Unique new project features first-ever Indigenous translations of Dante's Inferno

March 26, 2021 by Peter Boisseau - A&S News

The historic first known translations of Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s masterpiece The Divine Comedy into Indigenous languages will make their debut in a landmark video celebration of the 700th anniversary of his death.

The Indigenous language translations will be part of the Toronto Salutes Dante project — an initiative of the Department of Italian Studies in the Faculty of Arts & Science at the University of Toronto — that will see most of the 34 cantos of the best-known section of the poem, The Inferno, read in a different language.

The Indigenous language translations are being prepared specifically for this project and are being read by the translators, says Nicholas Terpstra, interim Emilio Goggio Chair in Italian Studies, which is largely funding the project.

Headshot of matthias nunno
Matthias Nunno. Photo: Adriana Nunno.
Nicholas Terpstra. 

The opening 30 lines of the first canto of The Inferno will be read in Anishinaabemowin by translator Matthias Nunno, a member of the Ojibways of Garden River First Nation and an individual of Italian and Ojibway heritage.

The last section of the final passage will be read in Stoney Nakoda by translator Trent Fox, a doctoral student in education at the University of Calgary who identifies as Îethka.

“We are honoured to be able to start in Anishinaabemowin and conclude with a passage in Stoney Nakoda,” says Terpstra. “The idea of starting and finishing with Indigenous languages was something we thought was particularly important in Canada.

“While Dante has been translated into many different languages, he hadn't been translated into Indigenous languages until now, so these are the first ever done.”

In a further salute to Canada’s diversity, most of the remaining cantos of The Inferno will be read in a different language, including Farsi, Arabic, Swedish, Portuguese, Mandarin, American Sign Language, Russian, Slovak, Thai, Spanish, Bulgarian, German, Ukrainian and Sanskrit, as well as French, Latin, English, Italian and 10 Italian dialects.

headshot Trent Fox
Trent Fox. Photo: Calgary Public Library.
Adrienne Clarkson.

Canadian musician Loreena McKennitt authorized her evocative Dante’s Prayer as the theme music for the project.

Organizers recruited community members, professors, students and alumni to read the cantos and share their thoughts about Dante and the canto they chose. U of T alumna and former Governor General of Canada Adrienne Clarkson — who earned her bachelor of arts in English language and literature in 1960 as a member of Trinity College, a master of arts in 1962 and an honourary doctor of law in 2001 — will be among the performers. Clarkson, who learned Italian as a doctoral student and has a special passion for Dante, will read the entire first canto in English, including the portion previously read in Anishinaabemowin.

The canto texts will also be available for download from the department’s website in Italian, English and the language its performer chose for the reading.

The canto readings are being posted at regular intervals on the department’s YouTube channel. The first was posted on March 25, the traditional New Year’s Day in medieval Florence, where Dante was born in 1265. The series will conclude in June.

The March 25 start date is also significant because it marks the day Dante enters The Inferno, the first canticle of The Divine Comedy, which also includes two other sections: Purgatorio and Paradiso. The epic work is widely considered to be one of the greatest in world literature.

 Elisa Brilli.
Headshot of Emilio Goggio
George Ferzoco.

The Toronto Salutes Dante project is the brainchild of Terpstra, Associate Professor Elisa Brilli and U of T alumnus George Ferzoco, who earned his bachelor of arts in philosophy in 1980 as a member of St. Michael’s College.

The Emilio Goggio visiting professor for the spring 2021 term at the Department of Italian Studies, Ferzoco had established a tradition while teaching in the U.K. of having his students read Dante aloud to better appreciate the poem and get over their shyness around speaking Italian.

“Like most poetry, Dante is meant to be read aloud,” says Ferzoco, visiting fellow at the Calgary Institute for the Humanities. Through the University of Calgary’s Vice-Provost for Indigenous Engagement, he arranged for the translation by Fox of the final passage of The Inferno into Stoney Nakoda.

“I thought, ‘Well, I'm from Toronto, which is such a multicultural city. I'm in the Italian department. Can I bring something to my visiting professorship, and can it reflect the culture of the city, and indeed the country?’”

An acclaimed Dantista for her research and publications, Brilli has made U of T an international centre for Dante studies through a series of annual seminars. Two years ago, the Dante Society of America held its annual meeting in Toronto, the first outside the United States since its founding in 1881.

“Toronto Salutes Dante is rooted in research done at the University of Toronto and the events we’ve held here, like the first-ever meeting of the Dante Society of America in Canada in 2019, and my 'Dante. Les vies Nouvelles’ Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council project,” says Brilli.

“I warmly hope this new endeavour will foster collaboration among scholars, students and our community of alumni, and the broader audience interested in Dante.”

While the bulk of funding for Toronto Salutes Dante comes from the Goggio Chair, community sponsors of the project include the Istituto Italiano di Cultura di Toronto (Italian Cultural Institute of Toronto) and Villa Charities. 

In another initiative held in February, U of T hosted an international event for the Italo-Indigenous community called Indigenous-Italian Canadian Connections: Starting a Conversation, led by people of Indigenous-Italian-Canadian heritage, adds Terpstra.

The event included more than 100 participants from five countries — Canada, the United States, Italy, Spain and Costa Rica — and launched a year-long research and community project at the Italian studies department’s Frank Iacobucci Centre for Italian–Canadian Studies that will include a workshop in May and a conference next year.