In defence of Clive James’ translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy

The Divine ComedyI’ve started reading Clive James’ translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, a volume which has been met with mixed reception. Colin Burrow (LRB) and Ian Thomson (FT), among others, have signalled their being largely unimpressed with James’ efforts. A common charge is that the translation lacks fidelity to the original in which ‘accuracy, precision and concision were sovereign virtues’. It’s not only ‘short on precision’, however. It also has too many ‘slangy phrases’ which betray the voice of the antipodean translator as much as they do the original author.

I’m still in ‘Hell’, so I ought to reserve my comments – and reserve the right to change my mind – but apparent already to me is that while James has taken certain liberties, made certain ‘additions’ (his is almost a paraphrase in parts), the wood is certainly not lost for the trees, and the result is something fresh, energetic, poetically sophisticated. James ‘lets Dante’s poetry shine in all its brilliance’. Moreover, the reader is carried along (a point not lost on Jane Goodall), and with a poem of this size the reader needs all the carrying they can get!

To be sure, it would be a great loss indeed if James’ rendering was the only one we had. But it’s not! And this means that fibre deficient highbrow ilk can take a chill pill, pour a wee dram and enjoy the astonishing offering on hand here. And for goodness sake, show some gratitude – the bloke’s been ploughing away on this work for decades!

Fiona Sampson correctly points out that the Comedy is best appreciated with a host of translations (Singleton’s pretty-flat-but-at-least-annotated version, or Ciardi’s pseudo-paraphrase, or Sinclair’s old English version, or Nichols’ excellent translation) alongside a copy of the magnificent lingua toscana itself – could there be a more perfect language for poetry? – and, I would add, at least one decent introduction (I like Sayers’) and a translation (like Musa’s) that includes some helpful critical apparatus. For, as one reviewer pointed out, not everyone is ‘au fait with 13th-century politics and religious struggle in Europe and the Italian peninsula’. And as another noted, ‘Dante requires at least some exegesis’. James, with genius, includes the footnotes and the exegesis in the text itself, and that without robbing the poem of its music.

Anyway, this grateful reader’s now heading back to his reading, and onwards to purgatory …


  1. There’s a very positive review in The Australian – the heading calls the translation ‘simply divine’ and certainly encourages you to have a go at it. I haven’t read the poem since I had a copy of Dorothy Sayers’ version back in the 60s, I think. And I often think it would be good to read that version again, which at the time I thought was terrific. However, James’ translation sounds great, and ‘including’ footnotes seems a brilliant idea. Not quite on the Christmas/summer reading list yet, but… (Actually Alan Jacobs said the other day that putting books on his summer reading list invariably made him *not* want to read them when the time came, and other non-list books would rise up and take their place…)


  2. Hi Jason. I have James’ copy and like you I read the “critics”, but I actually really like it… it grabs me from it’s opening… It’s readable and enjoyable.


  3. Indeed, James is a fine poet and deserves to take his place alongside the other translators of Dante’s masterpiece. I find his clear and lucid rendering of Dante’s poetry to be of the highest order. That is, Mr. James is a poet of the highest order himself and his translation does the Divine Comedy poetic justice in the English. I highly recommend this book!


  4. Bit late to the party but you really should include Pinsky’s translation of Inferno to the list of notable translations to be read at some point. I liked the Jamesian ride but he really does pad, not to mention embellish the original. Some of his rhymes fall with a complete thud as well. Which can completely ruin poetic suspension if you are going to emphasize rhyme to such a degree in the first place. I don’t think he needed to be so obsessed with iambic pentameter either. But all in all a very engrossing read, it gets better as it progresses. Pity he included such a catty introduction as a lot of the grumpy grumblings it contains apply as much to his own translation as anyone else’s.


Comments welcome here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.