A review of J. Simon Harris’s translation of Dante’s Inferno

J. Simon Harris’s translation of the Inferno is a real work of love. The book is worth reading for all the information, notes, bibliography, and glossary alone! But especially for what seems to be his attempt to capture some of the actual ‘poetry’ of Dante in English. We have translations that are pedantic, and so which bore; we have translations which are accurate, but lack the poetry; and we have translations that are simply idiomatic – Clive James’ springs to mind. Here, though, we have a translation attempting accuracy AND poetry. First, it is written in terza rima but going beyond that let me give an example of what I mean: Stanley Applebaum’s is a good translation and he gets the ‘meaning’ of the lines, but misses the poetry. For example, in Canto 5 we have Dante’s line, Io venni in luogo d’ogni luce muto. Appelbaum has this as ‘I came to a place bereft of all light’, which is what it means; but the Italian original uses the word ‘muto’ or mute/dumb. In other words the ‘bereftness’ of light is conveyed poetically through synaesthesia: the light is dumb or mute. This is a much more powerful expression of the failure of the light – it cannot speak! In Harris’s translation this is: ‘I came into a place mute of all light’ – a brilliant rendition, particularly as the line itself is blank verse and picks up the power of the English language too. I recommend this to all readers of Dante who want to find something more like Dante himself in English.

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