Clive James declared himself “very pleased” to receive a Costa award nomination for his translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, a work he tackled “like a thriller”.
The much-loved author and television presenter also revealed that Dan Brown, who wrote the Dante-inspired novel Inferno this year, had read his version and called it “quite clever”.
The latest version of The Divine Comedy was this evening named on the four-strong shortlist for the 2013 Costa Poetry Award. The judges called it a “towering achievement that will stand the test of time”.
It is up against the “fierce competition” of Division Street by Helen Mort, Hill of Doors by Robin Robertson and Drysalter by Michael Symmons Roberts, which won the Forward Prize for Poetry this year.
Tackling Dante’s work was a daunting task, James told The Independent. “It has been translated thousands of times, and you’ve really got to want to do it,” he said. “For years I wanted to but didn’t know how. Then I got started and it took me years to do.”
This translation, which was decades in the making, gives the entire epic as a single, coherent, readable poem.
“I’m very proud of the way it works,” James said. “I’ve done my best to make it readable by making sure there are no footnotes. Anything you need to know it is in the poem. I wanted people to pick it up and read it like a thriller. The original reads like that.”
There are also lines that are not direct translations of Dante’s work but plays with the original meaning. In earlier translations, the sign above the gates of hell reads: “Abandon hope ye who enter here,” In James’ version it said: “Forget your hopes, they were what brought you here.”
The author said: “I’m quite pleased with that, that’s mine. I wished that on Dante; I just tried to sound like him.”
Dante’s poem is written in terza rima, which is tough to translate entirely successfully into English. James instead used the quatrain and concentrated on creating an unflagging rhythm.
“The thing you try to do is match Dante’s variety of tone while keeping up the speed. You keep the momentum going but follow him through the varieties of tone. I learnt how to do that through trial and error.”
One problem for a translator is that readers often focus on Inferno which, as James said, “is like a PlayStation game with dragons and three headed dogs,” and they forget about purgatory and heaven.
“That’s not how Dante felt. He thought all those theological discussions in heaven were fascinating. What you have to do as a translator is produce excitement about that. I gave a lot of thought to that.”
He added: “The original is beautiful all the way through and gets more beautiful towards the end. You’ve got to be able to do that as a translator.”