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Words Without Borders “stands as a monument to international collaboration and a shared belief in artistic possibility.”
— 2018 Whiting Literary Magazine Prize Citation
from the January 2019 issue

In “HELL,” Alasdair Gray Creates a Celtic, Wind-lashed Translation of Dante’s “Inferno”

Reviewed by Jamie Mackay

By fusing a dialect-laden verse with knowledge and respect for Dante’s original, the Scottish writer and illustrator has built a bridge across borders and nations.

Since the Florentine poet Dante Alighieri finished his Divina Commedia, in 1320, more than one hundred different translations of his work have been published in English, over a dozen in this decade alone. The selection currently available caters to various tastes and purposes. Allen Mandelbaum’s blank-verse effort, studied in thousands of classrooms and universities around the world, remains the canonical go-to and has been recognized as such by Italy’s literary establishment. Then there is Robert Pinsky’s Inferno, more lyrical, though arguably less faithful. It remains one of the most popular among international readers. Beyond these quite different tomes, however, new interpretations continue to pop up every couple of years, often with the proclaimed intention of making this masterpiece “more accessible.” Mary Jo Bang has adapted the Inferno admirably, in a jazzy and virtuosic free-verse. Similarly, Clive James has produced a vigorous, slang-inflected edition of the same text, the first and better-known section of Dante’s tripartite work, also composed of the cantos of Purgatory and Paradise. The J. G. Nichols edition is comparatively archaic, though none the worse for it, and has been praised for communicating the essential rhythm of the poems like never before. And this is to name just three of the most high-profile recent examples. The question, then, is unavoidable: do we really need yet another attempt? 

For Alasdair Gray, the resounding response is “yes.” Despite all the noise, he argues in the introduction of his newly released translation of the Inferno, there remain new ways to play with Dante. The Divine Comedy, he writes, is a text “like the Bible,” with almost endless possible interpretations, and opportunities to pose new questions, and answers. It is a masterpiece to be revered, reread and, ultimately, rewritten. With the all-caps title of HELL, in place of the more customary utilization of the original Italian title, the eighty-three-year-old Scottish novelist makes his characteristically bold stamp on one of the world’s most beloved poems. 

It has been a long time coming. From his 1981 novel, Lanark, to his many short stories, Gray’s work has long borne the marks of Dante’s influence. His imaginative worlds, his mythological vision, the ease with which he traverses the fields of folklore and high art all are prominent qualities of his work that suggest an affinity with the Florentine writer. This can also be felt in regard to Gray’s work as an illustrator, which often uses techniques inspired by illuminated manuscripts and medieval woodcarvings to evoke sublime scenes, such as those depicted in his extraordinary murals at Glasgow’s Òran Mór auditorium. These two features combine in this new volume, where Gray’s dense but characteristically playful language is positioned neatly alongside sharp neoclassical etchings of Dante and his spirit guide Virgil. The result is dreamlike, fantastical, and entirely appropriate to the subject matter. 

Yet if Dante’s task in the fourteenth century was to fuse a sort of “everyday religiosity” with the then-new stylistics of courtly love poetry, Gray’s challenge today is almost the reverse. Instead of taking everyday superstitions of faith and ennobling them in a novel form, HELL is more concerned with reemphasizing the colloquialism and familiarity with which the Florentine public would have received the original text. This is something that’s too often lost in English translations of Dante’s work, which have a tendency to replace quite accessible meditations on faith, morality, and destiny with bloated, unapproachable metaphysics. Gray, who in addition to close-reading Dante has spent a lifetime mastering a flowing lyrical Scots, seems to have tasked himself with liberating the text from this unfortunate heritage. His success is evident from the opening lines:

In middle age I wholly lost my way, 

finding myself within an evil wood 

far from the right straight road we all should tread.

 

And what a wood! So densely tangled, dark,

jaggily thorned. So hard to press on through,

even the memory renews my dread. 

A neologism, a romantic caesura. This is immediately quite different from Mandelbaum’s scholarly approach, which in the equivalent translation maintains a more rigid and antiquated tenor with lines like “for I had lost the path that does not stray.” In fact, Gray has cut large sections entirely—he has even jokingly described the effort as “paraphrasing” —and there are, predictably, and fittingly given the author’s intentions, no footnotes. Instead, this “prosaic verse” pushes forward with an unabashed vernacular-laden vitality, designed to capture the spirit, and dark humor, of the original Italian. At one point, for example, our narrator refers to his spirit guide, Virgil, as a “dominie” (a Scots word for a schoolmaster), while his own procrastination is simply “blethering” (rambling). Phrases like these just cry out to be read aloud, preferably in a thick Glaswegian accent.  

There are a few original jokes as well, largely at the expense of the British ruling class. The Guelfs and Ghibellines, for example, are transfigured, a little clunkily, into Tories and Whigs, the UK’s eighteenth-century parliamentary groupings. Later, in a more pleasing and successful riff, Satan himself becomes “God’s prime minister.” There is quite enough political indignation, though, in Dante’s original narrative, and Gray is more successful where he strives to convey the poem’s more revolutionary cadences free from modish pretense: 

Within a city or a nation state

Great force or cunning can accumulate

Properties, making some cliques dominate

 

Until the angel with so many names—

Luck, chance, fate, fortune, mutability— 

Makes new cliques prosper, other cliques decay,

 

Whether by vice or virtue, who can say?

But those who trust, not virtue, but to luck

Have gone astray, aye, very far astray. 

For all his cuts and innovations, as passages like this show, Gray has stuck more closely to the medieval source than, say, Bang’s attempt. This is particularly evident in terms of tone and rhythm. Terza rima, the form that Dante invented to tell his narrative, is notoriously difficult to render in English on account of the relative glut of rhyming words in Italian. Previous translators have usually been forced to abandon it all together, or risk an almost sing-song style, plagued by alien and archaic words. In HELL, Gray finds an effective compromise. Where it feels natural he uses end rhyme, following Dante. Where it doesn’t, he settles for internal rhyme. Simple. But it’s a brave decision and, despite a subsequent over-reliance on end-stopped lines, he pulls it off with style. 

By fusing a dialect-laden verse with knowledge and respect for Dante’s original, Gray has, almost inadvertently, built a bridge across borders and nations. Yes, this is a strange, idiosyncratic, individual text, but it is at the same time an undeniably Scottish one. This is not an English, American, or Australian Dante, one that smells of campus libraries or open mic nights, but a Celtic, wind-lashed fantasy of medieval Italy. With humility, and great skill, Gray has shown that his own voice, and those of his compatriots, are as capable of participating in global, canonical storytelling as any other community, Anglophone or otherwise. HELL is a beautiful text, made even more remarkable by the political implications of Gray’s artistic accomplishment. It is also a timely reminder of the truth contained in Italo Calvino’s famous quip: “A classic book has never finished what it has to say.” 

© 2019 by Jamie Mackay. All rights reserved.

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