Friday, July 24, 2009

Book Review: Inferno

Warning: May Contain Spoilers.

(Note: I am using the Signature Press Editions version of The Divine Comedy by World Publications Group, copyright 2007.)

The version of Inferno found in the Signature Press Editions printing of The Divine Comedy uses the translation by Henry Francis Cary, which dates to 1805. Henry Francis Cary's translation differs quite a bit from the original form that Dante Alighieri employed. First and foremost, something is bound to be lost in the translation from Italian to English; and this is unavoidable. The biggest problem I have with this translation is that it abandoned the form that Dante Alighieri employed in favour of Iambic Pentameter, a form much more suited to the English language. This may not seem like much of an issue but the form that Dante employed, terza rima, was created by the author for the purpose of writing this epic.

The illustrations by Gustave Dore featured throughout the book are exquisitely detailed and can serve to aid visualizing the scenes or provide a brief refuge from the dense prose if you have difficulty.

One other critique of the book itself. It lacks footnotes and this makes it difficult for the lay-reader to appreciate the dearth of allusions and references in the book. There is only one footnote to be found in Inferno, and its purpose is to clarify the pronunciation of a word so that it fits the rhyme scheme. The language is antiquated and conversations are sometimes hard to follow. If you struggled with Shakespeare's works, you will surely struggle with Dante's.

is a classic work much referenced in our own times, as well as being an ambitious and creative work for its own time (the fourteenth century) and that should earn it points alone. However, I cannot imagine that the literary standards of the same time period were very high as compared to now, and this shows. Dante frequently writes of his fear, and exalts Heaven. On several occasions he states that he will not describe the horrors that he observes to the reader, presumably because he does not wish to recall them. I think this is an excuse for lazy writing. Further, Dante faints twice during his journey through Hell. Understandable, but the author doesn't make himself out to be a convincing hero, if he can be called that.

Inferno reads at times like propaganda. Dante places his political enemies, bishops, monks, and even a former Pope in Hell. However there is also a sympathetic side, or so it would appear. Dante places Saladin with the virtuous pagans, and the prophet Mohammad and Ali with the schismatics and sowers of discord, not blasphemers. (Although it should be noted that the blasphemers are punished in the seventh circle of Hell, the schismatics in the eighth.)

For all its apparent faults, I must still recommend Inferno and The Divine Comedy simply for its influence and historical value.

Three out of five stars.

1 comment:

Bryi said...

"On several occasions he states that he will not describe the horrors that he observes to the reader, presumably because he does not wish to recall them. I think this is an excuse for lazy writing."

This is an excellent way to describe the only quibble I have with Lovecraft. All of his characters have this point where they talk about how the horrors they've seen have caused them to go mad, and they will not/cannot recall said horrors. I love the stories anyway, but it still seems like lazy writing. (Aston Smith, a contemporary, wasn't as good at writing true horror, but he was better at having characters that didn't invariably go insane at the sight of Elder Gods. And could, y'know, actually describe the eldritch horrors with some accuracy.)

Good review -- it echos some of the same qualms I have with modern Dante translations. There's always something lacking when you translate poetry. Prose is more forgiving.