Dante: Hell translated by Steve Ellis, Chatto and Windus, £15.99
"DANTE HELL ELus" snaps out the crisp white print on this book's spine old master and modem translator taking equal credit. Which is fair enough. If a great foreign language poein is to live as poetry in its adopted language, it has to be ,"made new" by a confident, authoritative, contemporary writer.
Steve Ellis has his own assured poetic voice, plus a no-nonsense modesty when it comes to spelling out his aims and claims as a translator. He cheerfully admits to "simply ignoring" the "problem of terza rima" while generously speculating that "an accornplished rhymester like Tony Harrison" might well be able to cope with that exacting rhyme-scheme.
Ellis's central commitment is to Dante's vigour and directness. This version is fluent and racy so as to tender the "striking idiomatic expressions and vivid homely details" of its original. The spare diction and speech tones drawn from Ellis's native Yorkshire work well as a narrative medium and score frequent, refreshing successes. Most successful of all are those encounters where Ellis, Dante, man speaking to man, makes his sinners speak out with their candour, force and (often) essential integrity, as when Ulysses urges: "Think on, why were you created./ not to exist like animals indeed/ brat to seek virtue and knowledge."
So far, so bracing. But the energy informing such episodes is a matter of ease with diction and narrative rather than with overall structure. We tend to see the detail but not the whole design, so the work as a whole remains curiously uncompelling.
The problem, of course, lies in Ellis's rejection of terza rima. Dante's rhyme-scheme is, of course, ferociously difficult to accomplish in English.
But it's literal-minded to focus on the difficulty of rhyme, and sentimental to worry too much about "musicality" and "beauty".
The loss of the rhymescheme most vitally entails the loss of the extraordinary rhythm that compels the whole original poem into life.
Reading Dante is rather like hearing, seeing, feeling the ebb and flow of the tide happening absolutely simultaneously. The new rhyme invites variety and detail, the repeated rhyme tugs them back into a constantly evolving, transcending order: a beautiful symbolic enactment of the tenderness and the tension there is in Dante's
vision of love and judgement.
Losing such a dynamic, any translation of Dante has to feel "local" rather than cosmic. The value of Ellis is its brightness and its modesty.
These arc compensations for its ultimate lack of presence and spur on the reader to what Ellis himself would surely most desire: the purchase of a simply-printed Italian Inferno which his own poem can support as an encouraging parallel text.