Poets can’t help themselves from translating Dante, even if they are only going to do small chunks, as Byron did, having a stab at Francesca of Rimini’s speech from the fifth canto of the “Inferno.” He approached it the most difficult way, rendering “verse for verse the episode in the same metre … I have sacrificed all ornament to fidelity.”
I won’t take up space by quoting it here, but it’s remarkably good and you can see why he stopped after 50 lines. For, as Clive James notes in his excellent introduction to his translation, “for an Italian poet, it’s not rhyming that’s hard.” The terza rima, Dante’s basic unit for the poem, transfers naturally enough to English iambic pentameter, which is not strange to our ears. The point is, as James says, to make the poem flow in English as it did in Italian.
It’s no wonder poets are so drawn to the work: the first part of the “Comedy” is itself an act of homage to a poet or, at the very least, its opening is as such, one poet speaking to another, honored and delighted to be in his company. Virgil, when Dante meets him, has been silent for centuries, so James lays on thick the notion that Virgil has to do some clearing of the tubes before he can achieve full eloquence. And he replies:
“No, not a man. Not now.
I was once, though. A Lombard. Parents born
In Mantua. Both born there.”
Here’s the original:
Rispuosemi: “Non omo, omo gia fui,
e li parenti miei furon lombardi,
mantovani per patria ambedui.“
See the first problem? Virgil, via James, starts off sounding unable to say anything once. We don’t need “not now” or “both born there,” as we have in each case just been, or were about to have been, given that information, but in they go to stuff the line.
Fair enough, it’s his call, and as one reviewer of another translation of Dante once remarked, let he who has tried a canto cast the first stone. I haven’t, but then you don’t have to be a translator, or even a poet, to wonder if the phrase “harden my heart’s lake” earlier on in the first canto isn’t somehow wrong, a mixing of metaphors: But there it is, in the Tuscan, “nel lago del cor m’era durata” (which also prefigures the revelation at the end of the Inferno that its deepest pit is frozen, not burning). Only you’re not going to know that unless you’re reading it with the original by its side.
He hasn’t made things much easier for himself by deciding not to have any notes. Considering that anyone coming new to the poem isn’t necessarily going to be au fait with 13th-century politics and religious struggle in Europe and the Italian peninsula, Italy not actually existing then, this means that he has to incorporate a certain amount of detail into the poem that would otherwise have nestled safely at the bottom of the page. Some people are allergic to footnotes, some love them, but I wonder whether this means that James’ version will be recommended to those wishing to familiarize themselves with Dante’s great work.
“Perhaps boldly,” says James, “I would say that all the reader needs to know is in the poem as I have presented it.” I don’t think there’s any “perhaps” about it, but readers may be puzzled when Vanni Fucci’s obscene gesture to God, known at the time as “the figs,” is still called “the figs” by James, although what James describes — “two fingers up from each [hand]” — is unmistakably a very Anglo-Saxon V-sign.
Never mind. This is in the grand scheme of things a footling detail, and there are many thousands more lines, and two more realms, to get through. James is unable or unwilling to pull off, or replicate, Dante’s trick of ending each book with the word “stelle” — stars — but then if he’d done so he would have lost the impressive couplet with which he closes the whole poem, and, as he says, there aren’t that many rhymes in English for “stars”: “… the deepest wish that I could feel/ And all my will, were turning with the love/ That moves the sun and all the stars above.”
It’s slightly tautologous, in that there are no stars below, and if you can’t end with the word “stars” you might have ended it with “love,” as that’s what the whole poem is about; both the love of God for all creation and Dante’s love for Beatrice. (A touching corollary of this is that it was James’ wife who taught him how to read the poem properly in the first place; moreover, he dedicates the book to her and closes his introduction with a tribute to her scholarship.)
A greater liberty is taken when he attributes to Dante a foreknowledge of the Einsteinian concept of the space-time continuum, but then that’s forgivable as a secular translation of divine omnipotency. He can, on the other hand, return us to a sense of the original: when St. Peter lets rip at the church in Canto 27 of “Paradiso,” he keeps the triple repetition of “il luogo mio” — “my place” — renders “puzza” as “muck” (could have been stronger?) and “‘l perverso” as “the twisted one” (i.e., Satan), which I have seen elsewhere rather less forcefully translated as “the apostate.”
It’s a mixed bag, then, but a huge one, and let no one impugn James’ incredibly hard work — he has been working on this for decades — and seriousness of purpose and intent. Dante is full of conundrums for translators, and if anyone is going to bring him to a new audience, I’d far rather it was James than … well, I’m not even going to mention his name here.