Il sommo Poeta: ACU hosts 2023 Dante Alighieri Symposium     

Mar 30, 2023 | Announcements, News & Media

Sydney, 25 March 2023: For the second year running, the Australian Catholic University (ACU) has hosted a public symposium to celebrate the works of Dante Alighieri, Italy’s most distinguished poet and one of the West’s greatest literary figures.

Il sommo Poeta, Dante Alighieri Symposium 2023, took place at ACU last week, on March 25. This has been marked by the Italian government as National Dante Day since 2021, the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death. The symposium was run in collaboration with the Italian Cultural Institute and the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation.

A packed audience was treated to readings from two of Dante’s masterpieces,the Vita Nuova and the Commedia. Readings were performed by ACU Ramsay Scholars John Tabuteau, Emily Nix and Agnes Jee alongside ACU academic staff, A/Professor Johanna Harris, Dr Kishore Saval and Professor Michele Riondino, and Ramsay Centre Academic Director and Dante specialist Professor Diana Glenn.

Reflections on Dante were delivered by the Consul General of Italy in Sydney Mr Andrea De Felip, Ramsay Centre CEO Professor Simon Haines, and the event’s keynote speaker, Italianist and poet, Dr Simon West. Dr West is author of four collections of poetry and has for many years taught Dante at the University of Melbourne and run reading groups at the Dante Alighieri Society Melbourne.

In his address, ‘The Poetry of the Divine Comedy and its Challenges for Translators of Dante’, Dr West commented how remarkable it was that “700 years after the death of a Florentine individual in 1321 we still gather to examine his poems”, “…set in a tripartite afterlife whose early modern Christianity and whose political and social structures are a world away from us today.”

Dr West attributed this to literature’s “magical ability to connect us to a time and place that makes our own reality seamless” and Dante’s specific ability to “get right to the heart of what it means to be alive in the world at any time, and to evoke those questions in very memorable ways for readers.”

In examining challenges for Dante translations, Dr West spoke of Dante’s strict adherence to rhyme in contrast to the free verse more often used in modern poetry, or half rhyme used in Shakespeare.

Dr West said that all 14,233 lines of the Commedia are connected by a three-line rhyme scheme called terza rima. This rhyme creates phonic links between words, which can reinforce key words and can be lost through translation. Dr West also spoke about, how languages can have personalities and idiosyncrasies of their own and about the challenge of whether to include exhaustive footnotes in translations.

Dr West said there have been at least 64 translations of the Commedia into English alone since the first in 1802, one version every three and a half years in the last two centuries, and predicted there would be more, as there were endless interpretative choices when striving to emulate Dante’s verse.

“Dante’s ambition was no less than to take in the whole span of human experience from the hopeless and depraved deaths of Hell to the light-shot regions of Paradise. His language changes to reflect the experiences along the journey. It’s the form of poem that remains constant and connects everything together in the great chain of being in Dante’s poetry. Just as Dante believed everything to be linked together in the great chain of being in the universe, that form is also what makes the poetry, the Comedy so challenging to translate,” Dr West said.

Professor Simon Haines praised ACU for hosting the event, saying that along with Homer and Shakespeare, Dante is one of the three great poets of Western Civilisation, with the Commedia his masterpiece.

“More than any of the other giants of European literature, possibly as much as Homer himself, Dante made not just the poem but the very language itself,” Professor Haines said.

“The genius of the Italian language and that of its exemplary and initiating poet are almost impossible to separate; certainly no one has ever extended the reach of the language more than Dante did so early on in its life. He remade Europe’s original language, Latin, into the early modern speech of all civilised Europe, the very language and herald of the Renaissance.”

Italian Consul General Mr De Felip praised the symposium for fostering a deeper understanding of the complexities of translating Dante, and the rich diversity of voices and perspectives that can emerge from the process of translation. He said he hoped that the discussion would inspire new avenues for research and spark new ideas and collaborations among scholars.   

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Media contact: Sarah Switzer 0407 816 098/