Watch the full video above, or read the second instalment of the full text below
Some fifteen years after Baudelaire’s work had stirred my interest in translation, my editor Don Paterson asked me if I had ever thought of translating the Inferno. I had not, but having written several extended theatre pieces I was now interested in working on a longer poem, and there is none greater than Dante’s. The lines from Canto II quoted at the beginning of Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus had for a long time stayed in my mind like an unrecognized invitation. Eventually I would render them like this:
The day was fading now. The darkening air
Had summoned all the creatures of the earth
To rest after their labours. I alone
Remained there to prepare for the ordeal
I must endure – the journey, and its pity.
Now let me bring it perfectly to mind.
O Muses! O high genius, help me now!
O memory, that writes what I have seen,
Now prove that you are equal to the task.
Mann’s narrator in Doktor Faustus is the gentle pedant, the schoolmaster Serenus Zeitblom, who accompanies his friend, the composer Adrian Leverkuhn, at least part of the way on his descent into a self-contrived Hell. Zeitblom reports what would not otherwise be believed, mitigating the fantastic and absurd with his tender ordinariness. It is his task to get in the way, to magnify events by his reticence and uncertainty. The translator of the Inferno must of course do everything he can to ensure that he himself stays firmly out of the way.
There are many, many versions from the Commedia and especially the Inferno in English. And all the translators face a decision about form. There are versions which seek to reproduce terza rima; there are unrhymed versions; there are free verse versions such as those by C.H.Sisson and Steve Ellis. I was not convinced that the rhyming versions I examined managed to sustain the narrative momentum of the poem or achieve a sense of naturalness or speakability. The language some of them produced was neither Italian nor English but, it seemed to me, an unhappy hybrid whose existence could only be sustained in the artificial climate of special cases. These were often ‘faithful’; equally often they were only poems in the most formal sense of involving lines and rhymes but having no ear or sense of musical shape. Sometimes they came with the apparatus of justification; occasionally this would involve the idea that English verse was itself inadequate to the task. I have heard this claim being extended to the English language itself in the case of the translations of the Psalms in the King James Bible. If the claim were made in reverse –that other languages are in some sense unable to deal with work in English – it would sound not merely like nonsense but like racism. A language does whatever it is called upon to do, according to its own laws. If in the case of translation the result is merely auxiliary to the original, it will be read out of duty and not love.
After a time I began to be reminded of the great early rock’n’roller Bo Diddley, who patented the famous beat that bears his name and can still be heard in songs including his own ‘Hey Bo Diddley’, as well as in ‘Mona’, and the work of many others such as Buddy Holly’s ‘Not Fade Away’ and Johnny Otis’s ‘Willie and the Hand Jive’. Not content with this claim on immortality, Bo Diddley also claimed that his famous sound, created partly by the rhythm and partly by the chords played on his strange square guitars and – for all we know – by his taste in sinister hats – contained a secret and inimitable ingredient to which he alone had access.
Nowadays this might sound like an interesting way of protecting intellectual property, but to apply the same exclusivity to translating poetry might equally seem like an example of restraint of trade. You might encompass all that can currently be known and believed about Dante, but that doesn’t mean you are able to translate it into a form which can be enjoyed rather than endured. To reiterate: poetry – the translation of poetry – is necessarily an impure art: it works from the materials to hand and becomes memorable in transforming them, and not in continuous professions and demonstrations of its unworthiness to touch the hem of the original. In Dante’s case there is no want of evidence of or attestation to the greatness of the work; so that any further bowing and scraping and forelock-tugging, to say nothing of trying to warn other people off what is the common property of European culture – must prove superfluous if not also to some degree offensive.
The warners-off seemed to miss two fundamental points: one, translation is impossible; two, let it be said again, a poem must give pleasure – of a complex, demanding sort, perhaps, but it must give pleasure. So once again, the translation has to be persuasively a poem. And the act of translation means that it will inevitably be selective in its treatment of the source material. And that mistakes will occur. So shoot me.
I decided to use iambic pentameter. I recently listened to the Chair of the judges for the T S Eliot prize expressing reservations about fondness for the iambic line, but in spite of this I think there’s life in the old dog yet. The iambic line is almost endlessly accommodating to momentum, tone, gravity, surprise, grandeur and informality. To use the English line for Dante is surely a compliment to the greatest of European poets besides Shakespeare, Dante, whose work is, as Seamus Heaney put it, ‘written on official paper’.
All of which was very high-minded, of course, but the Inferno itself proved very difficult to penetrate. There were false starts and dead ends in my efforts to get on with the translation, despite the generous and detailed comments of the distinguished poet and translator Alistair Elliot, who advised me stage by stage with great patience and forbearance. At the same time it was clear to me that if I was going to do this I would have to cover a fair amount of distance in a day, to turn the page, and the next, otherwise the life would go out of the effort. Not until Canto III, when Dante and Virgil arrive at Charon’s ferry-station, did I feel that the verse was acquiring a shape and momentum that might enable this attempt to sustain itself, in an idiom neither faux-medieval nor crudely up to date.
…then in one great weeping crowd they came
To flood the shore damnation has reserved
For all those souls who lack the fear of God.
The demon Charon, with his eyes like coals,
Then summons each to take his place aboard
And clubs the laggards with his dripping oar:
As in the autumn leaf must follow leaf
Inexorably one by one until
The parent branch can see itself stripped bare,
So Adam’s wicked offspring hurl themselves
Successively from shore into the boat,
Like hawks returning to the master’s hand,
So they depart across the inky marsh.
Meanwhile, before the one crowd disembarks,
Another gathers, waiting in its turn.
Elsewhere throughout the poem there was the challenge of a combination of intense local and particular detail with the maintenance of narrative momentum. The episode in Cantos XXI and XXII with Barbariccio and the other devils around the boiling tar-pits is one obvious example. Another is the transformation scene in
Canto XXV when a thief is changed into a snake as an example of the contrapasso, the punishment fitting the crime. Here we witness the steady, patient attention of horror to the process of creating and manifesting itself:
There as I watched, a serpent with six feet
Sprang up in front of one of them and then
Attached itself to every part of him.
It grasped the belly with its middle feet
And with its forefeet took his arms, then pierced
One cheek and then the other with its teeth.
It spread its hind feet on his thighs, then slid
Its tail between his legs, extending it
Until it met his buttocks from behind.
A creeper is not fastened to a tree
More closely than this dreadful creature bound
It’s swarming limbs among the victim’s own,
And then as if they both were heated wax
They first adhered to one another, then
Their colours mixed and neither was itself –
As darkness moves across a page before
The flame itself begins and though the page
Is not yet black the white begins to die.
The other two looked on and both cried out:
‘My, my, Agnello! What a change is here!
Already you are neither two nor one!’
The long period spent working on translating the Inferno also provided a steady exposure to powers which the poem does not advertise, which Dante as it were hides in plain sight, and which sustain the poem’s very climate. One of them is a profound, steady simplicity and clarity which contains and harmonizes all the poem’s complexities of allusion and belief. This shows us without telling us, for example, that the Dante who travels through the Inferno is a man like others, capable of both tenderness and tact, as at the close of Canto XV, when Brunetto takes his leave and walks off once more into the blizzard of fire. Dante says:
Then he turned back, and turning, seemed to me
Like one of those who run for the green cloth
Across Verona’s field, and in that race
Appeared among the winners, not the lost.
These lines are in effect an elegy for a man we know is damned and yet in his work commendable. They accord him a different type of immortality from the one that he will go on suffering. Something comparable happens at the very close of Canto XXXIV, where, after seeing Satan in his icy lair, the poem ends, not – as might seem entirely proper and understandable – with an attempt at summary but with an utterance whose simplicity shows that such an undertaking would be vain. Hell is there for anyone who wishes to know its secrets, but there remains a world beyond its prison of fire and ice:
There is a place known not by sight, but by
A small stream’s sound as it flows down, along
A hollow it has carved into the rock
To keep its winding, gently sloping course.
My guide and I went down that hidden road,
In order to return to this bright world,
And with no thought of taking any rest,
We climbed – he first and I behind – so far
That through a small round opening I saw
Some of the beauties that the heavens bear;
And once more came outside to see the stars.
There must be benefits for the poet-translator in long exposure to work of this order. In my case it helped me to a clearer idea of what I wanted to talk about, prominent among them an agnostic sense of the Four Last Things, often in the setting of the landscape of my home town and its surroundings, places that, one way or another, I had been writing about forever but which now seemed to take on a clearer, less contrived significance for me.