In terms of vocabulary, may the word 'per', as in canto 1 of the Inferno, be translated into the English phrase 'by means of'?

Here's the excerpt in question:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

  • 4
    Which instance of 'per' do you mean? I count 16 different occurrences in Inferno 1.
    – gbutters
    Commented Jul 25, 2015 at 19:30
  • Welcome to Italian.SE! I agree with @gbutters: could you please be more explicit and quote the text you are referring to?
    – Charo
    Commented Jul 25, 2015 at 22:53
  • If you're referring to “Per me si va nella città dolente”, then it's through (but it's not in Canto 1).
    – egreg
    Commented Jul 26, 2015 at 16:02
  • Thanks for responding. I am interested in 'per' in line 2 of canto 1 Inferno, Commented Jul 27, 2015 at 1:19
  • 3
    @rjlamberti: This question, as it is phrased, is borderline off-topic here. As you can see in the answers and questions, most of us don't master English so as to tell you how to translate something into English, nor this is the topic of this site. At most we can try to explain – as we are trying to do – what that per was supposed to mean, and then you can see yourself how to translate it (if English is your first language) or ask someone else, for instance on ELU.
    – DaG
    Commented Jul 27, 2015 at 15:54

4 Answers 4


Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straight-forward pathway had been lost.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, himself a poet, translated it as "within". My guess is that he did not choose something like through, as others have suggested, because through indicate that the action is over or the subject knows where is going. Dante is travelling inside the forest, but he is not passing through as if he knows where is going. He is wandering inside of it, he doesn't know even how has arrived there ("I found myself"); he is lost.

Within represent the idea that he is moving inside the forest while not really moving forward to his destination. Indeed Dante doesn't even know where he should go.


Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

In this case per means something like through: the poet is in a dark forest and wandering through it.

  • 3
    Personally I would have said more "in" than "through", although undoubtfully eventually Dante ends up wandering "through" the dark forest and, as we know, gets "through" it.
    – kos
    Commented Jul 27, 2015 at 8:12
  • 1
    I agree with “through” (the sense being that Dante finds himself travelling and not standing in the forest) and, as soon as possible, will support this quoting some comment of the Commedia.
    – DaG
    Commented Jul 27, 2015 at 8:30
  • Actually, thinking about it again, I think the closest preposition in English would be neither "through" nor "in", but rather "by".
    – kos
    Commented Jul 27, 2015 at 8:47
  • ("by" to be read as "by" in "I (Dante) "found myself" (forgive the poor translation but I really don't know how to express this better) by a dark forest", although in this specific case I think "in" would fit better: "I "found myself" in a dark forest", while I don't think "through" would fit well: "I "found myself" through a dark forest"; I think the truth is there's no specific preposition in English to convey the exact same meaning, and that the meaning shall be found in something in between "in" and "by".)
    – kos
    Commented Jul 27, 2015 at 9:04
  • Right, perhaps “through” is not the right way of translating it. On the other hand, this is not the right site to give explanation about English words. The sense is that “per” is more dynamic than “in”, denoting that Dante is not still in some spot of a dark wood, but he realises he is moving in/through/by/within indefinite places of the wood. The best way of rendering this into English is best left with English-speaking people, perhaps in EL&U.SE.
    – DaG
    Commented Jul 27, 2015 at 12:44

My two cents on this one.

The verb "ritrovare", in its reflexive form "ritrovarsi", means, roughly, per se in this context, "to find oneself in some place without having explicitly wanted such thing to happen"; quoting Treccani:

  1. [...] b. [...] accorgersi di essere capitati in qualche posto, senza averlo esplicitamente voluto o senza aspettarselo: Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura (Dante) [...]

Apologize in advance for the bolded text, which always makes me picture OPs like they are screaming, but I believe that here resides the key for the correct interpretation of "per" in this context, and I think that to remark it it's necessary: mind that "ritrovarsi", whilst it indeed implies the subject having been in movement until the action of "ritrovarsi" itself takes place, doesn't imply, anywhere, the subject being still in movement whatsoever, because "ritrovarsi"'s meaning itself (as mentioned by Treccani) means else, and addresses the fact that the subject realized and became conscious of the fact that they are in some place they didn't explicitly wanted to be in, and hence really says nothing about the subject being or not being in movement; so thinking of the subject as being still in movement at the time of this happening would be rather an assumption.

Now, on the following "per": Treccani mentions 13 different acceptations of "per" (excluding variations); I went through all of them, and, for the above, I believe that this is the acceptation that best describes the meaning of "per" in this context (I italicized the relevant part):

  1. [...] b. Per indicare il luogo entro il quale avviene un movimento (compl. di moto entro luogo), senza riferimento alla direzione di tale moto: passeggiare, girare per la città; andare, viaggiare, cercare per monti e per valli. Acquista in simili casi funzioni analoghe a quelle della prep. in, e ciò avviene anche con verbi di quiete per indicare una distribuzione entro una certa area: le quali [macchie] nelle braccia e per le cosce ... apparivano a molti (Boccaccio); avere dolori per le ossa, per tutto il corpo.

Roughly translated: "[...] It acquires, in similiar cases, functions comparable to those of the preposition "in", and this happens also with "verbi di quiete1" to indicate a distribution within a certain area [...]".

So, in my opinion, being "ritrovarsi" not a "verbo di movimento1" but rather a "verbo di quiete1", and being Dante not in a specific point of the dark forest but rather vaguely somewhere inside it, this is the acceptation that best describes the meaning of "per" in this context; what comes after in the plot, such as Dante being wandering through the dark forest, should be excluded from the interpretation, as it just comes after.

Hence, for the above, coming to the translation, I'd either second "within", which I think has the privilege over "in" to also express that the subject is inside a certain boundary, or, more simply, just "in".

1: "Verbi di movimento", as opposed to "verbi di quiete", quoting Treccani, "express in various ways a change of position of an entity from a point to another in the space or, figuratively, in the time.


The meaning that is conveyed here is "wading through": "I found myself wading through a dark forest". That action in itself does not imply being lost, however "Mi ritrovai..." ("I found myself...") makes it clear that entering the forest wasn't intentional, and "ché la diritta via era smarrita" makes the fact of having lost the way quite explicit.

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