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Bravo for this new version of Dante

22 March 2013

Poet and guide:Dante and Virgil Cross the River Acheron, in hell, in a 15th-century Italian manuscript ofThe Divine Comedyin the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Rome, reproduced inMyth­ology: The complete guide to our imagined worldsby Christopher Dell, a massive hard­back of more than 350 pages, with an im­­pressive array of 339 large colour illustra­tions. The author lumps Christian narratives in with all kinds of other beliefs and legends, and the book is divided into sections on the supernatural realm, the earth, humankind, gifts from the gods, the animal kingdom, symbolic substances, heroes, and quests, journeys, and epics (Thames & Hudson, £24.95(£22.45); 978-0-500-51615-7)

Poet and guide:Dante and Virgil Cross the River Acheron, in hell, in a 15th-century Italian manuscript ofThe Divine Comedyin the Biblioteca Apostoli...

IT IS difficult for anyone not subject to the popular culture of Italy fully to appreciate how much Dante Alighieri's principal work still dominates this nation's collective imagination.

Two mainstream TV adverts recently demonstrated the point: one, for Foxy toilet tissue, had the laureate writing his magnum opus on rolls of the aforesaid carta igenica, and, like the Andrex puppy, finding them to be inexhaustible; another, promoting new mobile phones with contracts from one of the main providers in Italy, showed a variety of scenes based (loosely) on The Inferno, in which Virgil and Dante are having a high old time. Get our new smartphone, and get out of hell free. . .

English language's cultural appreciation of Dante has always been towards the higher end of the market. The extremely serious and thorough new translation of The Divine Comedy by J. G. Nichols (Alma Classics £20 (£18); 978-1-84749-246-3) remains a contribution to high culture without sacrificing an occasional foray into the comedic.

The most important thing to affirm of a poetic translation is that it reads well, and this certainly does: of these three key moments for me from the three books, each has its own linguistic felicity:

Inferno's entry into the gloomy gates:

Abandon hope entirely, you who enter.

Purgatorio's  meeting of Statius with Virgil and Dante (yes, don't forget that you need to get more than one classical poet under your belt):

Statius rose and said: "Now you can guess
The depth of all the affection that I feel,
When I, oblivious of our nothingness,
Find myself treating shades as they were real."

The Imperial Eagle of Paradiso's Canto XIX:

I saw the beak discoursing, and I heard
A sound which issued saying "I" and "My"
When "We" and "Our" had to be understood.

Whenever an English translation attempts to render the terza rima literally, there will also be rhymes of inevitable banality: "way" and "say", "fuss" and "discuss", for example. But, as my citing contemporary Italian appreciation for this incredible masterpiece of world literature at the head of this review makes clear, banality is included in the glory of this work.

I miss the concurrent Italian text so beloved in the old Penguin Dorothy L. Sayers translation, but this edition, with its excellent notes and appendices, more than compensates for the loss of the old, familiar, and, let's admit it, creaky translation.

Bravo, Professor Nichols! They'll be getting him to do toilet-paper adverts next... 

Jonathan Boardman
Archdeacon of Italy and  Malta, and Chaplain of  All Saints', Rome

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