The Divine Comedy, by Dante Alighieri, translated by Clive James, Picador, RRP£25, 526 pages
Do we really need another translation of Dante? The Inferno – the first part of Dante’s medieval epic The Divine Comedy – remains one of the most popular books of all time; at least 50 English versions appeared in the 20th century alone. Few translators have been brave or mad enough to take on Purgatory and Paradise as well: Dante’s three-part narrative of sin and salvation is more than 14,000 lines long.
Now we have another translation of The Divine Comedy in its entirety, by the Australian-born polymath Clive James. Like JG Nichols, whose 2005 verse translation managed to maintain the stabbing beat and great lyric beauty of the original, James has chosen not to work within the fiendish triple rhyme of Dante’s terza rima. Dante’s tercets – sets of three rhyming lines – are especially difficult to translate as not a single word in them is unjustified; they allow little room for error. Many poets (among them Lord Byron, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Leigh Hunt) have, nevertheless, found Dante’s triple-rhyme a stimulus rather than a deterrent, and produced translations of cadenced tautness and enduring vigour.
James, instead, has opted for rhymed quatrains. Shakespeare liked quatrains, but they remain hostile to Dante’s Trinitarian theology as reflected in his use of tercets and the Comedy’s tripartite design. TS Eliot, by attempting terza rima in “Little Gidding”, kept faith with a Dantescan spirit of trinity and triplet in a way that James does not, or is unable to.
Victorian translators in particular tended to reduce Dante’s crystalline tercets to a pious fustian devoid of vigour. Beatrice, typically, was a “blessed damozel” and “dew-eyed” allegory of divine grace. James, too, plumps out his translation with fusty-sounding words (“whereat”, “whomever”, “aught else”, “folderol”, “yonder”), which give the impression that Dante wrote in an antique Italian, when he did not. In order to reach the widest audience, Dante wrote in a “sweet new style” of vernacular Italian. His overthrow of Latin preceded Geoffrey Chaucer’s in The Canterbury Tales by 80 years.
In the Clive James version, Dante’s vernacular is approximated by slangy phrases such as “chilled with the shakes”, “Enough said” and “cosy perks”. Rather than work with the rough grain of Dante’s speech, however, these recall the glib and clever tongue of Clive James the television personality. Recast in quatrains, the Comedy is something of a grind to read, with little sense of a through-narrative or drive. Clichés cling to the dense pentameter lines (“cheek by jowl”, “dubious privilege”, “vaulting pride”), and there are other infelicities. The Latin poet Virgil is referred to throughout as Dante’s “Escort”, as if Virgil was the Florentine poet’s courtesan rather than his guide through hell and beyond.
In his introduction, James upbraids Dorothy L Sayers for her 1949-62 Penguin Classics translation of Dante. (The detective novelist, he writes, had “simultaneously loaded her text with cliché and pumped it full of wind”.) Yet it was Sayers who put the fizz back into the Florentine by resolutely trimming her translation of all Victorian-sounding distortions, expurgations and literalisms; her Comedy was at least a spirited rehabilitation of the original.
James’s translation is (as his publishers claim) “monumental” as well as magnificently dull in parts. In 2002, the Belfast poet and novelist Ciaran Carson offered a wonderfully vigorous translation of The Inferno, which incorporated words from 18th-century Irish ballads. (William Morris had done something similar with Homer, converting The Odyssey into a weird ballad-speak.) Four years later, in 2006, the Yorkshire-born poet Sean O’Brien gave us another grippingly readable translation of the brimstone epic. If any translation of the Comedy is to be recommended, however, JG Nichols’s should be the one.
As every Italian schoolchild knows, the poem opens on Good Friday in a supernatural forest at nightfall. Dante, a figure in his own work, has lost his way in middle age and is alone and fear-ridden in the woods. Virgil, sent by the shadowy Beatrice, is about to show him Hell. Beatrice dei Portinari was the love of Dante’s life (she died in Florence in 1290, at the age of 24), but James offers no information on her whatsoever. In fact, James has given us a translation without any footnotes, but Dante requires at least some exegesis.
In lieu of notes, James interpolates material not found in the original. (Minos is a “connoisseur of turpitude”; Forese Donati is a “fellow sonneteer”.) Cumulatively, the additions make for a Comedy a third longer than Dante’s original. This is all the more unfortunate in a translation of a writer like Dante, for whom accuracy, precision and concision were sovereign virtues.
Ian Thomson is author of ‘Primo Levi: A Life’ (Vintage)