BOOK REVIEW / The lost in translation: 'Hell' - Dante Alighieri, trs Steve Ellis: Chatto 14.99

Josephine Balmer
Saturday 22 October 2011 21:51

'The experience of a poem,' observed T S Eliot in his short study of Dante, 'is the experience both of a moment and of a lifetime.' But this dual existence can cause problems for the translator. With so-called classic texts like the Divine Comedy - works which exist both inside and outside the culture in which they were created - the 'moment' is often that of a defunct or dead language; of a lost culture with its own literary conventions and long- forgotten moral values.

Its 'lifetime', too, can add to the difficulties. Throughout the centuries new meanings and resonances are absorbed by both collective and individual consciousness. Can Dante's Inferno ever be the same after Treblinka? Or even after Seamus Heaney's 'Ugolino' from Field Work, juxtaposing the horrors of civic strife in medieval Italy with his elegies for present-day Ulster?

But as well as their present and their future, some texts also resonate with their past. In Inferno, Dante the poet walks with Dante the narrator in Virgil's footsteps, through ghosts scattering like fallen leaves or half- familiar faces glimpsed in darkness like a pale new moon - all direct transcriptions of Virgil's own vision of the underworld in Aeneid VI.

So how to translate the translators? Should alien metres and rhyme-schemes be replicated? Or historical patterns of language be revived by supposedly 'archaic' forms? Or should past structures be transformed, as Virgil transformed Homer and Dante transformed Virgil?

For Dorothy Sayers in 1949 it was 'terza rima or nothing'. Steve Ellis, in his excellent new version of Inferno, confesses that he has ignored Dante's tortuous scheme, noting that in his own verse he has always found rhyme difficult (an admission which will no doubt elicit sighs of relief from all those who, like Robert Lowell, prefer live poetry to 'stuffed birds'). As for the complexities of a 13th-century Florentine dialect, Ellis again draws on his own experience, this time as a Northerner, declaring his intention to use Yorkshire speech patterns, but as a backdrop rather than an explicit model for his translation.

Such bold statements of intent illustrate that there are some advantages, at least, for the classical translator. For where his modernist counterparts often remain invisible, Steve Ellis's name appears alongside Dante's own on the book's spine and cover. And as the Canadian translator Barbara Godard exhorts, Ellis takes the opportunity to 'flaunt his presence', not just with his detailed introduction but also in the extensive footnotes guiding readers through the maze of Dante's mythical and political allusions.

Excellent as these notes are, it would also have been interesting to learn something of Ellis's translation process in the particular as well as the general. In V16, for example, he translates doloroso ospizio as 'hopeless hotel', where Sayers and others have 'house of pain'. 'Hotel' is an interesting equation for 'ospizio' with its connotations of medieval hospitality, as well as admirably catching Dante's ironic use of the term - more normally a place of refuge - in the context of hell. Yet is the obvious resonance of modern popular culture deliberate or fortuitous? Or the substitution of alliteration for assonance? Both mono- and multilingual readers could be left wanting more. If you've got it, then why not flaunt it to the full?

Steve Ellis's expression works as well as this throughout. He quite rightly points out that nothing dates so quickly as popular slang, but he reminds us that Dante too was colloquial as well as lyrical, vulgar as well as profound. And so we find 'pigs in shit' (VIII. 50), 'Up yours, God]' (XXV. 3) and 'what the hell . . ]' (VII. 1). Best of all is Ulysses' sad, salty 'My mates and I creaked

with age' (XXVI. 106: compare C H

Sissons's 'I and my friends had become old and slow' for the World Classics), which combines the poetic and the colloquial, the compassionate and the concise as powerfully as Dante's own verse.

But Ellis is restructuring Dante the narrator as well as Dante the poet. His Dante wanders through Hell like a wide-eyed Northern farmer lost in the big town on market-day, pausing only to exchange gossip with friends or to marvel at the swift hand of retribution and fate. Here Ellis's Yorkshire 'speech-tones' seem just right - not too overwhelming but distinctive enough, so that his poem reads both of the moment and of the lifetime; of medieval Florence and of modern York.

Yet there is gravitas too. When Ugolino hears his guards sealing the prison-tower he shares with his sons and grandsons, Ellis has simply

'and I just looked at my boys' (XXXIII. 48). There is no need for any more. 'Boys' for figliuoi, instead of the more usual 'sons', is tender and desperate, restoring Ugolino's young grandsons to their place in the tragedy, as well as the count's lingering - and touching - protectiveness for his adult sons. It even admits Heaney's Belfast and the future shadow of the gun. Far from the stiff archaisms of other versions, this is the true voice of human suffering.

Dante's Inferno is like a vast medieval fresco, with all the grotesque figures of damnation striding across its centre, while an oblivious tailor squints at his tiny needle in one corner and the starlings rise up into the winter sky in another. Steve Ellis's Hell removes the grime and returns the smut until Dante's vision vibrates again in all its original colour. The effect is dazzling.

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