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I try very hard not to write a review till I've listened to the whole thing. But I have to make an exception for this one. So far I've listened to The Inferno; but since I've already read the translation itself in its entirety, I'm going to stick my neck out.
This is brilliant. I'm in Heaven, so to speak. Clive James has created an unusual but consistently effective translation: rather than trying to reproduce Dante's terza rima, he plays to his own strengths by translating into quatrains, a verse form at which he is particularly adept. The result is a subtle but ever-present drumbeat of rhyme. There are better versions of individual passages in other translations, but I've never read one where the whole thing hangs together and flows together so smoothly.
James also adds clarifying phrases here and there throughout the translation to reduce the need for footnotes. (A good thing: the printed book doesn't have any.)
These clarifying phrases are not as extensive as those in the Audiobook Contractors version, read by Grover Gardner; but they serve the purpose, and they make it possible to listen without constantly feeling the need to look things up.
The result is a translation that demands to be read aloud. Edoardo Ballerini does a terrific job with the narration, capturing the Pilgrim's sense of wonder and letting the poetry unfold in its own effortless way. Ballerini is one of those narrators who conveys dialogue by suggestion rather than outright imitation of different voices. But the voices are there anyway, partly because of Dante's skill and partly because Clive James does such a good job conveying them. When passion is called for, Ballerini gives voice to passion; likewise when the speaker is giving voice to shame, anger, or pride.
Get it. Listen to it. Enjoy it. Learn from it. Treasure it.
Caveat: I've read the Comedy several times, in several different translations, with several different sets of footnotes. I couldn't claim to be a master of the allusions in the poem, but I'm comfortable with them. (When the wind is southerly I can tell a Guelf from a Ghibelline.) As such, it's hard for me to imagine the viewpoint of someone coming to this material for the first time. I THINK this would be anyone's ideal introduction to Dante, and I hope first time listeners will tackle this version and leave their reactions.
For myself, all I can say is that it will be a cold day in Hell (so to speak) before I re-read, or re-listen, to this masterpiece in any other format. There is no question in my mind that this is hands down the best audiobook version of Dante's masterpiece available.
185 of 189 people found this review helpful
There was a time when I would have winced at this version of Dante’s epic. Terza rima was the form the great Florentine used and terza rima, I would have insisted, was the form any translator should employ.
“But” as Bob Dylan once said, “I was so much older then. I’m younger than that now.”
Since then I’ve read some of John Ciardi’s translation. I’ve read some of Dorothy Sayer’s. I’ve dipped into Pinsky and Hollander. But I’ve finished none of them.
All of the above replicate Dante’s original verse form. Sayers (a poet in her own right) works the hardest to achieve true rhymes, and as a professional medievalist and believing Christian her notes and illustrations are essential and illuminating.
Poets Ciardi and Pinsky also reproduce the original terza rima, but are less exacting with the rimas. This relieves some of the stiffness of Sayers’s effort—a by-product, I suspect, of the verbal contortions necessary to place truer rhymes at the end of lines—but it also robs the poem of its essential music. John Milton’s snide comments aside, rhyme can lend a well-wrought image or idea just that extra measure of aptness and memorability. The half or slant rhymes of Ciardi and Pinsky only remind me of the music I’m missing. And then, when an occasional true rhyme is employed, it can be almost disconcerting. Hollander doesn’t even try for rhyme which, for me anyway, removes any real reason for retaining the original three-line stanzas. I’m not suggesting there is anything amiss with these translations as translations; each is a fine blend of artistry and scholarship. All I’m saying is that the ease of reading them is vastly enhanced (at least for me) when rhyme greases the gears.
Further, this is not to say that English isn't suited to terza rima—just read Richard Wilbur’s “First Snow in Alsace”. But it is to suggest that getting Dante’s towering images and ideas into modern English in terza rima is a tall order.
That takes us to the next hurdle. This is a breathtakingly dense, packed, loaded poem. For all the briefness of each canto, there are probably more ideas, concepts, images and perceptions per iamb here than we find even in the best of John Donne. Wading through the Comedy always gives me the awful feeling that I’m holding my breath, waiting for the rhyme at the end to lend the verse some sort of overall coherence. And then, if one is reading Ciardi or Pinsky, there’s nothing more rewarding than a mere sonic coincidence (bitter / enter / blunder).
All of which is a long way of saying that when you make Dante go ABAB,CDCD instead of ABA, BCB,CBC you get a poem that sings. Unhindered by the need to find two more rhymes (or slant rhymes) for every end word, this version flows almost effortlessly. The ideas are still dense and I will go back (again and again and again) to grapple with them (probably in print form), but the difference here is that the poetry, the sheer sonic pleasure, the essential heartbeat, is present in a way I’ve never experienced before. You are carried along on a floodtide of surprises. Perhaps that’s my problem with other translations: take away the almost physical pleasures fluid poetry can grant through meter and rhyme and you’re left with nothing but the ideas. Yes, I know there are musical possibilities beyond rhyme. But when a translator is trying to express thoughts not his own, the choices of assonance, consonance and the rest of the poetic arsenal is necessarily limited.
Of course there are passages that fall a little flat; at the opening of the Paradiso, I prefer Sayers’ “Within that heav’n which most receives his light/Was I” to James’ “The one where I was gets more light”. But I’m hoping Clive James’ work will help me get me through the whole poem, finally, at last and see it as a whole.
Another aspect of this version that makes it easy of the ears (and the listener’s patience) is the freedom James takes to elucidate some references—those magpies from Ovid, for example—that also help the poem skip along. It’s a passing reference in other translations that sends you to the footnotes—and thus breaks the flow of the story even more effectively than a rocky or non-existent rhyme scheme.
Meanwhile, whoever selected Edoardo Ballerini as our reader should take a few curtain calls, as should Mr. Ballerini. His reading is as effortless as the verse. His tone is subdued, a nice change from some readers who take on an unnecessary, self-conscious orotundity or histrionic pitch when performing Great Works of Western Civilization.
By now I’ve probably offended far better educated sensibilities than my own. Years ago a high culture magazine compared three recent translations of the Comedy, and I preferred the version they panned. But then, I’m laboring under some disadvantages. I don’t speak Italian. I’ve never studied Dante in a rigorous academic setting. I am Catholic, a convert drawn to the Church partly by the works of Dante and Aquinas, presenting as they do a complete, seamless world view that addresses—and satisfies—our deepest human fears and hopes. But as I said, I’m no tenured medievalist. I simply go by Wallace Stevens’ rule: a poem must give pleasure. This one does.
17 of 17 people found this review helpful