SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. "The Divine Comedy" is a 14th century poem that's never lost its edge. Dante's poem tells the tale of the author's trail through hell - each and every circle of it - purgatory and heaven. It's become perhaps the world's most cited allegorical epic about life, death, goodness, evil, damnation and reward. It calls upon the reader to ask: What would be our personal hell? What, for us, would really be paradise? "The Divine Comedy" is also a work of literary beauty that is beyond being antiquated by time or diminished by repeated translation. The latest has been undertaken by a writer who's perhaps best known for his pointed and funny criticisms of culture. But Clive James is also a novelist, humorist, essayist, memoirist, radio and television host who's been called his own one-man renaissance. Clive James, who's both an officer of the Order of Australia and a commander of the Order of the British Empire joins us from the BBC studios in Cambridge. Thanks so much for being with us.
CLIVE JAMES: Scott, you make me sound like an imperial force. I'm thrilled.
SIMON: You are kind of. I mean, absolutely you are. People always want to know what Clive James thinks about something.
JAMES: Well, it's what I think about Dante that matters now. And this took years to do. And here it is in front of me in the most beautiful book you could imagine. I'm thrilled to bits with it.
SIMON: Well, after more than, I guess I counted it, more than 30 books that you've written since the 1970s, what made you decide to change your energies to a translation?
JAMES: I think I always wanted to translate Dante but I always knew there was a problem. And the problem is enormous for the translator. There have been many translations and there will be many more. And whether they're in verse or not, they all run into a insuperable difficulty, which is that of the three books of the comedy - that's Hell, Purgatory and Heaven - Hell is the most fascinating in the first instance 'cause it's full of action. It's got a huge three-headed dog. It's got a flying dragon. It's got men turning into snakes and vice versa. You name it, Hell has got it. But Purgatory and Heaven have mainly just got theology. And the challenge for the translator is to reproduce Dante's fascination with theology, which, for him, was just as exciting as all that action. I really had to face this for decade after decade as I thought about how to translate it.
SIMON: I gather, by the way - and this is a good deal more than a parenthetical -that you wife, Prudence Shaw, played a significant role in all ways.
JAMES: She certainly did just by existing. You know, she's a great scholar of Dante. But right back in 1964 when we first knew each other in Florence before we were married, there was a romantic scene by which she took me through the actual great love affair between Paolo and Francesca in Canto Five of Hell, and showed me how the verse worked in Italian, 'cause her Italian of course was perfect already and mine was rudimentary. So, there we were, actually duplicating the situation in the canto because the two lovers are reading a book; that's what brought them together. And lo and behold, that's what we were doing. And I was so fascinated with what she told me about how Dante's verse worked, that the idea never left me, that I should try to make my own poetry as interesting as that. That's what most translations lack. They're faithful, they're accurate, they're scholarly, but the actual raw poetic thrill of the verse doesn't get through, and that's what I think the translator must try to do, if he or she can.
SIMON: Oh, how did you do that?
JAMES: The first thing I had to do was to reconcile myself that I couldn't write my translation in terza rima, Dante's rhyme scheme, which is almost impossible to do in English without strain. The problem of English is it's a rhyme-poor language, and Dante's Italian, of course, is such a rhyme-rich language that almost anyone can write a rhyming narrative. But if you're going to do it in English, you need, I think, another approach, and I used quatrains. When I reconciled myself to that, I was off and running. And so I've got a nice, easily flowing rhythmic grid on which to mount the individual moments. And if you can give your verse muscle, then you're doing one of the things Dante does, because Dante has a tremendous capacity, right in the middle of the Italian language - the musicality of the Italian language - to be strong, to be vivid, to be precise. He gave the Italian language - and the Italian language that the Italians speak today is largely Dante's invention. He combined a lot of dialects into the thing we now know as Italian.
SIMON: Could I ask you to read a section? One of my favorites where I think your poetic powers are also something to hear. And that's Canto 8, a pretty famous speech.
JAMES: (Reading) Now is the hour that longing turns around for sailors towards what they left behind. The hour that melts their hearts when outward bound for just one day the last light brings to mind that they have said goodbye to dearest friends. The hour that pierces the new pilgrims deep with love if he should hear what the bell sends from far away. The sound of chimes that weep in mourning for the dying day.
Isn't that beautiful?
SIMON: It is beautiful. And you read it...
JAMES: It's fantastically beautiful in the Italian. Dante is often portrayed as some very dour-looking figure, and I suppose he was. But he has a wonderful poetic lightness to him as well. "The Divine Comedy" is essentially - it sounds like a crazy word to use but it's amazingly spritely.
SIMON: Working with "The Divine Comedy" at this stage of your life, did it bring a kind of added understanding, a resonance to your translation?
JAMES: I think it did. I hadn't yet fallen ill. I fell seriously ill early in 2010. And I did most of the translated before that. But I could feel the end of my life coming. I could feel that there was a closure on its way and I was examining my life, and I wasn't particularly satisfied with what I saw when I examined it. I felt the necessity for understanding, for redemption, if you will, and I think some of that went into my reading and my writing. Yes, it was the right time. I can say this much for sure, for certain, right here on the air: There is no young man's version of this translation. I couldn't have done it when I was younger. I had the energy, but not the knowledge, and not the knowledge of myself, because Dante is worried about himself. Dante is in a spiritual crisis, and I think you have to have been in one of your own to understand what he's talking about. He's seeking absolution, redemption and certainty. He's seeking a knowledge that his life has been worthwhile, which I still am. So, I often talk about, well, it's tough that it's all coming to an end, because really it's not so tough. It would have been tougher if had ended earlier. I regard myself as a privileged man. I'm an extremely privileged man. I was determined to live long enough to see this book published - and I have. And I don't think I can really ask for much more.
SIMON: Mr. James, it's been a privilege to talk to you. Thank you.
JAMES: It was wonderful to talk to you and it's wonderful to have this book treated so seriously. Thank you so much.
SIMON: Clive James has translated a new English language edition of Dante's "The Divine Comedy."