Is Dante still relevant in our new world? As if to prove this point, the most recent season of Mad Men kicked off with John Ciardi’s 1954 translation of Inferno:
Midway in our life's journey, I went astray
from the straight road and woke to find myself
alone in a dark wood.
Last month poet and critic Clive James released a new translation of The Divine Comedy. Although, in fairness, it’s more of an interpretation than a strict translation. I don’t think the purists would enjoy it, but if you're not doing a masters thesis on it, I think you'll love this translation. I know I’m certainly enjoying it.
If you read Dante in the original italian it flows. Even in the dryest section you feel yourself being pulled forward because of the rhymes. English translations, however, are tricky in large part because it’s extremely difficult to translate Dante’s interlocking three-line rhyme scheme to English.
James opted for a strict, but English-friendly, rhyme scheme.
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 —
James, who turned 73 last year, has written a lot of other books. But he says Dante is different: “In a way, I’ve spent my whole life training for it.” James fell in love with The Divine Comedy in Florence in the 1960s when his girlfriend, Prue Shaw, read romantic passages from the original Italian to him.
“Dante is very compact, and there’s so much going on in a tight space that you’d swear you were reading a modern poet,” James continued in his NYT interview. “The temptation for any Italian poet is just outright lyricism, because the language is so beautiful. But Dante is never beautiful for its own sake, and every sentence, every line, is loaded with incident and meaning and wordplay.”
“You’ve got to be both accurate and inventive and not let the inventiveness destroy the accuracy,” he said. “You don’t want to sound too oldy-worldy, but on the other hand it mustn’t sound too new-worldy. And you don’t want any Hollywood slang creeping in.”
The NPR’s Camila Domonoske sums it up best: “This isn't a student's version of the Commedia. It's a translation for readers who are culturally engaged, willing to follow lengthy narratives, and curious about free will and the soul.”
Take a look at these beautiful passages from Canto 1 of James' translation.
This one propelled such terror from its face
Into my mind, all thoughts I had before
Of ever rising to a state of grace
Were crushed. And so, as one who, mad for gain,
Must find one day that all he gains is lost
My sage, so tell me how this mad attack
Can be called off. Then he: “You need to choose
Another route.” This while he watched me weep.
“This way there's no way out. You're bound to lose:
Bound by the spell of this beast pledged to keep
You crying, you or anyone who tries
To get by. In a bad mood it can kill,
And it's never in a good mood. See those eyes?
So great a hunger nothing can fulfil.
The best part of Divine Comedy is Hell. In part, this is because Dante explores a lot of human folly. Before picking up James' version, it had been a couple of years since I last read Dante, I missed him more than I thought.