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Clive James pushes his Divine Comedy on the virtual book tour circuit.

April 14, 2013

cliveClive 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.”

From the New York Times:

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 “-lettoto “–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 “basciòwas 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.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. April 14, 2013 7:49 pm

    Thanks for the post and the review. You’ve convinced me to buy the book and that it’s not the best Dante translation by a long shot.

    Starting into Hell, with his first line, James does seem to get off on the wrong foot, doesn’t he? And please pardon my intended pun. Here’s the start:

    At the mid-point of the path through life, I found
    Myself lost in a wood so dark, the way
    Ahead was blotted out. The keening sound
    I still make shows how hard it is to say
    How harsh and bitter that place felt to me–

    Why isn’t the first line something like, “At mid-point on the path through life, I found”? Well, his terza rima is really quite good after that.

    I’m just updating my comment here to ask another question:

    Is 560 pages too unwieldy for a three-volume single bound book?

  2. April 14, 2013 10:16 pm

    I’m not sure if the book is good or not — I ordered a copy, but it has not arrived. I think it is interesting, though — shouldn’t we all try to make our own translation of the Divine Comedy? (By the way, it seems to me that James is not a specialist in Italian.)

    I know you are teasing me about the length since I complained about the forthcoming 3,000 page NA28+Rahlfs. Most versions I have of the Divine Comedy are diglots (which I think is the best strategy — because even a non-Italian reader can see what Dante is doing with rhythm, euphony, and rhyme) or have extensive notes and commentary. For example, my copy of Singleton’s translation (which is a prose translation, but has many merits) is six volumes — and you know, some of those volumes are unwieldy (the commentary to Purgatorio is 872 pages).

    Anyway, let’s see what the NA28+Rahlfs looks like. If it really has any extra material and is not just the two volumes shoved together, then I’ll gladly take back all my complaints.

  3. April 15, 2013 4:09 pm

    the forthcoming 3,000 page NA28+Rahlfs

    Let me just confess that in my own office library here at the moment, I have only three single-volume works that are over 1,000 pages: Alter’s and Fox’s respective Five Books of Moses and All Men are Brothers, the translation by Pearl S. Buck. Maybe I should count Anne Carson’s most unwieldy Nox, but one might argue that as long as it is literally it might not exactly count as a book.

    (The NA28 is only around 1000 pages, as is the Rahlfs/Hanhart; so how are they adding another 1K pages?)

    On the James translation of Dante, I haven’t read all of his Commedy but I did imagine working my way through it to the end. And it does seem worth it:

    How was the image fitted to the full
    Activity within the circle? Why
    Should it be placed there? But my wings were not
    Sufficient. It took faith’s flash to supply
    My mind with that sharp blow by which it got
    Its wish. Imagination, there on high–
    Too high to breathe free, after such a climb–
    Had lost its power; but no, just like a wheel
    That spins so evenly it measures time
    By space, the deepest wish that I could feel
    And all my will, were turning with the love
    That moves the sun and all the stars above.

  4. April 15, 2013 5:12 pm

    The NA28 is only around 1000 pages, as is the Rahlfs/Hanhart; so how are they adding another 1K pages?

    That is a very good question.

  5. April 16, 2013 4:47 pm

    I’ve now received a copy of the Clive James translation, and hope to read it sometimes in the next few days.

  6. April 25, 2013 10:49 am

    Earl Pike posts a review, comparing a few lines of the James “Infero” with the Middlebaum and offering additional lines from the James “Paradiso” as some of his evidence for this conclusion:

    James gives us something sublime: a new way of reading a classic work. James’ version is not merely a mirrored word, but a transfigured word. As such, it will no doubt enter the essential Dante canon, and remain there for years to come.

  7. April 25, 2013 11:33 am

    Interesting, although I’m not sure that Pike shares the same criteria that others have:

    Is such a reading accurate? That’s not relevant. The question is: does this translation bring to light fresh appreciations for Dante?

    Along those lines, have you come across Mary Jo Bang’s translation? I just now ran across it on Amazon and was sufficiently intrigued to order it (but I am not sure I will like it at all). I would be interested in your reaction.

  8. April 25, 2013 1:23 pm

    Mary Jo Bang’s poetry in her Apology for Want is wonderful. I like it for two reasons, the jarring line breaks and her allusions to classical literature. If you appreciate that sort of thing, then you may enjoy her Inferno. As you’ve noticed, amazon.com gives away several pages here (and more possible through the “read inside” feature). I did peak in to read her Note on the Translation of how Bergvall’s “Via” was the impetus for Bang’s attempt at translating the first tercet. I love how she starts, with the enjambment that makes apt meanings with Dante’s lines in this tercet. But I’m not crazy about the unrestricted verse length wildly varied through the whole (and the lack of any attempt at terza rima makes it less interesting to me than what the Clive James translation tries for):

    Stopped mid-motion in the middle
    Of what we call our life, I looked up and saw no sky–
    Only a dense cage of leaf, tree, and twig, I was lost.

    You may have found Harriet Staff’s review (which links to a couple of others), and in it there are some interesting quotations of Bang, on her translation.

  9. April 25, 2013 5:55 pm

    Thanks for bringing Harriet Staff’s comments to my attention. I have to say that I do not fully understand her comments; partly because it seems that Staff had only read Canto 34 when she wrote her remarks, partly because I have not read Bang’s book (although I plan to), and possibly also partly because I seem to approach poetry very differently than Staff (and the commentators she quotes) .

    After I read Bang’s translation, I hope to go back and re-read Staff’s comment and follow her links.

    But, after reading quite a few mediocre Bible translations, it is refreshing to see the intelligence, care, and diversity that various translators bring to Dante.

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