia." Journal of Anglo-Italian Studies 1 (1991): 92-101.

Tozer, H. F., trans. Dante's Divina Commedia: Translated into English Prose. By Dante Alighieri. London: Oxford Clarendon, 1904.

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(1) See Bermann for a discussion of the reasons behind this surge in translations.

(2) I owe a large debt of gratitude to the impressive Fiske Dante Collection at the Cornell University Library.

(3) See Hollander's article "Ugolino's Supposed Cannibalism" for a summary, with table, illustrating the positions taken by critics through the 1980s; see Franceschini for an overview of an Italian debate on the topic in the early 19th century.

(4) See also Tinkler-Villani for a discussion of the Ugolino translations and their appeal as well as their frequent conflation with Dante.

(5) Tozer (1904) translates the line as "at last hunger did what sorrow could not do," with the comment, "i.e. caused his death." Although here his comment is concise, he elaborates more fully in opposition to the idea of cannibalism in a separately published commentary in 1901 (excerpts cited on Dartmouth Dante Project site).

(6) The work was so influential that many credit it with earning Dante a permanent place in the English-speaking world. See Crisafulli for a thorough discussion of the Cary translation.

(7) In my research, I found only one author from the 19th century that seems to have escaped a revision of his own "neutral" commentary. This is an 1892 edition, where Arthur Butler explains that the line has been read both ways, and he says, "To say, at all events, that this, or any other conception, is too horrible for Dante is obviously absurd, as the occupation which he assigns Ugolino in Hell [...] might show." But ultimately, Butler also leans towards the starvation interpretation, which may explain why his text was allowed to stand.

(8) Those that gloss over the line include Chipman and Foster (1961) and Palma (2002).

(9) Such translations include those by Esolen and Raffel.

(10) Sinclair goes beyond simple avoidance with "The story itself calls for little comment." Others who avoid notes on the line include Gilbert and the Sisson/Higgins edition. The exception is Lacy Lockert's 1931 version, "Then fasting was more powerful than grief," where cannibalism is openly admitted as a "ghastly alternative."

(11) Sites providing the Longfellow edition include those hosted by The Literature Network, and LibriVox, which has a link to Project Gutenberg. Longfellow's and Cary's versions are both available on ELF's site. The Mandelbaum edition is available on The World of Dante site and Dante On line, which identifies it as the "US" edition. Both the Longfellow and Mandelbaum versions are available through Columbia's Digital Dante site although the site is no longer up to date. While the online Mandelbaum versions are limited to the text only, the printed edition of the translation includes a note by Peter Armour that reads "starvation, not the extremity of grief, killed him. [...] this is unlikely to mean, as some critics have argued, that he began to eat the children's flesh." While Armour's view is clear, that of the translator is not although his language certainly allows for the opposite interpretation.

(12) Carroll writes, "'Then fasting had more power than grief.' This last line is so ambiguous that it has become a battlefield of commentators. It certainly may mean nothing more than that Ugolino died of hunger, not of grief; nevertheless the idea is not to be dismissed too lightly that the delirium of starvation overcame the father's anguish, and that he died devouring the dead bodies of his own children. If this is Dante's meaning, it would give a peculiar and horrible appropriateness to the savage cannibalism in which he found the Count absorbed: he now devours to all eternity the man whose inhumane cruelty made him so far forget his fatherhood as to devour his own flesh and blood. It would show us also that to Ugolino himself the worst torture of Hell was not the ice, but the haunting intolerable memory, never to be shaken off, of the unnatural crime to which famine drove him" (Dartmouth Dante Project).

(13) Note that the English interpretations suggesting the likelihood of cannibalism that I found in my research do not appear on the Dartmouth website, despite the fact that the database appears to be up to date. The vast majority of commentaries included, however, are in Italian (none of the Italian versions that admit of a cannibalistic reading--a minority--have an addendum similar to that of the English version described above).
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Date:May 1, 2014
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