There are two fundamental questions for contemporary readers of Dante’s Inferno translated into English. The first is “What should we make of the story?” assuming we don’t want to pull on our scholar’s togs and get all 1300 CE. The second is “How should we judge our experience of the language?” considering Dante is famously difficult to translate.
I’ll address both questions within the context of Clive James’ new translation of Inferno published as part of The Divine Comedy earlier this year.
What the Hell is Up with Hell?
As you doubtless know if you bothered to click through to this post, the Inferno follows Dante Alighieri, a Florentine Italian born in the 13th century who has lost his way in middle age as he travels through hell accompanied by the poet Virgil in search of (ultimately) God’s love or, as it may be, the hottest platonic one-night stand in all of literary history with his dead and now angelic crush-for-eternity, Beatrice.
Dante’s excellent adventure will take him through Purgatory and finally to Heaven, but first he has to get past hell; and hell is a horrible place to live, although it is unbeatable as a destination if you are tourist, which is essentially what Dante is.
As a fictitious world – and since I am a liberal Christian, I am going to posit hell does not exist – Dante’s Inferno is an unparalleled feat of imagination. Hogwarts may be more fey and witty, Middle Earth may be more thoroughly worked out (though maybe not since Dante drags all of Italy and much of 1300 Europe into his poem). But for sheer originality and ummph-um-pa-pa, nothing comes close to Dante’s hell.
Nothing comes close to the Inferno in the category of high-class torture porn, either. And torture porn is something this monument of world literature doubtlessly is. Dante the poet, rather than Dante the character in the poem, revels in the sufferings he has dreamed up and canto after canto delivers stand-out horrifying and/or disgusting examples of the concept of “poetic justice”.
Hell is supposed to be the expression of divine retribution. Why then does it often feel closer to bloody-minded titillation? This question is probably familiar to anyone who has seen the frescos in medieval Italian churches or Albrecht Dürer‘s gorgeous engravings of the Inferno, but it is worth repeating.
Then there is the issue of just what kind of sins get you into hell and how much shit these sins get you into once you are there.
Dante’s hell starts off sensibly enough. We begin with the virtuous pagans: you were good guys, but you didn’t know Christ so sorry, you’re screwed. Then sins of appetite or emotion that follow along with many of the seven deadly ones: lust, gluttony, and wrath for example. Then heresy. We know medieval Christians were particular about people disagreeing with them, even on the small stuff, so okay fine, we’ll give Dante a pass on heresy. Then violence in the seventh circle – we’re right with you D, we definitely don’t like violence.
But then we get to the eighth circle of hell, where the fraudulent are punished, and here the head scratching of modern humanist readers begins.
Because the eighth circle is filled with panderers, flatterers, astrologists, simoniacs, corrupt politicians, thieves, counterfeiters – while Attila the Hun is rumored to be floating around a whole circle above.
How is it exactly that a guy who raped and killed his way across the Eastern and Western Roman Empires for twenty years is considered a little less bad than someone who made a living out of telling a dull king he was brilliant or proclaiming that since the moon was in the seventh house, now is a propitious moment to make the moves on your lady friend?
And speaking of rape, where are the rapists? Mixed in with the violent I guess, but they don’t merit a mention to all appearances. Where are those that hate? In the eighth circle, the only ones that truly deserve to be there by modern lights are the Sowers of Discord. Traitors are in the ninth and last circle, with Satan in the center of it all.
Dante Loves Him Some Dante
Another particular feature of the Inferno is just how highly Dante thinks of himself. It starts with the foundational premise of the whole Divine Comedy, namely that Beatrice in heaven has persuaded God to give Dante some special help.
Now I know God is all-knowing and all-powerful and his love has no bounds, etcetera; but there are plenty of people in heaven who have friends on earth, and God seems to have issued exactly one golden ticket for exactly one special tour of his magical damnation plus salvation factory, and that ticket went to you, Dante. And you didn’t even need to buy a Wonka Bar to get it.
Then there is the remarkable early canto where poets like Homer, Horace, and Ovid welcome Dante as a colleague and equal. Now I’m not saying they are wrong. Dante is their equal. But – dude – you write yourself into a scene where great dead poets of antiquity say you’re the bomb, and then you get all choked up and grateful about it? I ain’t buying.
It almost seems petty to note, beside these examples, that Dante the character also makes a habit in hell of telling various suffering souls he can make or break their reputations back on earth if they don’t play nice and answer his questions. Apparently, being God’s special project and an immortal poet ain’t enough for D. He has to make sure people know he’s the world’s best PR flak, too.
There’s also the whole Dante-Virgil bromance, or maybe it’s more accurate to call it a major man-crush Dante has on Virgil; and also the Dante getting to decide who goes to hell thing; but I will let these slide because other commentators have noted them and because I believe I might now be trying your patience with this line of criticism. If not my flipness.
The Clive James’ Translation of Dante’s Inferno
I should say before I go forward, offering small praise for great achievements, that Dante consistently writes scenes that are convincingly felt; that many of these scenes are compelling without understanding the background of the characters involved (but not always); and that the Inferno has incredible momentum – it reads fast and short, even with the volume of detail and people it contains.
This is especially remarkable considering that James’ translation of the Inferno is substantially longer than the original because he has woven into his work many explanations about characters and stories which Dante’s readers would not have required and which other translators typically place in footnotes.
I find this an odd choice because it is for just such information that God first invented footnotes and more recently, the tablet computer. I can’t blame James for ignoring this second invention, since he says he began work long before the iPad and Kindle Fire were invented; but these devices render the need for extensive notes obsolete. Honestly, most folks who are going to buy a copy of The Divine Comedy likely own mobile computers and can sit comfortably in bed with both James’ book and their tablet. I did. Worked beautifully.
As for James’ translation, I think it is as good as you can expect from the impossible task of translating Dante into English.
It’s not simply Dante’s famous ABA BCB terza rima that makes him difficult. English translators with any sense at all avoid it, and James uses an ABAB scheme and iambic pentameter with an AA rhyme at the end of each canto instead.
It’s also that Dante is justly celebrated for the vividness, precision, compactness, and music of his poetry. The little time I spent with a side by side translation of Dante makes me admire anyone brave enough to try it.
James is brave enough and often succeeds beautifully. You’ll find many sequences of lines where you’ll forget you are reading a translation or rhyming poetry at all.
But then, inevitably, you’ll also find lines where syntax or word choice (and so sense) are distorted to fit the poem’s scheme as well as filler words, stuck in to keep the pentameter or jury-rig a rhyme. This pops up during moments when, for example, Dante might ask a question and Virgil says before answering it, “You ask me so I’ll tell you.”