“Clive James AO CBE (born Vivian Leopold James on 7 October 1939) is an Australian author, critic, broadcaster, poet, translator and memoirist, best known for his autobiographical series Unreliable Memoirs, for his chat shows and documentaries on British television and for his prolific journalism. He has lived and worked in the United Kingdom since 1962.”
Anyone familiar with James’s television work would probably be astonished to find that he is a poet and translator. Yet these are the two key skills needed to tackle Dante’s humungous 34-canto epic.
Dante composed Inferno in terza rima, which is poetry written in groups of three lines, especially in iambs, which rhyme aba bcb cdc. This particular form is rather difficult to keep up in English because, as you can see, in order to do it properly you have to come up with line endings containing three words that rhyme. In Italian, which is the language the Inferno was written in, that’s not so difficult since most of words end in one vowel or another. So James uses a much easier form for the translation. He divides the text into quatrains, that is four-line groups which rhyme abab cdcd efef. That way he only had to rhyme two words together at the line endings. (I trust I make myself obscure.) It is an inspired choice and enabled him to proceed with the translation without bending over backwards to accommodate a difficult rhyme scheme.
Most of the time James’s translation is superb. But he alternates between a “high” style of writing and a “low” one and usually this works – usually. To give you an example, here are some lines from canto 2:
And then Paul’s ship,
The Chosen Vessel, came to Rome as well—
The vessel, in a sense, that Faith might sip
Renewal from, and did. But now, pray tell,
Why me? Who says I get to go there?
Do I look like Aeneas? Am I Paul?
See what I mean? He juxtaposes the rather archaic “pray tell” with “Who says I get to go there? / Do I look like Aeneas?” which to modern ears sounds distinctly colloquial. It’s a style that was used successfully by Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot and ultimately by Dante himself.
James had to make a number of choices when writing the translation, leaving out parts of Dante’s text and adding other parts here and there in order to produce something that worked as poetry. He has been criticized for that, but I think it makes the whole thing much more readable in most cases. He also does away with footnotes, preferring instead to incorporate some of the external material into the text itself, which of course is another stroke of genius.
What he doesn’t stint on is Dante’s gruesome imagination. As the narrator is led through hell he comes across various atrocities as individuals and groups are punished for their sins, usually with a punishment that bears some relation to the sin they committed. We see people wandering around with their entrails dangling out, giants munching away at various sinners, one guy gnawing away at another guy’s head, and everywhere demons with whips strut around to make sure the crowd keeps moving. Dante was not kind to some of the people he knew and places them down there among the nine levels of hell to endure their punishment for past sins.
The book is, in fact, a great read and has something of the flavor of a thriller about it. It may not be a word-for-word translation of the famous text, but it is compelling enough to keep you reading and has all the drama needed to offer new and exciting manifestations of brutality on every page! All in all, I’d recommend it.