Clive James pushes his Divine Comedy on the virtual book tour circuit.
Clive James, the seemingly ubiquitous television talk show host, Formula One commentator, Australian book critic, leukemia patient, and occasional poet and lyricist, has tried his hand at translating Dante’s Divine Comedy. And being a public sort of guy, he’s been hitting the media circuit, at least virtually.
An NPR story (with the pretentious title “Dante’s Beauty Rendered in English in a Divine ‘Comedy’”):
The Divine Comedy is also a work of literary beauty that is beyond being antiquated by time or diminished by repeated translation. The latest has been undertaken by a writer who is perhaps best known for his pointed and funny criticisms of culture. But Clive James is also a novelist, humorist, essayist, memoirist, and radio and television host […].
“I think I always wanted to translate Dante, but I always knew there was a problem,” James tells NPR’s Scott Simon. “Which is that of the three books of the Comedy — that’s Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, Hell is the most fascinating, in the first instance, ‘cause it’s full of action, it’s got a huge three-headed dog, it’s got a flying dragon, it’s got men turning into snakes and vice versa, it’s got centaurs beside a river of blood; you name it, Hell has got it. But Purgatory and Heaven have mainly just got theology. And the challenge for the translator is to reproduce Dante’s fascination with theology, which for him was just as exciting as all that action that he left behind in Hell.”
[…] Interest is what most translators lack, James adds. “They’re faithful, they’re accurate, they’re scholarly, but the actual raw poetic thrill of the verse doesn’t get through, and that’s what I think the translator must try to do if he or she can.”
James says that in order to achieve that raw poetic thrill, he first had to abandon terza rima, Dante’s preferred rhyme scheme, “which is almost impossible to do in English without strain.” English, he says, is a “rhyme-poor” language compared with Dante’s Italian. “If you’re going to do it in English, you need, I think, another approach, and I used quatrains. When I reconciled myself to that, I was off and running.”
He calls the quatrains a “nice, easily flowing rhythmic grid on which to mount the individual moments. If you can give your verse muscle, then you’re doing one of the things Dante does, because Dante has a tremendous capacity, right in the middle of the Italian language, the musicality of the Italian language, to be strong, to be vivid, to be precise. […]”
“I can say this much for sure, for certain, right here on the air,” James continues. “There is no young man’s version of this translation. I couldn’t have done it when I was younger. I had the energy, but not the knowledge, and not the knowledge of myself, because Dante is worried about himself. Dante is in a spiritual crisis, and I think you have to have been in one of your own to understand what he’s talking about. He’s seeking absolution, redemption and certainty. He’s seeking a knowledge that his life has been worthwhile. Which I still am.”
After Shakespeare, my favorite poet is Dante. My favorite novelists are Proust and Tolstoy, closely followed by Scott Fitzgerald, and perhaps Hemingway when he isn’t beating his chest. But in all my life I never enjoyed anything more than the first pieces I read by S. J. Perelman. […]
Dan Brown’s forthcoming Inferno, of which Dante will be the central subject, has already got me trembling. Brown might have discovered that The Divine Comedy is an encrypted prediction of how the world will be taken over by the National Rifle Association. When the movie comes out, with Harrison Ford as Dante and Megan Fox as Beatrice, it will be all over for mere translators. […]
My forthcoming translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy is my best book, I think […].\
From Slate (and reportedly adapted from James’s introduction to his translation):
[…] The Divine Comedy isn’t just a story, it’s a poem: one of the biggest, most varied, and most accomplished poems in all the world. Appreciated on the level of its verse, the thing never stops getting steadily more beautiful as it goes on. T. S. Eliot said that the last cantos of Heaven were as great as poetry can ever get. The translator’s task is to compose something to suggest that such a judgment might be right. […]
My wife said that the terza rima was only the outward sign of how the thing carried itself along, and that if you dug down into Dante’s expressiveness at the level of phonetic construction you would find an infinitely variable rhythmic pulse adaptable to anything he wanted to convey. One of the first moments she picked out of the text to show me what the master versifier could do was when Francesca tells Dante what drove her and Paolo over the brink and into the pit of sin. In English it would go something like:
“We read that day for delight
About Lancelot, how love bound him.”
She read it in Italian:
“Noi leggevam quel giorno per diletto
Di Lancelotto, come l’amor lo strinse.”
After the sound “-letto” ends the first line, the placing of “-lotto” at the start of the second line gives it the power of a rhyme, only more so. How does that happen? You have to look within. The Italian 11-syllable line feels a bit like our standard English iambic pentameter and therefore tends to mislead you into thinking that the terzina, the recurring unit of three lines, has a rocking regularity. But Dante isn’t thinking of regularity in the first instance any more than he is thinking of rhyme, which is too easy in Italian to be thought a technical challenge: In fact for an Italian poet it’s not rhyming that’s hard.
Dante’s overt rhyme scheme is only the initial framework by which the verse structure moves forward. Within the terzina, there is all this other intense interaction going on. (Dante is the greatest exemplar in literary history of the principle advanced by Vernon Watkins, and much approved of by Philip Larkin, that good poetry doesn’t just rhyme at the end of the lines, it rhymes all along the line.) Especially in modern times, translators into English have tended to think that if this interior intensity can be duplicated, the grand structure of the terzina, or some equivalent rhymed frame work, can be left out. And so it can, often with impressive results, each passage transmuted into very compressed English prose. But that approach can never transmit the full intensity of the Divine Comedy, which is notable for its overall onward drive as much as for its local density of language.
Dante is not only tunneling in the depths of meaning, he is working much closer to the surface texture: working within it. Even in the most solemn passage there might occur a touch of delight in sound that comes close to being wordplay. Still with Paolo and Francesca: in the way the word “diletto,” after the line turning, modulates into “Di Lancelotto,” the shift from “-letto” to “–lotto” is a modulation across the vowel spectrum, and Dante has a thousand tricks like that to keep things moving. The rhymes that clinch the terzina are a very supplementary music compared to the music going on within the terzina’s span.
The lines, I found, were alive within themselves. Francesca described how, while they were carried away with what they read, Paolo kissed her mouth. “Questi” (this one right here), she says, “la bocca mi basciò, tutto tremante” (kissed my mouth, all trembling). At that stage I had about a hundred words of Italian and needed to be told that the accent on the final O of “basciò” was a stress accent and needed to be hit hard, slowing the line so that it could start again and complete itself in the alliterative explosion of “tutto tremante.” An hour of this tutorial and I could already see that Dante was paying attention to his rhythms right down to the structure of the phrase and even of the word.
I have ordered a copy of this new translation, although from the preview offered on Amazon, I am not convinced that it lives up to other recent translations.