by Dante Alighieri - a verse translation by Sean O'Brien
[247pp, £15.00, hardback, Picador]

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 utterance.

    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
    The scattered 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 2006