Poetry: Divine Comedy : Translator's Note | clivejames.com
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Translator's Note

For Dante it was a strict rule not to rhyme the word “Christ” with any other word except itself. I have followed him in that, as in any other matter of decorum. But when it comes to vocabulary, the translator needs a decorum of his own. Dante, the man on the spot, never had to think about whether his words were apt to the age, whereas the translator, if he is not careful, will find himself thinking of nothing else. Not wanting to get between the reader and the original, I have tried to avoid anachronistic language except when it could hide itself in the blur of time. I used the word “bastille” only after checking that it might—just might—have reached Florence from Paris in time for Dante to hear it. “Breaker’s yard” is no doubt a modern term, but for a long time there have been ships and there were always places where they were broken up, so I thought a term like that might be slipped in, whereas one could not possibly use, say, “napalm,” a word which would have been very employable in the lower regions of Hell. Such a modern coinage would stand out like a phrase of recent slang in one of those television dramas where millions have been spent on the look of the thing but the whole effect is dissipated by an untimely phrase coming out of an actor’s mouth. Down among the Evil-Claws, however, I used modern low-life filth because a shock effect is exactly what such scatological language is always after.

As I mentioned in the Introduction, on numerous occasions I thought it useful to employ the time-honoured consensus of the scholarship in the interests of clarity, and lift a name, as it were, from the footnotes to the text. Let one instance stand for many. For hundreds of years it has been more or less agreed among the scholars that one of the animals Dante meets early in the poem is a symbol for Avarice. So I put that in. On the other hand, I have left some of the mysteries unsolved because there has never been an answer to them. Who was the Veltro? Scholars are still wondering, so the reader of this translation will have to wonder too. Such a question will soon become recognizable as a Dantesque puzzle. The renowned German scholar Karl Vossler once said that Dante was a great mystifier. And so he was, but not as much as he wasn’t. Really he was a great clarifier. The Divine Comedy is a vast act of illumination. Even for Hell, Gustav Doré was too dark an illustrator, and by the time we get to Purgatory the whole universe is lighting up, so that you can see, in fine detail, everything that the poet refers to. I may have taken a liberty, towards the very end, in making Dante seem to intuit the space-time continuum. Nobody ever intuited that before Einstein. But one of the tributes we must pay Dante’s great poem is that all subsequent human knowledge seems to unfold from it.

As to my chosen stanza form, there are no puzzles at all. The form is a quatrain, either simple or augmented, and any augmentations use the same rhymes, so abab might grow to ababa or ababab or sometimes more. The aim is an easy-seeming onward flow, except at the end of the canto, where a couplet closes the action with a snap. In every other formal respect, the layout is established by Dante himself. It was his idea to have one hundred cantos divided into three lots of thirty-three, with a single canto to start things off. These three groupings of cantos are known to scholars as canticles, but it is perhaps less ponderous to call them books. Dante ends each book with the word “stars.” It would be nice if the translator could do the same, but in English the word “stars” has very few words with which to rhyme. Rather than write a strained couplet to close each book, I wrote a final line in which the stars indeed show up, but not as the last word.

In the poetic world of Dante, things happen in a certain order; with the words, from start to distant finish, always sounding inevitable. Therein will lie the translator’s most daunting obstacle. Some of the phrases, known by heart to every educated person in Italy, sound more wonderful in Italian than they ever can in English. It was bound to happen, because different languages have different words for the same thing. In Italian, for example, there is the beautiful word “sinistra.” In English we just say “left”: nothing like as sinuous. By extension, there will be Italian phrases that the translator can’t hope to equal for their sonority. But working on such a large scale, there will be other Italian phrases that will offer opportunities to be rendered in English words as resonant as he knows how to make them. Finally, then, it will come down to what he can do with verse. The poet will be on his mettle. Part of his consolation, as he cudgels his brains through the long nights, is that Dante thought the same about himself.