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Clive James after Dante
on 26 February 2014
James translation flows well as one would expect from a poet and word smith of his standing. However, I found that he easily loses focus and can drift so far from the original rhythm and meaning that perhaps the book should be described as By Clive James after Dante rather than as a Translation of the Divine Comedy. It will perhaps appeal to first time readers but so do several rival versions, for example the classic terza rima of Dorothy Sayers, the superb blank verse translation of Mark Musa and the recent finely balanced version of JG Nichols. Another reviewer said that she found the Victorian translations beyond her. I agree but there are much more enjoyable and approachable recent ones.
James makes a strong case for his quatrains. However, craftsman though he is, he cannot always avoid the restrictions and infelicities of a verse translation. These are always difficult to forge in English and often can strain the meaning. Here the un-rhymed versions definitely score. Strangely, James is strongest in some of the more theological passages early in Paradiso but the great closing canti of Purgatorio fall strangely flat.
Finally, why is he so against notes? Good notes cf those of Mark Musa, are often necessary and often add a great deal to the reading experience. Surely anybody prepared to take the time and effort to read the Comedy will be prepared to go a little further in order to understand Dante and his environment better?