Poetry: Divine Comedy : A Note on the Translation | clivejames.com
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A Note on the Translation

In this new translation of the Divine Comedy, Dante speaks through Clive James with a strong voice in English we haven’t heard before. The translator makes the unusual choice of recasting the original Italian into quatrains (not the tercets of Dante’s terza rima), which he meticulously constructs with keen attention to rhythm and rhyme. The poetic metre imbues the narrative with a drive that propels the pilgrim on his journey from Hell to Heaven. And with it James develops and sustains an impressive periodic syntax—see, e.g., Adam’s appearance in Canto 26 of Heaven—that pulls the reader in and pushes him along the poem’s course too. Unsuspecting readers will find themselves snagged, and happily so, even in the poem’s dense doctrinal passages, where often the most devoted fall by the wayside or simply skip ahead to what they imagine is the next good bit of poetry. Consequently, the Beatrice we hear speaking in these Jamesian quatrains (not to mention Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure and Peter Damian, among others) may be the most convincing in English verse. In this translation there are no lulls when scholastic doctors or purging souls or prolix demons hold forth. Like the pilgrim, you too, good reader—lettor, Dante calls you in more than one direct address—move swiftly to the ultimate destination at the end of the poem.

James also makes the laudable decision to flesh out the more obscure references in Dante’s poetry by incorporating into the translation explanatory details culled from commentaries, which are often necessary to understand fully Dante’s point in a given passage. The translator decides where and when to add these for the sake of clarity. These additional bits, tipped in judiciously, actually bring the reader closer to the original by removing the necessity of having to consult notes. Some scholars may balk but the typical reader needs help in negotiating Dante’s elaborate network of references and will appreciate not having to search it out in footnotes, endnotes or notes in an accompanying volume. Anyone comparing this translation with the original may wonder at times why Dante didn’t do this himself. Clive James has given us a new Dante, a forceful Dante, a Dante who deserves to be heard.

—Dennis Looney

Dennis Looney, a professor of Italian and classics at the University of Pittsburgh, is the author of ‘My Muse will have a story to paint’: Selected Prose of Ludovico Ariosto (2010) and Freedom Readers: The African American Reception of Dante Alighieri and the Divine Comedy (2011).