The Divine Comedy

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Two Translations/Audiobooks of a Sublime Epic

The Divine Comedy (1306-21) recounts Dante’s tour down through the circles of hell, up through the terraces of purgatory, and finally up through the spheres of heaven, all of which he wrote as best as he was able to after returning to the world, given the limits of memory and imagination and the sublime scope of his journey. It develops that folly and despair had brought Dante head down to the brink of ruin and death, when his beloved Beatrice sent his classical poet hero Virgil to rescue him by showing him hell and purgatory so as to prepare him for Beatrice showing him heaven, all to enable him to endure his exile from Florence, to become a better man, and to tell his story to help us improve ourselves. Throughout his poem he eagerly interviews the souls he encounters (“peering into the tears of sinners”), promises to keep their names alive by writing about them, questions his guides, and expresses his struggle to describe ineffable things. Dante’s journey is emotionally satisfying (even for atheist me), because of his faith in the love at the heart of everything he can and can’t see (including Beatrice) and because of his vivid imagination and rich poetry.

Throughout his epic, Dante mixes classical, mythological, Biblical, and historical allusions and figures (e.g., Augustus, Pygmalion, Rachel, and Charlemagne) with contemporary late 13th-century political ones (e.g., Guelphs and Ghibellines, Florence and Arezzo, and Pope Boniface and Pope Clement). He relishes giving his personal betes noires their just deserts. Often when arriving at a new area in hell, he’ll ask the tormented souls, “Are there any Italians here?” This is to find souls to speak Italian with, but also to criticize the state of morality in his “degraded Italy.” Once he even sees some Italians in hell who are still alive in Italy!

I love the detail, horror, humor, beauty, and love in The Divine Comedy. Dante’s epic similes comparing things he encounters to frogs, ants, bees, doves, cavalry, gamblers, arrows, books, fish scales, pasture frost, and so on are wonderful, revealing his careful observation of the world. He includes a fair amount of then current science, as with the light reflected in mirrors, the order of the planets, and the subjective perception of time. Dante goes to town envisioning the torments of hell: a soul swinging his severed head like a lantern; a soul eating the head of another soul; souls bent in uncomfortable poses in ice; heretics roasting in ovens; etc. Purgatorio has a neat ascending movement by which one by one Dante loses the seven letter P sins angelically carved on his forehead. Paradiso is less compelling. After all it’s more entertaining to witness crime and punishment than happy loving souls singing in harmony, and the amount of lecturing increases in Paradiso, whole cantos involving Beatrice or some joyful soul telling Dante what’s what. But it does have wonderful moments, as when Dante finds himself “Looking up through slopes of living light” or Beatrice looking down at him: “the memory of that sweet smile undoes my mind.”

I nearly gave up listening to Audible’s audiobook with Edoardo Ballerini reading Clive James’ recent translation because Ballerini artificially emphasizes and elongates long syllables as he declaims the verse in an exaggerated “poetic” rhythm that sledgehammers poetic modulation. “WHOO/Would not be MOOOVED to KNOOHW this was the first/ BRUUtus…” He is fine when a scene is so intense that he briefly “reading poetry” and just speaks in character, as when a demon says, “Go, pimp! There are no women here to trade!”

I managed to get through Ballerini/James by taking breaks every several cantos to delight myself with Naxos’ audiobook for which Heathcote Williams reads Benedict Flynn’s translation. Whether because Williams is a superior reader to Ballerini or because Flynn’s translation is superior to James, I loved all of the Naxos Divine Comedy. Naxos even provides brief snatches of beautiful medieval music (instrumental or choral) in between cantos and Flynn’s excellent 75-minute introduction to Dante’s life and poetry–read by John Shrapnel–while Audible leaves out James’ “Introduction” and “Translator’s Note.”

As for the translators’ poetry, James writes an alternating end rhyme scheme (with couplets closing each canto), Flynn blank verse. To avoid the need for notes, James writes explanations into his lines, making Dante’s allusions more explicit, while Flynn, I believe, adheres to Dante’s allusive original. Thus, for instance, while Flynn’s Dante doesn’t name Narcissus, James’ does. Similarly, while Flynn leaves the names of Dante’s demons in Italian, James translates them into grotesque English, like “Scumbag and Scallywag.” Flynn often surpasses James in concision and grace, as when Dante witnesses the endless battle between spendthrifts: “Why pile it up?” “Why waste cash?” in James, “Why horde?” “Why spend?” in Flynn. Or as when Dante gets to the shores of Purgatory:

The comely planet that prompts us to love,
Veiling the school of pretty fish that lies
Each springtime in her train was there above,
And she made all the east laugh. (James)

Vs.

Love’s lovely planet, the comfort in love
Was making all the eastern heavens smile
with light and veiling Pisces in her train. (Flynn)

When read without Ballerini, James does at times outdo Flynn, as when Dante tells his ancestry to a proud ghost, and “If a ghost/ Can raise an eyebrow, his did” (James) vs. “His eyebrows rose a little…” (Flynn), or as when some angels arrive, with “Garments green/ As leaves born just a breath ago” (James), vs. “Their raiment green as newborn leaves are green/ Billowed out behind them fanned by green winds” (Flynn).

Finally, anyone interested in western culture and literature should read The Divine Comedy! And if you were going to listen to it as an audiobook, Naxos would be great. However, if you were just going to read the text, James would be fine. Either way, visiting the amazing multimedia website Danteworlds would be helpful.

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