With 1994's The Inferno of Dante (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), Robert Pinsky, America's poet laureate from 1997 to 2000, joined the long line of bards—including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Dorothy Sayers, and John Ciardi—who had translated at least one canticle of Dante's Divine Comedy into English. Earlier Pinsky had been among 20 poets tapped by author and anthologist Daniel Halpern to translate one or two cantos of Inferno for a new collection. That volume's introduction hinted at the potential for 20 new translations, but so far Pinsky is the only writer to take the challenge.

To find out what drew this contemporary poet to the nearly 700-year-old Comedy, Christian History e-mailed Pinsky at Boston University, where he teaches English and creative writing. He also serves as poetry editor for the online magazine Slate.

You have said that you had "a religious upbringing"—your parents were nominally Orthodox Jews, your grandfather married a Christian, and you were intrigued by the Catholic church across the street from your childhood synagogue. How did this heritage intersect Dante's worldview as you worked on Inferno?

I could share some of his disgust with orthodoxy and clergy, his sense of being saturated with invasive but precious conceptions, images, forces. Above all, I could relish and try to imitate the patchwork, syncretic, improvising, sometimes outrageously eclectic nature of his historical imagination. The unlikeliness.

You began translating Inferno as part of a larger project, but there's a big difference between translating two cantos and translating 34. What made you want to continue the project?

I did the translation because I could. I saw a way that I could make a close, faithful translation of the Inferno that ...

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