How I Translated The Divine Comedy

A New Translation of Canto 26 of Dante’s Inferno
Reading between the lines.
April 5 2013 1:03 PM

How I Translated The Divine Comedy

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The Inferno, Canto 26: Dante meets Ulysses.

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

Florence, rejoice! For you are grown so great
Your wings beat proudly over land and sea,
And even Hell proclaims your rich estate,
Speaking your name abroad, your destiny.
Among your citizens, I’d just found five
To shame me that I shared their place of birth.
Their skill at theft when they were still alive
Brought you no honour. What their schemes were worth
You’ll find, if near the dawn our dreams come true,
When Prato rises up against your greed,
A craving felt by other places too:
The sooner done the better, and indeed
Done years ago it had been overdue—
It must be done, or it will weigh the more
On me as I grow older. We moved, then,
And on the stairs the rocks had made before
For our descent, my Leader climbed again
And drew me up. We went the winding way
Among the rocks and splinters, and the foot
Made no advance without the hand in play.
I grieved then and I grieve now when I put
My mind to what I saw, and I rein in
My powers more than usual, lest they run
Where virtue guides them not, and I begin
To curse the gift my lucky star, or one
Yet higher, gave me. Count the fireflies
The peasant sees when he rests on the hill—
In the season when the one who lights our eyes,
And all the world, least hides its face, and will
Soon sink to give the fly’s place to the gnat—
The lights he sees along the valley floor
Might well be glowing in the vineyards that
He gathered grapes in, or the fields that wore
Him out from tilling them that day. The same
Number of lights were strewn in the eighth ditch
Gleaming, so I could see them when I came
Within sight of its base. The night looked rich:
A lake of lights, and each light was a flame.
Elias, whom the bears avenged when he
Was baited by small boys, once watched it flare—
Elijah’s chariot, majestically
Drawn skyward when its horses pawed the air.
No matter how he fixed it with his eyes
He made out nothing but the flame alone:
He saw a little shining cloud arise,
The glow surrounding where the fire had flown.
Just so each flame here moves along the throat
Of this ditch and none shows it is a theft
Of some vile sinner’s form we may not note.
I stood there on the bridge above the cleft
Grasping a rock as I stretched out to see.
For sure I would have fallen had I not
Held on—and then my Leader, seeing me
Look so intent, said “All these flames are what
False counsellors must wear and be burned by.”
“Master,” I said, “I’m sure now, having heard
You speak, of what I guessed. Already I
Wanted to ask, before you said a word,
About that fire, divided at its peak
As if it were the pyre of those two sons
Of Oedipus who killed each other. Speak
Of who is in there. Are there two? Which ones?”
He answered. “Two are punished there inside.
Ulysses is in there, and Diomed.
In vengeance now together they are tied
As once in wrath. They groan for pain and dread
Within the flame, and for the clever plan
Of the gift horse that opened up the gate
For the noble seed from which great Rome began
To first burst forth, and in that fiery state
They rue their craft by which Deidamia
Gave them Achilles, and they feel the heat
For what they stole from Troy and took so far
The stricken city sought its own defeat:
Pallas Athena’s image. There they are.
The thieves of the Palladium. In there.”
“If they can speak,” I told my Guide, “I pray,
If they can speak inside these lights they share,
This light, I pray that you might let me stay—
May it avail a thousand times, this prayer—
Until that flame with double horn comes near.
You see I bend towards it with desire.”
And he: “Your prayer deserves praise, never fear:
And therefore I will grant what you require.
But guard your tongue. I’ll be the one to speak.
I understood what you would like to know,
And they might scorn your language: they were Greek.”
After the flame had reached the time and place
My Guide thought fitting, thus he spoke to it:
 “You that are two within one fiery space,
If while I lived you ever thought me fit
To be respected when I wrote of you—
If I was worthy of you, whether much
Or little, when I did my best to do
You justice with my heightened lines—let such
Devotion from me sway you to stand still
While one of you tells where, when he was lost,
He went to die.” Hearing my Master’s will,
The larger of the flaming horns was tossed
And murmured as if by the wind misled.
Its point waved to and fro as if it were
A tongue that spoke, a voice thrown out, that said:
“When I left Circe, having lived with her
More than a year in Italy, before
Aeneas got there, no love for my son,
No duty to my father, and what’s more
No love I owed Penelope—the one
Who would have been most glad—could overcome
In me the passion that I had, to gain
Experience of the world, and know the sum
Of virtue, pleasure, wisdom, vice and pain.
Once more I set out on the open sea,
With just one ship, crewed by my loyal men,
The stalwart who had not deserted me.
As far as Spain I saw both shores, and then
Morocco, and Sardinia, and those
Numberless islands that the sea surrounds.
But men grow old and slow as the time goes,
And so did we, and so we reached the bounds
Of voyaging, that narrow outlet marked
By Hercules so nobody should sail
Beyond, and anybody thus embarked
Knows, by those pillars, he is sure to fail.
Seville on my right hand, I left behind
Ceuta on my left. ‘Brothers,’ I said,
‘Dangers uncounted and of every kind
Fit to make other sailors die of dread
You have come through, and you have reached the west,
And now our senses fade, their vigil ends:
They ask to do the easy thing, and rest.
But in the brief time that remains, my friends,
Would you deny yourselves experience
Of that unpeopled world we’ll find if we
Follow the sun out into the immense
Unknown? Remember now your pedigree.
You were not born to live as brutes. Virtue
And knowledge are your guiding lights.’ I gave
With these words such an impulse to my crew
For enterprise that I could not, to save
My life, have held them back. We flew
On oars like wings, our stern, in that mad flight,
Towards the morning. Always left we bore.
Stars of the other pole we saw at night,
And ours so low that from the ocean floor
It never once arose. Five times the light
Had kindled and then quenched beneath the moon
Since first we ventured on our lofty task,
When we could see a mountain, though not soon
Could see it clearly: distance was a mask
That made it dim. But it was high, for sure:
Higher than anything I’d ever seen,
It climbed into the sky. Who could be more
Elated than we were, had not we been
Plunged straight away into deep sorrow, for
The new land gave rise to a storm that struck
Our ship’s forepart. Three times the waters led
Us in a circle. Fourth time, out of luck.
Stern high, bow low, we went in. Overhead
Somebody closed the sea, and we were dead.”

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.

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