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
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
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:
into the gloomy gates:
hope entirely, you who enter.
meeting of Statius with Virgil and Dante (yes, don't forget that
you need to get more than one classical poet under your belt):
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:
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...
Archdeacon of Italy
and Malta, and Chaplain
of All Saints',