Thursday, May 21, 2015




Alasdair Gray


Like many young, ambitious authors I wished to write an epic because I had learned it was both the largest way of telling a good story and, if successful, would last a long time because a nation would feel it spoke for them. My teacher in this matter was Tillyard in his book The English Epic and Its Background. He said Dante’s Comedy was the greatest epic since those of Homer and Virgil, besides being the first in a modern language when only scholars and clergy were able to read Greek and Latin. I was a monoglot whose access to foreign literature was only possible through translation.       Over the years I read the Comedy in several translations though not steadily. Like perhaps a majority of readers I read Inferno from start to finish but only dipped into Purgatory and Paradise. Most of us prefer stories about sinners, especially if we think them worse than ourselves. But by visiting his visions, even in snatches, I began to glimpse the scale of his truly encyclopaedic achievement. It equally presents the religion, philosophy, politics, poetry and science of Greek, Roman, Jewish and Christian Europe as a historical, Catholic continuity. Dante’s Catholicism was not a faith in which good believers could relax and feel at home before death claimed them. He viewed it as Karl Marx viewed Communism: as a perpetual struggle. Hence Dante’s continual denunciation of the papacy for its claims to earthly wealth and property. His Comedy was too popular and convincing to be banned as heretical as was his political writing till near the end of the 19th century.
         And the stronger my fascination with his visions became, the less content I grew with the translations through which I glimpsed them. Every translation disturbed me by using words which, though found in every good English dictionary, people chiefly use when quoting poetry or prose from much earlier times than their own, or using forms of words they would never use in their everyday speech. They did so in efforts to give all Dante’s meanings as accurately as possible, while suggesting something of his rhythm and rhyme. A note at the end of this book explains what I gained as a schoolboy from fragments of Dante in the English of Tennyson, Eliot and Auden, but on a Sunday afternoon, 29th October 2012, I wrote in a notebook the first two verses of his Comedy in Italian, then their 1805 translation by the Reverend H.F. Cary, the 1854 by Frederick Pollock, the 1886 by Longfellow, the 1932 by Melville Anderson, the 1949 by Dorothy Sayers and the 1953 by John Ciardi. Then I began writing my paraphrase, probably because I had written over 20 books, mostly fiction, had no ideas for more, and could imagine no better exercise for my verbal imagination. From then until 20th May 2015 writing this paraphrase became my favourite occupation. Other jobs seemed more urgent because I had promised to do them. This was more satisfying because only I wanted it, though of course I hoped it might one day please others.
All English dictionaries agree that to paraphrase something is to tell it in other words. By this definition all translations must be paraphrases, but this paraphrase of Dante’s Comedy is not a conscientious translation like the six I have named above or three others I have read since: Chiaron Carson’s version of The Inferno, John Sinclair’s prose version of all three books and also Clive James’ rhyming one. The internet notes there have been at least 120 English translations of Dante; every year or two one or two others are published in English speaking nations, and I am sure nearly every one is truer to Dante’s sense than my paraphrase.
This is because I have cut out all I could not put into my own speech without sounding complicated or pretentious. Dear reader, I promise this is no hint that Dante’s speech in the Comedy is ever complicated or pretentious. I believe the Italian scholars who tell me his language is always as direct and to the point as the speech of Shakespeare or Burns. But his language is lyrical, mellifluent Italian, as old fashioned to modern Italian ears as the speech of Chaucer and Henryson is to ours. So by retelling the Comedy in my everyday abrupt north British language I have inevitably cut it down to the range of my own intelligence, which is certainly less than his, but more equal to your own, so more easy to understand.
         An example of my abruptness is in the pronunciation of the heroine’s name. In Italy Beatrice is pronounced with four syllables; Bee-a-trich-ay is a poor approximation to the beautiful sound. In English it is usually said with two syllables: Bee-tris, almost rhyming with mattress. In my version it is a three syllable name: Bee-a-tris, which in the 14th line of Paradise, Chapter 7, allows a pleasant pun emphasising Dante’s original meaning.

         Also, Guelphs and Ghibellines are the main political parties Dante mentions because they contended for power in his homeland, Florence, and other states. Guelphs sometimes represented merchant families and Ghibellines the more aristocratic families of landowners. This difference was often confused by intermarriage, and alliances with foreign states, and by new popes changing sides. The difference was most often between what has been called new and old money, so I call Guelph Whig, Ghibelline Tory, the equally interchangeable equivalents in English.


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