Sunday, October 7, 2012

Review of Dante’s Inferno tr. Philip Terry

Dante’s Inferno by Philip Terry, pub. Oystercatcher Press. £4.50

This short pamphlet contains selected cantos from The Inferno, rendered into contemporary English, and transposed to the present-day. It is, presumably, extracted from a translation of the whole work. Here are the famous, and portentous opening lines of Dante’s poem.

Nel mezzo del camin di nostra vita
Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura…
(“Halfway along the path of life
I found myself in a dark wood…”)

And here's Terry:

Halfway through a bad trip
I found myself in this stinking car park,
Underground, miles from Amirillo.

Instead of Virgil as guide to the underworld, we have Ted Berrigan, and instead of a leopard barring the poet's way, we have "a hairy she-rat/that stalks me like a pimp". In the passage in Canto VII where the narrator's way forward is prevented by the damned, and he faces returning without his guide, he says:

Gentle reader, imagine how I shat myself
When those words reached my ears!

This version is funny – something not often associated with Dante translations (or with Dante himself)  – and as racy as the original. As you’ll have gathered, it’s very much in the contemporary vernacular; which seems appropriate, given that Dante himself used the Tuscan dialect instead of Latin, the poetic language of the day. Here's the opening of Canto XXVIII:
Who could, even in the goriest movie

Tell the tale of blood and guts [I saw]...
... I guarantee you every effect would fail

That last-quoted line is perfect - almost banal in its everyday realism (it's straight from contemporary spoken idiom), yet expertly judged;  musical with its repeated 'f' and 'v' sounds and its long consonants, and sounding just the right emphatic note. Like the original, this version reflects back to us the world of current affairs, and passes judgement in the best polemical style. Irish history looms large (Terry was born in Belfast), and we have Ian Paisley in Hell with Seamus Twomey ("who planted the car bomb in Donegal Street") alongside Oliver Cromwell, Ian Trimble, Bernadette Devlin and others.

Dante’s poem has had a mixed reception among British poets, being for a long time regarded as a grotesque oddity, and avoided as a catholic text. After Chaucer’s death, no part of the Inferno was translated into English until Jonathan Richardson’s version of the Ugolino episode in 1719; a gap of three hundred years. The tide turned during the eighteenth century, with its notion of ‘the sublime’, and Dante was subsequently revered by the Romantics and admired during the nineteenth century. But it was the modernists, and particularly T.S. Eliot, who presented The Inferno in the way that it’s still, to some extent, regarded today; as a kind of sacred text, and, of course, as it was usually quoted in the original, as a bar to the uneducated. Today, any poet wishing to enter The Canon feels obliged to give us a rendering of at least part of The Inferno – Heaney, O’Brien, Kinsella and numerous others have had a go; in a sense, it’s still being used as a shibboleth. For me, it’s good to see Terry’s irreverence and comedy dispense with that notion.

But there’s no doubt that Terry clearly knows the original well, and expects his readers to know it too. It’s not possible to fully appreciate this version – including the humour of it – without at least a passing knowledge of the original or an alternative translation; if you know which medieval figures have been replaced by Ian Paisley or Mervyn King, then it certainly adds to ones’ appreciation. Helen Vendler has claimed that ‘updating Dante’s circumstances… becomes parodic’; this may be true, and certainly, at one level, Terry’s version is a parody. But it’s also – like all translations – a new poem based on the original, and that new poem is much more than just a parody. Dante had tremendous audacity in condemning, as he saw fit, many of his contemporaries to Hell, including some who were not yet dead. In Terry's version, we have Bank of England governor Mervyn King ("man's arch enemy") alongside a bunch of people doing the conga for all eternity, some crying "What's the point of saving?" others "Take out an ISA!" - all of which leads to an impassioned tirade:

'This Capital you speak of,
what is it,
that has the world so in its clutches?'
And he replied: 'People are mugs,
things of real value,
friendship, love,
Poetry, health,
they ride over roughshod
for a slice of Capital's cake.
Commodity fetishism rules the day
drowning us in a sea of white goods
and smart gadgets.

This little pamphlet is a hugely entertaining read, and it gives the reader a good idea of what it must have been like to read Dante when he was contemporary – of the sheer shock value of some of his judgements, and of narrative thrust of the poem.  The extracts appear to be part of a full-length translation, the publication of which is something we can all look forward to.


  1. English Translations of Dante in the Eighteenth Century, Paget Toynbee. The Modern Language Review Vol. 1, No. 1 (Oct., 1905), pub. Published by: Modern Humanities Research Association
  1.  “Can we conceive of Beatrice ‘snapping’ like a shrew?” Helen Vendler, review of “Dante in English” edited by Eric Griffiths and Matthew Reynolds. London Review of Books, Vol. 27 No. 17 · 1 September 2005

Copyright © Alan Baker, 2012