The Book of the Damned

A prose translation of Dante's "Inferno"


"What follows is a translation of one of the greatest and most important works of European literature, not simply from Italian into modern English, but also from verse into prose. Purists will regard such an act as sacrilege, and will tell you that it's precisely the verse form - the complex terza rima - that makes this so remarkable a work. And they're right, up to a point - the point at which they forget that the Inferno is first and foremost a great story, an act of personal vengeance and discovery, and a work of theology. Terza rima depends upon the capacity of a language to rhyme, and while Italian grammar affords a vast database of rhymes, English is nothing like so well endowed. There have been many fine translations down the centuries, every one of which has tried, at very least, to keep the verse structure, even if not the rhyme, but the sad truth is, they can only do so by wrapping up the meaning into convoluted and archaic phrases which render the poem inaccessible to the reader.

"Which matters most - form or meaning, structure or plot? While the form and structure are wonderfully elaborate, and an impressive act of craftsmanship, if ‘The Inferno’ is to reach a modern audience it will only do so at the level of plot and character, and that is only achievable in full as prose.

"There's another argument in defence of this prose translation. When Dante wrote the 'Divina Commedia' (the same was true when, fifty years later, Chaucer wrote the 'Canterbury Tales' in English), there was no tradition of writing in the vernacular. Indeed, when Dante wrote his own defence of writing in the vernacular, he did so paradoxically in Latin, in a work entitled 'De vulgari eloquentia'. But write in the vernacular is precisely what he did - and very much at the persuasion of his ‘first friend’ Guido Cavalcanti, to whom a great tribute is paid in Canto X and who is formally acknowledged in Canto 30 of the ‘Vita Nuova’. It seems to me that the vernacular is therefore the appropriate language in which to translate Dante, and if I've used colloquialisms, if I've thrown in modern slang, if I've given Virgil in particular a certain ‘street-cred’ and the characters in Hell the nuances of the contemporary underworld, it's because this is our vernacular, and I'm quite certain Dante would have written the Commedia in something like this way, had he been a 21st century Florentine in the epoch of Cosimo di Berlusconi.

"The next complaint that I anticipate from my critics (it's an English misunderstanding of the verb ‘to criticise’ that it only seeks out negatives) will be that I've elaborated the text, added to it narrative phrases, even passing commentaries, on one occasion a whole brief episode, which don't appear in the original. In a remarkable essay on the Ulysses episode in Canto 26, Borges has pointed out that Dante invented this alternate ending to Ulysses’ life, both as a way of making his own mark on the greatest work of world literature by adding an appendix to it, but also as an allegory of his own undertaking of the 'Divina Commedia', which likewise takes him through the maelstrom of Mount Purgatory to the embracing of his destiny. Everything in Dante is simile or metaphor, sometimes extended all the way to allegory. To translate the words is nothing; what one must do in rendering ‘The Inferno’ in English is also to engage intellectually with the text, the conceits behind the texts, the language employed to service those conceits, the boat of theology on which the Sargasso sea of self-discovery is fathomed (this is Dante’s metaphor, not mine - on this occasion I'm merely translating). For the translator, ‘The Inferno’ takes the place of the Odyssey, and each translator needs to take his cue from Dante, seeking to make his own mark in appendix, using the act of translation as his personal voyage of self-discovery. To do less, I believe, would be unfair to the intentions of the author, and would, besides, reduce the act of translation to a pointless glass-bead game played with grammars, lexicons and dictionaries.

"The other problem that confronts translators is the need for detailed notes. Few of us today are familiar with Virgil or Aristotle or Empedocles, all of whose works are alluded to within the text, let alone the politics of Italy in Dante’s time or the details of Dante’s life. For me, there's nothing worse than trying to read a book that requires me to go hunting for end-notes at every line: it breaks the flow of reading, turns it into an academic exercise, sacrifices tale for comprehension. In making this translation, I've attempted at every stage to work the notes into the text, seamlessly I hope, though no doubt this too will offend the purists, who will argue I have no right to make such emendations. I challenge them to demonstrate where I have deviated from the text - they'll be unable to do so. At all times I've remained completely faithful to it, word by word and verse by verse; never altering, only elaborating in order to make the text less opaque. But the act of commentary is inevitable. To translate is to make decisions about the precise meanings of words in their cultural context, and in their relationships as ideas within sentences. To translate is always to attempt an interpretation of the inside of the author’s mind. To translate is (in the proper meaning of this word) to criticise.

"I regard Dante’s ‘Inferno’ as the founding work of European literature - the first fantasy novel, the greatest travel-book, the finest poem - and there's no disputing its enormous influence on almost every major writer since. It's a book that ought to be read by everybody who loves books, and yet it remains a work locked in the obscurities of academia, simply because it's deemed ‘too difficult’. I hope that this prose elaboration will make the work accessible to every reader, and bring it back where it belongs, to the centre of the public domain. And after all, if you read and enjoy this and still want to go to the original, or the terza rima translations, you're not precluded.

"What I enjoy most about Dante’s depiction of Hades is the absence of genuine monsters - there are many mythological beasts, but no human monsters. All the characters he meets in Hell – and other than Francesca, in Canto 5, and Thais in canto 18, they are all male; women, apparently, all go to Heaven no matter what; and none of them, remarkably for the epoch, are Jews; there is no anti-semitism in Dante - are really rather pathetic; when they get to meet him they ask only two things: for news on the Rialto, and for him to remember them to the living. Hell, it appears, isn't other people, but being forgotten by other people; which is to say Hell is Oblivion. We never hear compunction, guilt, penitence, though we're told that this is what they're mostly being punished with. But nor do we hear, except very occasionally, defiance, self-justification, continuing maleficence. For every single one of them Dante feels sorry, and says so to their faces. They're not evil, they're merely human - God-made creatures with flaws, afflicted by nostalgia for the living world far more than by the flames and darkness of this nether-one.

"What I enjoy least about Dante is the narrator himself. There are three traits that irritate. First, his pretended naivety. Second, his usurpation of authorial privilege to make his version of Florentine politics the correct one. Third, his sense of his own importance. So many characters are just so honoured to meet this wet little wimp from Florence, who at 35 isn't yet the poet of the 'Divine Comedy', but only of the inferior ‘Vita Nuova’ and a handful of indifferent sonnets; yet he has himself spoken to with reverence, as though he already had the status of his beloved Virgil.

"Eliot regarded Dante as important because of his theology; Harold Bloom would say the theology is purely decorative, and the poetry is everything. I disagree with both. In Canto XV, when Dante meets his former teacher Brunetto Latini, I've allowed myself a slight indulgence in the translation, noting the nature of Latini’s ‘Tesoretto’ and presuming that this was where Dante found his source-idea for the 'Commedia'. It's in that paragraph about the ‘Tesoretto’ that you'll find my final thought on what makes this such an important work.

"One last note: I have constantly had to remind myself, as I've worked on this translation, which side Dante was on, and who were Whites and who Blacks, and which were Ghibellines and which Guelphs. So, here's a check-list you can turn back to any time you need it. As follows:

"The Guelphs were the pro-Papal party, and very much the people’s party. The Ghibellines were the land-owning aristocracy, and they supported the Holy Roman Emperor in Germany, though somewhat nostalgically, for his influence in Italy had waned after Charles of Anjou drove the Germans out of Italy in 1266; and in truth the Ghibellines were themselves a spent force from that time, so that Dante grew up amid the triumphalism of the Guelphs’ victory.

"Dante was married to Gemma Donati, and the godfather of that particular clan, Corso Donati, was also the founder of the Black Guelphs, the Neri, which made northern Italian politics even more complicated, many Ghibellines coming over to the Blacks precisely because the White Guelphs, the Blanci, wanted to exclude all members of the aristocracy, by law, from holding public office. Dante himself, despite his marriage, was a supporter of the Whites, though it's an irony that, throughout the 'Divina Commedia', Dante expresses such disagreements with the policies and positions of the Pope that he might almost be considered anti-Papist.

"One further defence of my prose version. It's in the nature of complex rhyme-and-metre verse that meaning sometimes has to be coerced or tempered. You know precisely what you wish to say, but you're stuck with an unwanted trochee or left short of a dactyl, and so you cannot say it as you wish to say it. Rhyme is even more tyrannical, not all the time - I’ll have to choose a term botanical…you see my point. At the start of Canto 28, for example, Dante offers:

Chi poria mai pur con parole sciolte
Dicer del sangue e delle piaghe appieno
Ch’ i’ ora vidi, per narrar piu volte?

"Two elisions in a single line, the false repetition of chi-ch’ i’, and especially the grammatical inversions render this impossible to translate both literally and meaningfully. The 1900 Temple edition offers the always accurate, intermittently meaningless and absolutely awful:

Who, even with words set free, could ever fully tell,
by oft relating, the blood and the wounds that I now saw?

"Mark Musa, in what is generally an excellent version (Viking-Penguin 1995), comes up with a version that includes phrases not in the original, ascribes prose where poetry is meant, and collapses the verse completely with a bathetic dying fall:

Who could, even in the simplest kind of prose,

describe in full the scene of blood and wounds

that I saw now - no matter how he tried?

"The first is literal but gibberish, the second is figurative and explicatory, but works - more or less. I will let the reader decide whether my version works better or worse.

David Prashker

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