Sunday, July 1, 2012

A word-by-word explanation of a famous quote from Dante's inferno

This is found in Dante Alighieri's Inferno (Hell), canto XXVI (poem 26, cànto also means 'song') and said by the mythical hero Ulysses:

Original old Italian: Considerate la vostra semenza: fatti non foste a viver come bruti ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza.
Modern Italian: Considerate la vostra origine: non siete stati fatti per vivere come bruti ma per seguire virtù e conoscenza.
Official English translation: Consider well the seed that gave you birth: you were not made to live as brutes, but to follow virtue and knowledge.

consideràre = to consider

your (plural) = vòstro (masculine), vòstra (feminine)

seménza is an old or literary italian word for seeds, the ones used in agriculture. In a figurative sense it means origin, birth (la orìgine -> l'origine, feminine). Considerate la vostra semenza/origine = Consider your birth/origin. Note Italian usually requires the 'the' article even before possessives like your (vostra)

fàre = to do/make
fàtti=done/made (plural)
BTW fatto as a noun is fact and its plural facts is fatti

(voi) non foste = you were not
voi is you plural. The verb essere (to be) is irregular in Italian. you were=(voi) foste is the remote past tense. In modern Italian (with no poetic constraints) you would prefer to say (voi) siete stati, which is a another tense (past perfect, passato prossimo). It can express both a recent and remote past, depending on the context. It is a remote past in this case, because it actually refers to the creation of man. The reason we prefer passato prossimo to passato remoto is that this action, in this context and for what it is said afterwards, has a clear link with the present, with how we should behave in the present.

per in Italian means for. The for in English is per in Italian, but not vice versa: per month=al mese (al is the contraction of a il: a il mese=to the month). The English whole verb (infinitive) expressing a reason, which is preceded by 'to' is 'per' followed by the same full verb in modern Italian. So seguire=to follow, but "to follow" ("to" expressing reason) is per seguire (literally "for to follow").

vìvere is to live and vìta is life. Indeed vital is vitàle.

ma is but

cóme means like/as

brùto is brute. brùti, brutes.

virtùte is now virtù (virtue), that is is has been shortened in modern Italian (but in my Italian dialect is still long: virtùti)

e is and

canoscénza is now spelt conoscénza, from conòscere = to know.