How I Translated The Divine Comedy

Notes on the Beauty, Variety, and Drive of The Divine Comedy—Plus Three Newly Translated Cantos
Reading between the lines.
April 5 2013 1:00 PM

How I Translated The Divine Comedy

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An introduction to the beauty, variety, and drive of Dante’s epic poem—plus three cantos from The Inferno.

Death of Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, by Alexandre Cabanel. Oil on canvas, 1870.
Death of Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta by Alexandre Cabanel. Oil on canvas, 1870.

Image courtesy of WikiPaintings

The following article is adapted from the introduction of Clive James’ new translation of The Divine Comedy, out now from Liveright.*

Many people, not all of them outside Italy, think that the Divine Comedy is a rather misshapen story. And indeed, if it were just a story, it would be back to front: the narrator has an exciting time in Hell, but Purgatory, when it is not about art, is about theology, and Heaven is about nothing else. What kind of story has all the action in the first third, and then settles back to stage a discussion of obscure spiritual matters? But the Divine Comedy isn’t just a story, it’s a poem: one of the biggest, most varied, and most accomplished poems in all the world. Appreciated on the level of its verse, the thing never stops getting steadily more beautiful as it goes on. T. S. Eliot said that the last cantos of Heaven were as great as poetry can ever get. The translator’s task is to compose something to suggest that such a judgment might be right.

My translation of the Divine Comedy is here today because my wife, when we were together in Florence in the mid-1960s, a few years before we were married, taught me that the great secret of Dante’s masterpiece lay in the handling of the verse, which always moved forward even in the most intensely compressed of episodes. She proved this by answering my appeal to have the famous Paolo and Francesca episode in Inferno 5 explained to me from the original text. From various translators including Byron we can see what that passage says. But how did Dante say it? My wife said that the terza rima was only the outward sign of how the thing carried itself along, and that if you dug down into Dante’s expressiveness at the level of phonetic construction you would find an infinitely variable rhythmic pulse adaptable to anything he wanted to convey. One of the first moments she picked out of the text to show me what the master versifier could do was when Francesca tells Dante what drove her and Paolo over the brink and into the pit of sin. In English it would go something like:

“We read that day for delight
About Lancelot, how love bound him.”

She read it in Italian:

“Noi leggevam quel giorno per diletto
Di Lancelotto, come l’amor lo strinse.”

After the sound “-letto” ends the first line, the placing of “-lotto” at the start of the second line gives it the power of a rhyme, only more so. How does that happen? You have to look within. The Italian 11-syllable line feels a bit like our standard English iambic pentameter and therefore tends to mislead you into thinking that the terzina, the recurring unit of three lines, has a rocking regularity. But Dante isn’t thinking of regularity in the first instance any more than he is thinking of rhyme, which is too easy in Italian to be thought a technical challenge: In fact for an Italian poet it’s not rhyming that’s hard.

Dante’s overt rhyme scheme is only the initial framework by which the verse structure moves forward. Within the terzina, there is all this other intense interaction going on. (Dante is the greatest exemplar in literary history of the principle advanced by Vernon Watkins, and much approved of by Philip Larkin, that good poetry doesn’t just rhyme at the end of the lines, it rhymes all along the line.) Especially in modern times, translators into English have tended to think that if this interior intensity can be duplicated, the grand structure of the terzina, or some equivalent rhymed frame work, can be left out. And so it can, often with impressive results, each passage transmuted into very compressed English prose. But that approach can never transmit the full intensity of the Divine Comedy, which is notable for its overall onward drive as much as for its local density of language.

Dante is not only tunneling in the depths of meaning, he is working much closer to the surface texture: working within it. Even in the most solemn passage there might occur a touch of delight in sound that comes close to being wordplay. Still with Paolo and Francesca: in the way the word “diletto,” after the line turning, modulates into “Di Lancelotto,” the shift from “-letto” to “–lotto” is a modulation across the vowel spectrum, and Dante has a thousand tricks like that to keep things moving. The rhymes that clinch the terzina are a very supplementary music compared to the music going on within the terzina’s span.

Dante's The Divine Comedy.
Dante's The Divine Comedy

Courtesy of Liveright

The lines, I found, were alive within themselves. Francesca described how, while they were carried away with what they read, Paolo kissed her mouth. “Questi” (this one right here), she says, “la bocca mi basciò, tutto tremante” (kissed my mouth, all trembling). At that stage I had about a hundred words of Italian and needed to be told that the accent on the final O of “basciò” was a stress accent and needed to be hit hard, slowing the line so that it could start again and complete itself in the alliterative explosion of “tutto tremante.” An hour of this tutorial and I could already see that Dante was paying attention to his rhythms right down to the structure of the phrase and even of the word.

The linked rhymes of the terza rima were a gesture toward form, marking the pulse of the onward surge of the great story, which was driven by its poetry; and would be infinitely less great without its poetry, just as Wagner’s Ring cycle would be infinitely less great without its music. But Dante’s formal requirements for himself went down to the very basics of the handling of language. It was all very precise, and yet it all added up. Though it was assembled from minutely wrought effects, the episode really did have rhythmic sweep. My wife, clearly touched by my sudden impersonation of a proper student, said all the rest of the poem was like that too, including the supposedly colorless theological bits. Every moment danced, and the dance was always moving forward.

The Divine Comedy

~ Dante Alighieri (author) More about this product
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Correction, April 5, 2013: The introduction to this excerpt originally said The Divine Comedy's publisher was W.W. Norton. It is Liveright. (Return.)

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