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This article is taken from PN Review 217, Volume 40 Number 5, May - June 2014.

Literalism in Sisson’s Dante John Clegg
There will soon be more English Dantes than English Homers, despite (or perhaps because of) an almost complete lack of success. No-one has done for Dante in English what Chapman, Pope, Fagles or Logue have achieved for Homer; bare readability, over anything larger than the scale of an individual canto, is by itself an unusual attainment. It is particularly disheartening to note how much the various translations have in common, often differing only in their points of failure. (Charles Fox called Virgil’s Georgics the most untranslatable poetry in the world; but the gulf between Dryden’s translation and, for instance, David Ferry’s, suggests that almost anything can be made of it in English and retain some accuracy. The same could not be said of Dante.) Part of the problem is some technical difficulty (not, however, peculiar to the Divine Comedy), to do with terza rima and the relative paucity of rhyme in English as compared to Italian. Part of it is to do with Dante’s famous compression (in the words of Gabriel Josipovici, ‘so precise, so concrete, yet so unaggressive’1). And part of it is apparently some inexplicable lack of that serendipity, found in the best translations, where the original and the target language seem to somehow run together and long seams of hidden correspondence are made visible, as in John Felstiner’s translations of Paul Celan (a poetry surely at least as compressed as Dante). Since Cary’s famous rendering of the inscription above the portal to Hell (and even that is fated to be ...


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