Poetic Words: Clive James Translates Dante

Dante scholar Peter Hainsworth reviews a new translation of The Divine Comedy in the 10/4 TLS. Hainsworth notes that the poet Clive James, helpfully married to a noted Dante scholar, Prue Shaw, has made (to me) a novel effort to solve the vexing problems of footnotes (how much do you explain, and how do you keep the reader’s experience fluid if apparatus at the bottom of the page keeps interrupting?) And in Dante, there is a lot of context to explain and puzzle over.

From the review:

James solves the puzzles by taking information of all sorts–cultural, historical, doctrinal or simply clarificatory–that he thinks the reader needs “out of the basement and putting it on display in the text.” In other words material that usually appears in the notes becomes part of what Dante himself says, a kind of self-glossing inseparable from the fabric of the whole.”

An interesting idea. And it appears, from the small tidbit Hainsworth quotes, that Clive’s version is a good read; here’s the opening of one canto:

Six thousand long miles eastward it is noon.Clive James' translation of The Divine Comedy

Here night is ending. The Earth’s shadow lies

Level in bed, and in the mid-sky, soon,

Deep up above us, to our searching eyes,

A change will come: the odd star disappears,

The handmaid of the sun approaches. One

By one the sky’s lights shut down as she nears,

Even the loveliest, and it is done:

The new day dawns.

Near the end of the review comes this summing up, “[This translation] is energetic, informative, alive, at times attention-seizing, and for the most part actually enjoyable. Its overall readability gives it a much better chance than most of launching newcomers into Dante’s difficult waters and of keeping their boats afloat for longer.”

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