If you only knew Clive James from his sparkling and acerbically merciless television, then you would only know one side of the ebullient Australian. He is so much more, and moreso nowadays, a practitioner in literature. He is a poet and a memoirist and a brilliantly incisive literary critic, as a wider readership discovered when that fat book of essays on writers called Cultural Amnesia appeared, which work is currently being translated into Chinese.
Translating Dante’s The Divine Comedy has long been a cherished project, since the mid-sixties when he first met his wife, who is an authority on Italian literature. Now finally, despite recent serious illness, James has completed the task of putting the long narrative poem into accessible English, choosing to do so in quatrains.
Written in the early fourteenth century and finished in 1321, the year of Dante’s death, La Divina Comedia is generally regarded as the greatest work of epic poetry ever written. “One of the tributes we must pay Dante’s great poem is that all subsequent human knowledge seems to unfold from it,’’ writes James in a translator’s note.
He loves the sound of Italian – otherwise he hardly would have bothered with the 536-page enterprise now, would he? – but that inevitably makes his task all the more difficult. The sense of translation falling short, despite the translator’s best efforts is an old theme, and James is no exception. “Some of the phrases, known by heart to every educated person in Italy, sound more wonderful in Italian than they ever can in English,“ he comments.
He takes the word “sinistra” as an example, the dull-sounding “left” in English (as opposed to “right”). But he knows too that Dante didn’t necessarily have it easier than his 21st century translator either. “Part of the consolation, as he cudgels his brains through the long nights, is that Dante thought the same about himself.”
The Divine Comedy is so influential that it actually was integral in the adaptation of the Tuscan dialect, in which it is written, as the standardized Italian language. The poem is divided into three parts, Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, describing Dante's travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven.
The fantastic journey is generally understood as an allegory of the soul's journey towards God, as the sweeping narrative draws on medieval Christian theology and philosophy. Dante had a strict rule not to rhyme Christ with any word but itself, a radiant example of the reverence and awe in which he held the divinity.