Some of Rossetti's most important poetry comes to us in his translations, which are “original” work in several senses. He undertook the project of translating a large corpus of early Italian poetry, including Dante's earlier poetry, with the explicit intention of trying to emulate its aesthetic achievements. As he writes in his Preface to The Early Italian Poets, “The only true motive for putting poetry into a fresh language must be to endow a fresh nation, as far as possible, with one more possession of beauty.” That point of view laid an enormous obligation on Rossetti, which he did not fail to meet. Rossetti wrote some of the most remarkable works of translation in the English language.
Rossetti's verse translations of stil novisti poetry, as well as that school's immediate precursors and descendants, were originally published in 1861 as The Early Italian Poets. The book was revised and reissued in 1874 under the new title Dante and His Circle. In addition to being one of the two first (complete) English translations of Dante's Vita Nuova, the collection represented the first important and large-scale English language anthology of that seminal movement in Italian poetry, the verse of the dolce stil novo. The greatness of this achievement, as well as its considerable subsequent influence, cannot be overemphasized. Putting his anthology together, Rossetti was also obliged to provide a critical and literary-historical context for the poems he had chosen. This he did in his various notes and commentaries. His Preface to the book set forth as well his theory of translation, which is implicitly a statement of key aesthetic ideas.
The influence of Rossetti's book was very great. The translations were Ezra Pound's introduction and guide to the medieval literary world that supported Pound's whole career. To other modernists—here T. S. Eliot is exemplary—the translations were an Alpine barrier they were determined to get over or get around. In any case, The Early Italian Poets was a formidable work so far as the Modernist movement was concerned.
For Rossetti, the Italian translations, which focussed on Dante, impinge upon all of his so-called original work, both literary and artistic. His verse style was worked out in the process of executing these translations. In addition, the translations steeped his imagination in a constellation of religious/erotic imagery and thought that would permeate virtually everything he wrote, painted, drew, or designed.
Most striking is the fact that the bulk of these translations were completed before 1850, and the work may have been begun as early as 1845, when Rossetti was seventeen years old. The fruits of that early discipline are apparent in his painting and in his writing alike; for in each of those media, Rossetti showed astonishing depth and maturity from his earliest public appearances (in the late 40s).
Rossetti wrote a handful of other poetical translations, including extensive versions of German ballads, important translations of Villon, and work of other Italian poets both ancient and modern. A translation of the Paolo and Franscesca episode from Dante's Inferno, Canto V, was also made. All this work, significant in itself, is of course closely related to his original work in art and poetry.
Indeed, in an important sense we should see the translations as the center of all his work. The point here is not simply that Rossetti's imagination was fired by late medieval writing and especially by Italian poetry. Rather, we ought to see that translation (as an idea and an imaginative procedure) is the model for nearly every aspect of his work. Rossetti's famous “double work of art” is a form of simultaneous (and reciprocal) translation. Moreover, the intense literariness of his pictorial work is yet another type of translation process. Analogous procedures are evident in all his writings. We know he often writes a poem in two languages (typically in English and Italian versions). Less remarked, but equally significant, is the prevalence of different kinds of pastiche forms in his work. Rossetti's ballads (“Sister Helen”, “Stratton Water”, “Dennis Shand”, etc.) are the most obvious instances of this tendency in his writing, but other works— “Ave”, for example—put themselves forward as if they were translations. Like Scott earlier, Rossetti liked to compose fake epigraphs, especially in French, and there is an obvious sense in which a major work like “Hand and Soul” is meant to appear as if it had been translated into Rossetti's oeuvre from someplace else. Its formal debt to Poe's hoaxes is very clear, but that debt reflects the (as it were) translational quality of the hoax as a literary form.