There are translations, and there are adaptations. The translator’s art is to find the forms which convey not just the sense but also the spirit of the original – in the case of poetry, the poetic essence. As Erich Heller has observed, words are not just signifiers but symbols, and the aim of poetry is to bring words and meanings into the closest unity. Whilst it is the fate of every translator to travel hopefully rather than to arrive, and while even good translations offer imperfect perspectives, they succeed in proportion to the extent that they give us a view of the same mountain range as the original. “In what an impoverished state of mind would we live”, inquires Heller, taking aim at the modish deconstructionist theories of the academy, “if, alarmed by the unavoidable shortcomings of all translations, we had asked whether there really was such a text as the Divina Commedia?”
Adaptations set themselves less ambitious goals than translations, and the specific question which they pose is this: how far may such a project legitimately alter the model? To what extent should the disciple deliberately add another, divergent voice to the master’s? Aficionados of foreign dramas have learned to treat the term “new version” with circumspection: what ensues is often a travesty, offered by a playwright who lacks the wit to produce a new-minted play of his own. The greatest among the ancient texts are perhaps more accommodating, or else attract the most distinguished interpreters; Pope translated Homer and Dryden the Aeneid on their own terms. There may even be a benefit in having parallel authors – as when we contemplate Tintoretto’s paintings through the eyes of Ruskin. The minimum condition for adaptations is respect for the purpose of the original – which is why so many current productions of Wagner are unacceptable.
Dante’s Commedia – “Divina” was added by Boccaccio – was completed 700 years ago. (There is a new biography by Alessandro Barbero to mark the anniversary.) It reveals the nature, the justice and the glory of the Christian God more authoritatively than any book since the New Testament, and is the greatest ever exposition of a religious cosmology. The first complete translation into English was published as recently as 1802. The earliest attempt in our language to imitate the terza rimaof the original came later still. Notable poet translators include Longfellow and Laurence Binyon (of “They shall grow not old” fame). Among others, Clive James published a translation in quatrains (2013) during his extended withdrawal. Now comes Ned Denny, whose Unearthly Toys: Poems & Masks was awarded the 2019 Seamus Heaney First Collection Poetry Prize, throwing his laurels into the ring with B (After Dante). He explains the title by identifying the names and concepts beginning with B which resonate through the poem (the three canticas are renamed Blaze, Bathe and Bliss), though he omits Beatrice. He expressly abjures any attempt at fidelity of interpretation; his is a “subsidiary song”, a variation on a theme, which in the spirit of his Augustan predecessors is “full of conscious expansions, explications, compressions and distortions”.
Loyalty to the underlying text can be shown in different ways. Of Denny’s reverence of purpose there is no doubt. He regards the Commedia as more than a mere work of literature in the profane current sense. He is alert to the poem’s literal, allegorical, moral and anagogical meanings, the last of which plots the spaces that must be traversed so that man can ascend to direct knowledge of God. Dante employed a complex numerology, which Denny respects by introducing a different but analogous numbering scheme. Instead of terza rima, Denny uses couplets. However, English is a poor language for making rhymes compared with Italian, and the very first line occasions a stumble. In order to find a rhyme with the dark wood (“selva oscura”) where the poem opens, Denny translates “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita” by “In the midst of the stroll of this life which some call good”; the last clause is extraneous, and comes quite early for an infidelity. It is a preliminary hint of the poet’s independent path: the Commedia is saturated in mediaeval thought, but stylistically at least Denny is no mediaevalist.
Occasionally the reader’s eyebrows are exercised, as in “Blaze 4”, where King David becomes “God’s own Bacharach” – or furrowed: one must consult a more conventional version of the “Inferno” to learn “that old scanner of sea-weather” is Noah. The idiom is distinctive and colloquial. This means that intense moments sometimes lose their original luminosity, as with Francesca da Rimini’s celebrated “Nessun maggiore dolor che ricordarsi del tempo felice ne la miseria” in “Inferno V”, which becomes the compressed and alliterative “Lost and recollected joy’s the fiercest of fires”. This feels very different from the Italian, as Denny intends that it should.
Much later, at the climacteric in “Purgatorio XXX” when the narrator meets his lost Beatrice, Denny starts well with “and through clouds of flowers descending from above,/ there appears before me the woman that I love.” Dante then autobiographically recalls the power that pierced him “ere from my boyhood I had yet come forth” (Longfellow). It is a solemn moment – actually it is one of the great encounters in all literature – but in B it disappoints, when we read: “the force/that made me tremble is felt and known again/transfixed as I had been when I wasn’t yet ten”. Enough said. The arrival of Beatrice signals the inevitable departure of the pagan Roman and, at the very point where he loses him, the narrator poignantly pays direct homage to Virgil, his guide hitherto, by citing the latter’s “Agnosco veteris vestigia flammae”, or “I recognise the signs of the old flame” (Everyman). This utterance of the widowed Dido, describing her feelings about her Trojan guest, was also subsequently quoted by Hardy, belatedly moved to guilt and tenderness towards his first wife after her death. Denny renders it “the ancient flame’s rekindled, how I recognise the signs!” This again introduces an incongruous note, and it is not clear what is gained by the jaunty timbre. In fairness though, Dryden did not do any better here, with “the sparkles of my former flame”.
Two of these examples incidentally involve the contraction of “is” – part metrical constraint, part linguistic informality. The same occurs even at the soaring conclusion of “Bliss 33”, where B has “now the intellect, my will and every desire’s/held by the Love that moves the sun and untold stars”. It may be thought fastidious to identify one particular technique, recurrent and emblematic as it is, in an enterprise that explicitly disclaims stylistic authenticity, but in poetry, language is everything. If you are unbothered by Denny’s, so much the better: he possesses a muscular and resourceful poetic voice; there is here much to admire. Perhaps it is best to forget about the unbridgeable gap between 14th-century Florence and the present day, and to leave aside for now any direct contemplation of the Commedia’s cloud-capped peaks. You might not pick up B to pursue your veneration of Dante, but you may find if you do that you are enriched by acquaintance with Ned Denny.
Jonathan Gaisman QC has written a regular column in Standpoint, and also contributed to the Spectator and New Criterion
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