How I Translated The Divine Comedy

A New Translation of Canto 5 of Dante’s Inferno
Reading between the lines.
April 5 2013 1:02 PM

How I Translated The Divine Comedy

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The Inferno, Canto 5: Dante meets Paolo and Francesca.

Inferno, Canto V, by Gustave Dore.
Inferno, Canto V by Gustave Dore.

Courtesy of WikiPaintings/Wikimedia Commons

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

So we descended out of Circle One
To Circle Two: the less in measurement,
The greater in its sad cries fit to stun
The senses. Here, deciding who’ll be sent
To which reception, the Selector looms
Whose name is Minos. Horrible to see,
He’s worse to see in action. Separate dooms
For separate deeds, betokened by how he
Runs rings around himself with his long tail,
So many turns for such and such a fault.
The tortured souls, confessing without fail,
Are thus assigned to that drawer in the vault
This connoisseur of turpitude may deem
Appropriate, while to his platform comes
Another load to share the same wild dream.
They watch his living bull-whip do its sums
Always for others, not for them. Not yet.
And then it’s their turn, as they count the loops
That weigh the crimes they hoped he might forget—
And down they go, sad army, naked troops,
To find their level. “You that come to stay
At this unlucky lodge, watch where you tread
And whom you trust,” Minos was moved to bray.
“The width of Hell’s mouth doesn’t mean the dead
Who get in ever get to go away.”
My Leader spoke for me: “Shout till you drop:
His travel papers bear a sacred seal.
This thing is wanted where the moot points stop
And certainties begin. There’s no appeal.”
Here, after Limbo, as I had before,
I heard the countless outcries of lament
Combine to strike me as a constant roar.
This was a place where every light was spent.
It ranted as the sea does in a storm
That splits its own winds to go left or right,
Shrieking in all directions. Thus the form
Of the infernal tempest: day and night
The same, forever shapeless, without rest
It rends and roils the spirits with its force.
They are the smeared signs of how it is blessed:
Their cries can testify to its remorse.
And when they come to where the rocks are cracked
By background pressure, and a fissure gapes
Before them, then we hear the law attacked
That brought them to this pass so none escapes,
As all yell their complaints at that brute fact.
I understood this was the punishment
For carnal sinners, who let appetite
Rule reason, and who, once drawn, are now sent—
Like winter starlings by their wings in flight—
Across the bleak sky in a broad, thick flock:
Here, there, now up, now down, the winds dictate
Their track. Small hope of pausing to take stock
Of whether anguish might not soon abate
At least a little, and no hope at all
Of peace. And as the cranes sing when they fly,
In a long line attracting with their call
Our eyes to them as they move through the sky,
Just so I now saw souls borne on the wind
Trailing their cries of grief towards the spot
Where we stood. “Who are these? How have they sinned?”
I asked my Master. “Dare to tell me what
Dooms them to be so harshly disciplined.”
“The first of those of whom you would have news
Was empress of many peoples.” So explained
My Master. “Willing neither to refuse
Demands from her own lust, nor to be stained
By rules against it, she rewrote the law
To make praiseworthy what had been her vice
And vicious what was virtuous before.
Her name is Semiramis. More than twice
As bad as her hot blood was her incest:
She married her own son so they could rule
The Sultan’s lands, Egypt and all the rest.
The next is Dido, Queen of Carthage, cruel
To the ashes of her husband when she slew
Herself because of love: not love for him,
But for Aeneas. Cleopatra, too—
That dark one there—desire led to a grim
Reckoning. Behold Helen, in whose name
A sea of trouble came to Troy in ships,
And Paris knew it was a sea of flame,
The fire that started when he kissed her lips.
And there’s Tristan . . .” A thousand more at least
He named, the shades who left our life for love:
The gentle women of a time long ceased
To be, and all their cavaliers. Above
My head, the waves of fear closed and increased
Their turbulence, and I was almost lost.
Then I to him: “My Poet, I would speak
With those two—by the ill wind swept and tossed
As light as dead leaves on a mountain creek—
Who do not fly alone, but as a pair.”
And he to me: “Call out, when they can hear,
In the name of love that leads them through the air,
And they will come to you.” When they drew near
I spoke: “Tormented spirits, come to us,
If Someone Else does not forbid you to.
You fly for love, and love we should discuss,
Though it stir shades into a witch’s brew.”
And as when doves that long for their sweet nest
See it, and with their stiffened wings spread wide,
Moved only by desire come home to rest,
So these from Dido’s squadron turned aside
And down through the malignant atmosphere
They came to us in an unerring glide,
So deeply had my summons to appear
Touched them. “O Being gracious and benign—
Visiting us in air whose darkness is
Tinged by the blood of all in our long line—
If the Emperor of the Universe in His
Great mercy were our friend, then we would pray
For your repose, because of your distress
At our sad fate. What you would have us say
Let’s hear about, now that the wind blows less,
So we may speak before it howls once more.”
So she began, he silent in assent.
“Born where the Po descends to the seashore
To meet its followers and rest content,
I was a beauty. Love, in gentle hearts,
Strikes quickly, and the fair form I once had
Before I cruelly lost it—by dark arts
That still offend me—quickly drove him mad.
Love pardons no one loved from Love, and I
Was drawn to him with what force you can see:
It still holds me beside him as we fly.
Love gave two lives one death for destiny.
As for who killed us, Cain will help him die.”
Those stricken souls, through her we heard them speak:
And when I understood the full import
Of what was said, as if my neck grew weak
I hung my head. My Guide said: “Lost in thought?”
I was indeed. When I could breathe, I said:
“Alas, so many sweet shared thoughts and things
Brought them this fate they think unwarranted.”
Thus I to him. To them: “Your sufferings,
Francesca, make me weep for grief and more.
But tell me, in that time of your sweet sighs,
In that first flush, how love made you both sure
Of what you half saw in each other’s eyes.”
And she to me: “Life brings no greater grief
Than happiness remembered in a time
Of sorrow; and he knows that well, your chief,
Who now walks in a world of dust and grime
When once he took bright laurels as his due.
But if to know the one true origin
Of our Love means so very much to you,
Then even as I weep I will begin.
Reading together one day for delight
Of Lancelot, caught up in Love’s sweet snare,
We were alone, with no thought of what might
Occur to us, although we stopped to stare
Sometimes at what we read, and even paled.
But then the moment came we turned a page
And all our powers of resistance failed:
When we read of that great knight in a rage
To kiss the smile he so desired, Paolo,
This one so quiet now, made my mouth still—
Which, loosened by those words, had trembled so—
With his mouth. And right then we lost the will—
For Love can will will’s loss, as well you know—
To read on. But let that man take a bow
Who wrote the book we called our Galahad,
The reason nothing can divide us now.”
One spoke as if she almost might be glad,
The other wept as if forgetting how
To stop. And I? I fainted dead away,
And went down as if going down to stay.

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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