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Inferno, Dante, Translated by Steve Ellis, Vintage Books, 2007, 210 pages.

Mar 18, 2016, 10:23 AM

A mindboggling poem which you should read

The Inferno, is the classical poem by the Italian poet Dante (1265-1321). It was written 600 years ago, but has remained as evergreen as any classic of Western literature. It has been translated uncountable times in English, by scholars since the medieval era. So it is easy to ask how a new translation can be different. Well, Professor Steve Ellis, who has rendered this new version from the Old Italian knew about this and has a pre-emptive answer: a translation which has a heavy dose of common English while maintaining the Dante style!

As the title indicates Inferno was written by Dante while he was in exile on a remote Italian Island waiting to be executed by burning at the stake. This is why the poem has the imagery of the savage. Bestial and hellish throughout its odd 5,000 lines. This is why the poem is part autobiographical.

The opening lines are a good indication that the story that the poems is about to narrate will be harsh and dark: Halfway through my trek in life/I found myself in this dark wood/Miles away from the right road, p.1. Here we have the image of a lost traveller. Scholars such as Prof. Ellis suggest that in these lines Dante was referring to his midlife crises of uncertainty about whether the past has been worthwhile and if the future will be worth living. It is a grope in the dark!

The issue of dead is ever present in the poem. This is understand in a poem which talks about hell: ‘The day was dying/the dark air took every creature on earth (p.7) or in these haunting lines:  ‘I fainted as if actually I have died/and down i went like a dead body (p.33). There is throughout the book a disturbing image of darkness and worry and pity such that Dante himself admits three quarters way into the poem that ‘language can’t cope, human minds/haven’t the faculty to take it in’, (p.167). The reader is washed with the grim grime of rusty hell, the Inferno indeed!

The book will not be definitely an easy read even for those well initiated into medieval literature. Its language is obscurantist which cannot be helped because it an Old Italian classic that is being rendered into English. But even if the reader gets the occasional bump with the text as he reads through, it is still worth trying it. It is beautiful and highly evocative.

I strongly recommend this book to all lovers of literature.

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