How I Translated The Divine Comedy

A New Translation of Canto 1 of Dante’s Inferno
Reading between the lines.
April 5 2013 1:01 PM

How I Translated The Divine Comedy

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The Inferno, Canto 1: Dante enters Hell.

Dante and Virgil in Hell, by Jean-Leon Gerome. Oil on canvas. Currently at the Musée Georges-Garret, Vesoul, France.
Dante and Virgil in Hell by Jean-Leon Gerome

Courtesy of Morot-Dubufe/Wikimedia Commons

The following canto is reprinted from Clive James’ new translation of The Divine Comedy, out now from Liveright.

At the mid-point of the path through life, I found
Myself lost in a wood so dark, the way
Ahead was blotted out. The keening sound
I still make shows how hard it is to say
How harsh and bitter that place felt to me—
Merely to think of it renews the fear—
So bad that death by only a degree
Could possibly be worse. As you shall hear,
It led to good things too, eventually,
But there and then I saw no sign of those,
And can’t say even now how I had come
To be there, stunned and following my nose
Away from the straight path. And then, still numb
From pressure on the heart, still in a daze,
I stumbled on the threshold of a hill
Where trees no longer grew. Lifting my gaze,
I saw its shoulders edged with overspill
From our sure guide, the sun, whose soothing rays
At least a little melted what that night
Of dread had done to harden my heart’s lake—
And like someone who crawls, half dead with fright,
Out of the sea, and breathes, and turns to take
A long look at the water, so my soul,
Still thinking of escape from the dark wood
I had escaped, looked back to see it whole,
The force field no one ever has withstood
And stayed alive. I rested for a while,
And then resumed, along the empty slope,
My journey, in the standard crofter’s style,
Weight on the lower foot. Harder to cope
When things got steeper, and a mountain cat
With parti-coloured pelt, light on its feet,
In a trice was in my face and stayed like that,
Barring my way, encouraging retreat.
Three beasts—was this the leopard, Lechery?—
Were said to block the penitential climb
For sinners and for all society,
And here was one, sticking to me like lime.
Not only did it hamper me, it made
Me think of turning back. Now was the time
Morning begins. The sun, fully displayed
At last, began its climb, but not alone.
The stars composing Aries, sign of spring,
Were with it now, nor left it on its own
When the First Love made every lovely thing
The world can boast: a thought to give me heart
That I might counter, in this gentle hour
Of a sweet season, the obstructive art,
Pretty to see but frightful in its power,
Of that cat with the coloured coat. But wait:
If fear had waned, still there was fear enough
To bring on Pride, the lion, in full spate:
Head high, hot breath to make the air look rough—
As rocks in summer seem to agitate
The atmosphere above them without cease—
So rabid was its hunger. On its heels
The wolf appeared, whose name is Avarice,
Made thin by a cupidity that steals
Insatiably out of its own increase,
Obtained from many people it made poor.
This one propelled such terror from its face
Into my mind, all thoughts I had before
Of ever rising to a state of grace
Were crushed. And so, as one who, mad for gain,
Must find one day that all he gains is lost
In a flood of tears, a conscience racked with pain,
Just so I felt my hopes came at the cost
Of being forced, by this unresting beast,
Little by little down towards that wood
Whose gloom the sun can never in the least
Irradiate. But all at once there stood
Before me one who somehow seemed struck dumb
By the weight of a long silence. “Pity me,
And try to tell me in what form you come,”
I cried. “Is it a shade or man I see?”
And he replied: “No, not a man. Not now.
I was once, though. A Lombard. Parents born
In Mantua. Both born there.” That was how
His words emerged: as if with slow care torn,
Like pages of a book soaked shut by time,
From his clogged throat. “Caesar was getting on
When I was young. That’s Julius. A crime,
His death. Then, after he was gone,
I lived in Rome. The good Augustus reigned.
The gods were cheats and liars. As for me,
I was a poet.” He grew less constrained
In speech, as if trade-talk brought fluency.
“I sang about Anchises’ son, the just
Aeneas, pious, peerless. When proud Troy
Was burned to ashes, ashes turned to dust
Which he shook off his feet, that marvellous boy.
He did what any decent hero must:
Set sail. But you, you turn back. Tell me why.
Why not press on to the delightful peak?
The root cause of all joy is in the sky.”
Almost too shocked and overawed to speak—
For now the one who fought for words was I—
I asked him, just as if I didn’t know:
“Are you Virgil? Are you the spring, the well,
The fountain and the river in full flow
Of eloquence that sings like a seashell
Remembering the sea and the rainbow?
Of all who fashion verse the leading light?
The man of honour? What am I to say?
Through learning you by heart I learned to write.
My love for your book turned my night to day.
You are my master author. Only you
Could teach me the Sweet Style that they call mine.
I could go on. But what am I to do
About this animal that shows no sign
Of letting me proceed? It scares me so,
My veins are empty, all the blood sucked back
Into the heart. There’s nothing you don’t know,
My sage, so tell me how this mad attack
Can be called off.” Then he: “You need to choose
Another route.” This while he watched me weep.
“This way there’s no way out. You’re bound to lose:
Bound by the spell of this beast pledged to keep
You crying, you or anyone who tries
To get by. In a bad mood it can kill,
And it’s never in a good mood. See those eyes?
So great a hunger nothing can fulfil.
It eats, it wants more, like the many men
Infected by its bite. Its catalogue
Of victories will be finished only when
Another dog arrives, the hunting dog:
The Veltro. As for now, it’s hard to see
Even his outline through the glowing fog
Of the future, but be assured by me—
The Veltro will make this thing die of shame
For wanting to eat wealth and real estate.
The Veltro’s diet will be bigger game:
Love, wisdom, virtue. It will operate
In humble country, eat the humble bread
Of that sad Italy where Trojans fought
Our local tribes: the Latium beachhead.
The brave Princess Camilla there was brought
To death in battle, and Prince Turnus, too—
Killed by Aeneas, of whose Trojan friends
Euryalus and Nisus died. The new
Great Dog will harry this one to the ends
Of that scorched earth and so back down to Hell,
From which, by envious Lucifer, it was
First sent forth. But by now I’ve pondered well
The path adapted best to serve your cause,
So let me be your guide. I’ll take you through
The timeless breaker’s yard where you will hear
The death cries of the damned who die anew
Each day, though dead already in the year—
No dated stones remain to give a clue—
The earliest sinners died, when time began.
And you’ll see, in the next eternal zone,
Those so content with purging fire they fan
The flames around them, thankful to atone,
Hopeful of being raised to join the blessed.
If you would join them too, we’ll reach a stage
When only someone else shows you the rest:
Someone more worthy, though of tender age
Beside me. I can’t tell you her name yet,
But what I can say is, the Emperor
Who reigns on high vows he will never let
A non-believer—though I lived before
Belief was possible—see where he sits
In judgement and in joy with the elect.”
Sad and afraid, but gathering my wits,
“Poet,” I said, “I ask you to effect,
In the name of that God you will never see,
An exit for me from this place of grief,
And then an entry to where I would be—
Beyond the purging flames of which you tell—
In sight of Peter’s Gate, though that relief
Demands for prelude that I go through Hell.”
And then he moved, and then I moved as well.

Dante Alighieri is the author, most recently, of Paradiso.

Clive James, the author of numerous books of criticism, autobiography, and poetry, writes for the New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker. He lives in London.