This book has been called the 'most fluent, grippingly
readable English version of Dante's poem yet.' One wonders how many other versions
the person making this observation may have read. Jamie McKendrick, reviewing
Robin Kirkpatrick's recent translation of the same work (or rather first part
of the hugely famous three-parter) for Penguin, has pointed out how in the
last few years there has been a spate of Dante translations, among them
Ciaran Carson's well-known dazzling performance in terza rima.
The subtitle word 'translation' begs a question: O'Brien has gone on record
as saying he's 'not a linguist. Back when the world was young, I did French
and German to 'O' level and Latin to 'A' level, with no great distinction',
and, in the
case of Inferno, admits to having
'dictionary and prose translations to hand.' Perhaps 'English
version of' would be a more modest, more apt subtitle…unless
we are, less literally, to imagine a translation being made of other
same-language versions. How cut-and-paste it is I'm in no position to judge.
I have read just two other translations: the classic version done by Carey
at the beginning of the nineteenth century (and who is to say this is not
readable?) and the one by C.H. Sissons in 1980. Here, for fun, are some
randomly-chosen lines - the beginning of Canto XIV - from each of them:
Soon as the charity
of native land
Wrought in my
bosom, I the scattered leaves
Collected, and to
him restor'd, who now
Was hoarse with
Because the love I
have for my own country
So seized me, I
picked up the scattered leaves
And gave them back
to him, who had grown faint.
The love I bear
towards my native land
Then prompted me to
kneel and offer him
leaves. His voice was fading now.
'Wrought in my bosom' is inflated but I must say 'hoarse with utterance'
makes 'grown faint' and 'fading now' seem somewhat pallid. How near each is
to the original only a scholar can tell us. But what, among other things, I'm
implying is that great works in other tongues need from time to time to be
renewed, reborn, as times and tastes change; what is also implied is that
what is acceptable to and good for early nineteenth-century sensibilities
(does this necessarily put Carey beyond the pale?) doesn't altogether appeal
to more modern ones. O'Brien has said he wished to 'avoid the kind of florid,
stiff, unnatural English - the translatorese - which is only ever written in
professional verse versions and…never spoken anywhere at all' to produce
something 'that at least be readable.' This begs a lot of questions.
McKendrick makes the point that linguistically Dante 'ranges from the most
colloquial to the most courtly, from the sepulchral to the burlesque. It is
unfair,' he goes on, 'to expect this span from any single contemporary poet but,
doomed to failure, the translator must at least offer one strand that holds.'
Attempting to introduce readers to Dante's great work and possibly renew the
experience of those who may have some knowledge of it, (while at the same
time, in his words, hoping 'to honour the original'), O'Brien runs the risk,
as all translators must do if we are to believe McKendrick, of dilution and a
kind of blandness. That said, I confess I did in fact find O'Brien's Inferno 'fluent' and 'readable'. The choice of blank verse
works well, having what O'Brien calls an 'iambic pulse' ensuring its
'narrative momentum.' I also liked the placing of notes explaining allusions
at the end of each of the thirty-four cantos. What I found useful was to read
these first and then again after reading each individual canto.
Starting with Boccaccio some fifty years after Dante's death in 1321, much
has been written about the author of the Divine Comedy and a huge number of translations have been made.
Read or unread, his status is secure. Eliot rightly tells us 'Dante has a
place in Italian literature - which…only Shakespeare has in ours.'
(I recommend David Higgins' Introduction to the Sissons' volume mentioned above as about as concise and
through-going a way into the work as is possible in sixteen pages. In it he
deftly sketches in the background, the religious/political context... no less
than Christendom itself in its temporal and eternal forms).
Dante is a poet of enormous depth and range, a great medieval cathedral of a
poet. This doesn't mean he is an ancient monument. He has universal relevance
and can shine light on our world today. And like any great poet, he has a
way, to adapt Eliot's words, of communicating before he is understood. We
need to be reminded of all of this and, even though there now appear to be
many good versions to choose from, Sean O'Brien's Inferno is as good a place as any to make a start.
© Matt Simpson