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The Divine Comedy

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Posted on Apr 26, 2013

By Allen Barra

“The Divine Comedy”
A translation of Dante Alighieri’s book by Clive James

To call Clive James, as I once did, “the greatest living cultural critic writing in English” barely scratches the surface. Born Vivian Leopold James in 1939 in Sydney, Australia, he is the author of such works of criticism as “The Metropolitan Critic” (1974), “Vengeance Before Midnight: Television Criticism for the Observer” (1977), “At The Pillars of Hercules” (1979), “First Reactions” (1980), “Fame in the 20th Century” (1993) and “Cultural Amnesia” (2007). James is also a novelist, poet, memoirist and lyricist.

And now, with “The Divine Comedy,” he is a translator of a seminal work of literature in the modern West. “Dante,” according to R.W.B. Lewis in his Penguin Lives biography of the poet, “is the universal presence in literature around the globe, to a degree matched only in Shakespeare.” In the opening scene of this season’s “Mad Men,” Jon Hamm’s Don Draper, on the beach at Waikiki, begins his descent into hell by reading the opening passage of Dante’s “Inferno.” What other work of literature could possibly have such resonance?

James, while reading Dante in Italian at Cambridge, “looked at several rhymed translations and found them strained,” he writes in the introduction to his translation of “The Divine Comedy.” “On the other hand, the translation done in prose had whole chunks that were too dull to read, especially in the second and third books. The total effect of looking at so many translations was to be convinced that the job was thankless.” 

Chief among the problems was dealing with Dante’s famous terza rima—literally translated as “third rhyme”—a three-line stanza using chain rhyme in the pattern A-B-A, B-C-B, etc. “With the dubious exception of Shelley’s The Triumph of Life,” James argues, “nobody has ever written a terza rima poem in English that makes you forget the form in which it is composed, and a terza rima translation of Dante, like Laurence Binyon’s, makes a feature of Binyon’s virtuosity rather than Dante’s mastery.” James’ solution to the translator’s eternal problem with Dante was one in which, it turned out, he had spent “the greater part of a lifetime” preparing for.

His translation, he says, is for non-scholars; most readers, after all, “will never read Dante in the original Italian. It’s a pious wish that translators are always making: they hope that the reader, intrigued by the translation, will be driven to learn the Italian, etc. Common sense tells us that it will seldom happen.”

I contacted James to learn more about his approach, and he answered these questions by email from his home in Cambridge.

Allen Barra: T.S. Eliot thought that, for the first time reader of “The Divine Comedy,” it was better to know nothing about the poem than to know everything. Do you agree?

Clive James: Eliot was right, and would have been right if he had said this of any work of art you can think of. If it doesn’t absorb your attention all by itself in the first instance, it won’t be a work of art at all. But Eliot found it particularly necessary to say this of “The Divine Comedy” because the idea had grown up that no readers could follow it if they were not learned in the attendant scholarship.

The translator, in my view, should try to invalidate that notion from the get-go. Dante is off and running from the first line. He gives the reader no choice but to hitch a ride, and a translation must do the same.

AB: You write in your introduction that “Many people, not all of them outside Italy, think that the Divine Comedy is a rather misshapen story … The narrator has an exciting time in Hell but Purgatory, when it is not about art, is about theology, and Heaven is about nothing else.” In Catholic school I can recall the letdown after we studied hell and then moved on to the rest—everything seemed so dull after hell. But that’s the way Dante wrote it. How can a translation make everything outside of hell seem more interesting?

CJ: The first of “The Divine Comedy’s” three books, Hell, works like an action movie: three-headed dog, men turning into trees, a ride on a dragon. Virgil and Dante get chased by devils who carry on like Hell’s Angels. A translator having fun with all this mayhem had better be ready, however, for the awkward fact that Purgatory and Heaven have comparatively little action. The translator will need to realize that for Dante a theological discussion, with all the forensic give and take neatly laid out, was fully as exciting as a hellish encounter with angry centaurs on the bank of a river of blood.

AB: What, then, can the translator do to hold the reader’s attention in Heaven?

CJ: In Heaven, Dante proves his undying love for Beatrice by the self-assured language that he gives her to speak. Up there in the clouds of glory, the beauty of the language is the key to everything. Dante made the verse more and more beautiful as it got closer to the apex of heaven, where nothing happens but everything begins. The translator must try to do the same.

AB: Over the centuries, many scholars have seen Dante as the first voice of the Renaissance. Ezra Pound disagreed, writing, “Dante, I think, anticipated the Renaissance only as one year’s harvest foreshadows the next year’s Spring. He is the culmination of one age rather than the beginning of the next; he is like certain buildings in Verona, which display the splendor of the Middle Ages untouched by any influence of the classic revival.” I take that to mean that he sees Dante as more of a reflection of the medieval mind than the modern. I suspect that you would not agree with that …

CJ: Ezra Pound, a fine practical critic but an often erratic thinker, was only half right on this point. “The Divine Comedy” is indeed the summation of the medieval mind, but it also presages the future, all the way up to where we are now. Dante was the first to put the scientific attitude into art. He wanted the evidence for everything, even the grace of God. The proof of his proto-scientific mind is in his gift for observation. When a piece of paper burned, Dante noticed that the flame had a color. He noticed by looking closely. Throughout the enormously wonderful poem, Dante’s passion for close observation will be one of the first thrills that the reader takes away. That thrill is the introduction to the modern age.

To see long excerpts from “The Divine Comedy” at Google Books, click here.

AB: Footnotes have been the plague of many readings of “The Divine Comedy,” and in my opinion have kept a lot of eager readers from really enjoying the poem. I think if Dante had anticipated this problem he would have created another circle in hell for translators who used too many footnotes. You write, “Footnotes would be a burden … Ideally the thing itself should carry all the information it would need.” You feel that you solved this problem by lifting information “out of the basement and putting it on display in the text.” I’m not scholar enough to say that this is right or wrong, but I’ve got to say it certainly makes for much easier reading—one’s concentration isn’t continually interrupted by having to stop and check out why this or that nobleman is in burning excrement up to his neck. Do you think the Dante police are going to come after you for this?

CJ: There are hundreds of instances where I uploaded helpful info from the footnotes to the text, but I’m too tired right now to hunt for even one of them. We can rely on the more learned of the critics to bring out a few examples. It will be an ideal opportunity for some of them to show what they know, although the smarter of them will remember that in this case enjoyment trumps knowledge every time. The aim, for the translator, is to make his text a page-turner, like the original; and the only way to do that is to reproduce the drama and the lyricism, and not just the historical details.

AB: My aunt used to tell me there was an Italian saying which, translated into English, says, “A translation is a lie.” Of course, maybe that was inaccurate because it was a translation. Do you think any translation can ever equal the beauty and subtlety of the original?

CJ: The Italian phrase is “traduttore, traditore,” meaning that the translator is a traitor. Usually he is. One of the glories of French literature, Paul Valéry’s poem about the marine cemetery, is of such a subtle loveliness that you would swear no English translator could even begin to capture it. Perhaps not, but the Irish poet Derek Mahon did a version in English that counts as one of our greatest modern poems. Just occasionally you get disturbing proof that a perfect poetic beauty is more transferable than you thought.


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