Poetry Dante: The Divine Comedy, translated by Clive James | Reviews | The Omnivore

Published on July 15th, 2013


Dante: The Divine Comedy, translated by Clive James

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Blurb: ‘Finally I realised that I had been practising for this job every time I wrote a quatrain . . . I had spent all this time – the greater part of a lifetime – preparing my instruments’ The Divine Comedy is the precursor of modern literature, and Clive James’s new translation – his life’s work and decades in the making – presents Dante’s entire epic poem in a single song. While many poets and translators have attempted to capture the full glory of The Divine Comedy in English, many have fallen short. Victorian verse translations established an unfortunate tradition of reproducing the sprightly rhyming measures of Dante but at the same time betraying the strain on the translator’s powers of invention. For Dante, the dramatic human stories of Hell were exciting, but the spiritual studies of Purgatory and the sublime panoramas of Heaven were no less so. In this incantatory new translation, James – defying the convention by writing in quatrains – tackles these problems head-on and creates a striking and hugely accessible translation that gives us The Divine Comedy as a whole, unified, and dramatic work. (Picador)

Clive James on translating Dante | Telegraph

Robert Fox, London Evening Standard

“Clive James has now given us a translation worthy of this and any other time; and a great piece of literature in its own right.”

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Josephine Balmer, The Times 

“James’s recent serious illness, alongside well-publicised marriage difficulties, lend an added poignancy. Like most successful translations, there is a sense of the personal throughout; his gargantuan labour appears to offer a gift of love to his scholar wife, an act of contrition leading to acceptance and resignation, the final “refuge in muteness” George Steiner found in Paradiso. As James translates from Canto 33, here are “my own desires in their last phase/Where steady craving finally abates”. And if the lack of scholarly apparatus can, on occasion, prove more face-furrowing than page-turning, the poetry is certainly here, spurring the reader to learn more.”

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Sean O’Brien, The Independent

“The best of James’s translation has a propulsive, urgent energy that finds a clear course through Dante’s extended similes and his equally extended history lessons. There are problems, though. He is too fond of verb contractions and of the merely contemporary phrase – “top-down”, “This isn’t real”, “Heads up”, “cosy perks”, and so on, which recall the glib facetiousness of some of his other work. At times too – and James is by no means alone here – the control of tone, idiom and sentence structure slips, and from speakable English we move into the special purgatorial zone of translatorese.”

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Nicholas Lezard, The Observer

“It’s a mixed bag, then, but a huge one, and let no one impugn James’s incredibly hard work – he has been working on this, quite properly, for decades – and seriousness of purpose and intent.”

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Joan Acocella, The New Yorker 

“He probably gave us more oddities—outrages, even—than he would have with a less famous text. Surely he knew the number and the excellence of his predecessors. But he is seventy-three and ailing, so, if he said to himself, “What the hell, let’s just do it,” you can see why.”

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Joseph Luzzi, The New York Times 

“Seeking to preserve Dante’s “infinitely variable rhythmic pulse,” James makes an inspired metrical choice. His quatrain uses enjambment and unobtrusive rhymes to transmit the cadence of Dante’s terza rima without lapsing into singsong … Yet James fails to approximate Dante’s talent for compression … The greatest virtue of James’s translation is his gift for infusing poetry in the least likely places: the disquisitions on Christian doctrine.”

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