Poet and translator Allen Mandelbaum dies at 85


Allen Mandelbaum, a scholar of classical and Italian literature recognized as the leading translator of Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” but who also authored a book of poems about the Jewish folklore town Chelm, died Oct. 27 in Winston-Salem, NC, where he was a professor emeritus at Wake Forest University. 

The university wrote that “few, if any, faculty members in Wake Forest’s history have attained a worldwide status comparable to Mandelbaum’s.”


 His most enduring work, a three-volume verse translation of the “Divine Comedy,” was completed in 1984. He also translated Homer’s “Odyssey,” Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” and other works of classical literature.

Translator Robert Fagles said Mandelbaum’s work was “exactly what we have waited for these years, a Dante with clarity, eloquence, terror and profoundly moving depths.”  

Nancy Vickers, the president of the Dante Society of America, said Mandelbaum’s translation was “extremely readable, very responsible to Dante’s text and accessible, in the sense of being affordable.”

Mandelbaum’s son Jonathan said his father “had spent his life preparing for the ultimate journey. All the masterpieces of classical and medieval literature that he translated were, in a sense, chronicles of immense journeys. That near-obsession with travel, that restlessness, that curiosity, led him to spend more time and effort translating the works of other faiths, even as he remained true to his Jewish roots.”

Mandelbaum’s own poetic output included “Journeyman” (1967), “Leaves of Absence” (1976), and the cleverly titled, “Chelmaxioms: The Maxims, Axioms, Maxioms of Chelm,” in 1978. Parts of “Chelmaxioms” were used in Chelm used in 2006 for the composition, “Shofar: an oratorio for soprano, tenor, two bass-baritones, chorus and orchestra,” by Catherine Madsen and Robert Stern. 

Mandelbaum was well-known in Italy, where he received the country’s highest award, the Presidential Cross of the Order of the Star of Italian Solidarity, and the National Award for Verse Translation. In 2000, he became the first translator to receive the Gold Medal of Honor from the city of Florence, for his translation of Dante’s “Divine Comedy.”

He received the 1973 National Book Award for his translation of Virgil’s “Aeneid,” and was a finalist for the 1994 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for his translation of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.”

Mandelbaum was born in Albany, NY, and settled in New York City when he was 13. He received his B.A. from Yeshiva University and a master’s and Ph.D. from Columbia. He taught at Cornell, Columbia, Yeshiva, and Hunter College, was a Rockefeller Fellow in Humanities and a Fulbright Research Scholar in Italy. He returned to the US in 1964 after nearly a decade in Italy, and taught and chaired the English graduate faculty at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York for 20 years before moving to Wake Forest.

The Eulogizer highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Write to the Eulogizer at eulogizer@jta.org.

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