I’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 …