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Book review: Clive James's translation of Dante without annotations is earnest but confusing

Dante's writing is enjoying renewed interest, fuelled in part by Dan Brown's latest novel and Clive James's translation of The Divine Comedy, Steve Donoghue writes
Dante Alighieri depicted reading The Divine Comedy in Guido Novello's court in 1850. DeAgostini / Getty Images
Dante Alighieri depicted reading The Divine Comedy in Guido Novello's court in 1850. DeAgostini / Getty Images

The Divine Comedy

Dante (translated by Clive James)


There is an astonishment, a certain mad arrogance (or even madder humility) in presenting an English translation of Dante's Divine Comedy to a 21st-century audience without any accompanying notes. Purists might say "the poem - any poem - should be able to stand on its own, to speak clearly without the crutch of notes" - but such purists are seldom translators. If you produce a translation of Homer without notes, you run the risk of watching your readers simply wander off in a fog of gods and demigods, baffled as to which one goes where. Nobody would deny the power of Homer's verse, but what good is power misapplied?

Poems - especially old poems, most especially long old poems - lean heavily on context in order to speak to later ages they never imagined in their own time; context is the air their readers breathe while they're admiring the sights. If you remove it, you create a baffle to that clear speech. You create a version of the poem just for connoisseurs.

Clive James, the fabled critic who is a much-published poet himself, has now produced his long-awaited English-language translation of The Divine Comedy, without any accompanying notes. It's madness, although there's some method in it. Unlike the Iliad, The Divine Comedy was produced from the lifetime reading and bewildering personal obsessions of one man. Dante, writing in exile from his beloved Florence, filled his verses with not only the luminous linguistic virtuosity James so rightly praises but with all the book-learning, recondite hobbies, and personal grudges one extremely intelligent (and perhaps - almost certainly? - extremely bitter) exile could muster. The natural literary parallel is the Roman poet Ovid, banished to Tomis by the emperor Augustus, writing verses bewailing his fate.

But where Ovid summoned his grievances for his audience back in Rome, Dante summoned an entire self-created cosmos in which, among other things, to exonerate or arraign practically everybody he'd ever known.

Indeed, further: to create an excruciatingly detailed moral universe in which such fates were inevitable. No modern scholar would dream of issuing an edition of Ovid's Tristia or Epistulae Ex Ponto without any critical apparatus; how much less thinkable in Dante's case?

Perhaps the key is just that simple: James isn't a scholar, except in the exuberantly "amateur" sense he himself praises. For 40 years, in a joyously voluminous outpouring of humanist passion, he has been one of the world's foremost readers and reviewers - primarily a responder, not an intellectual regulator.

The last few years have been especially tumultuous for him: not only did he admit to a long-term affair and undergo, first, the public repudiation of his wife, Dante scholar Prue Shaw, and then a tense reconciliation with her, but he also announced that he had been diagnosed with emphysema and was losing his two-year-long battle with leukaemia.

In interviews, he now speaks like a man who's making his peace with the world. A big new collection of his essays begins to look like a memorial, and a certain added urgency charges his Divine Comedy, a project he's worked on for decades (and which he dedicates to his wife).

Although educated at Cambridge, James has always been the intellectual world's foremost iconoclast autodidact; to such a man, it must have seemed anathema to load the mirthful, spectral beauty of Dante's verse with scholarly notes. The Divine Comedy is a poem of almost unparalleled power - James calls it "a vast act of illumination" - and for James the passionate reader, such notes must have seemed almost a betrayal of that power.

He's aware of the practical utility of such notes; he knows that the rich intellectual world in which Dante lived and wrote, with its abundant allusions to mythology and the Bible, has all but disappeared outside of university graduate seminars. Dante "didn't want the reader to be presented with an insoluble puzzle", he writes. "Dante wanted to be read."

Hence the Dante-annotation industry, which James both acknowledges and eschews. His most famous predecessor in the ranks of amateur Dante translators, the great murder-mystery author Dorothy L Sayers (in a typically pragmatic aside, James muses that the total amount of money her version generated for Penguin Books in the 50 years since its first appearance "must be colossal"), flatly asserted: "We need to know what Dante's characters stood for in his eyes, and therefore we need to know who they were."

To effect this without annotation, James takes a great deal of typically footnoted factual clarification "out of the basement" and interpolates it into the verse of the poem itself, maintaining that "English needs less room than Italian" and so can accommodate additions without slowing the pace.

The extra room is created because he alters Dante's famous rhyme scheme. "The first thing I had learnt," he tells us, "was that a strict terza rima was out of the question" (although Sayers managed it for all three volumes of her translation, "despite the alleged impossibility"). He adopts instead a loose quatrain metre, "augmenting" it as warranted. And with the extra syllables and half-lines this creates, he's able to insert quick clarifications as they crop up.

Such an approach has a mountain of work ahead of it, since Dante is an enthusiastic proponent of the medieval technique of indirection. "The master of men who know" stands in for Aristotle; "she who killed herself for love" is Dido, and so on.

Countless times in the Inferno, Dante entirely refrains from naming some suffering soul, as when in Canto XIX he encounters Pope Nicholas III, buried head-down in rock, his exposed feet forever rippling in open flame. The physical comedy of the scene is the same in James's version as in all others but without any kind of note explaining what simony was, newcomers to Dante's world will be left with the impression that Nicholas is suffering for simple greed. A great many nuances are lost in that substitution.

Things don't necessarily improve in James's version even when Dante does supply names. In Canto VIII of the Inferno, an angry spirit tries to grab hold of the ferry taking Virgil and Dante across the Styx. The man is repulsed, and Dante confesses to his guide that he'd particularly like to see that spirit suffer - and he gets his wish: the other spirits torment him, calling out his name - Filippo Argenti.

But even James' broad quatrains don't have enough room to inform readers that Argenti was a prominent member of a Florentine faction that fought to refuse Dante's recall from exile - and Dante's special anger is meaningless without such an explanation. James is correct that Dante didn't want to puzzle his readers, but those readers were 800 years closer to the facts than we are today - without more help than this Comedia gives them, most of those readers will be very puzzled indeed.

Sometimes even the clarifications James works into the verse need clarification. The harrowing scenario in Inferno's Canto XII provides as good an example as any: the damned souls of tyrants are submerged up to their eyes in a river of boiling hot blood, constantly guarded from the bank by a herd of bow-wielding centaurs who shoot them if they try to escape.

Foremost of these suffering tyrants is Alexander the Great, whom Dante refers to simply by name, Alessandro, before moving on to name others. Instead of just adding "the Great" and hoping for the best, James interpolates his research: "That's Alexander, called, by Seneca, The Cruel and not the Great" - and readers will have to figure out who this Seneca fellow is on their own time.

Admittedly, the defects of James's innovative approach are more often encountered in the name-heavy Inferno than in the Purgatorio or the Paradiso (although their more exalted tone also rules out most of the fun James was able to have in Hell; lines like his delightful coinage from Canto VII - "The Pope pops Satan, Satan pips the Pope" - would feel decidedly out of place in the spheres of the angels and Dante's beloved Beatrice). Dante's poem ascends towards joy, and at times the journey seems keenly personal to James. Certainly it's in these later parts of the poem that the loose-jointed grace of his treatment shows to best advantage, often expertly mirroring the cascade of Dante's verse:


Down through the world of endless bitterness

And on the fair hill where they purge their wrongs,

Up from the peak form which the eyes I bless

Of my dear lady lifted me to find

Light after light throughout these halls of good

[ Paradiso, Canto XVII ]


Ultimately this Divine Comedy is no more congenial to Dante beginners than many of the earlier translations it might have been intended to replace.

Its central conceit - to free the poem from the creeping encumbrance of annotation - is charmingly earnest, but it's also confusing.

For his entire literary career, James has been one of literature's greatest annotators; his essays on books or authors are often thrilling miniature tutorials. It's odd that he would abandon that task right when so many of his readers would most appreciate it.


Steve Donoghue is managing editor of Open Letters Monthly.

Updated: May 25, 2013 04:00 AM