Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Dante: The Divine Comedy, translated by Dorothy L Sayers

This is a report on a work in progress: Dorothy L Sayers’ edition and translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy runs to 3 volumes and over 1000 pages, and I’m nowhere near halfway through it yet. There is time enough to absorb it at leisure, to put it down for a while and pick it up again – after all, it has taken me decades to get this far with one of the immense literary achievements of all time. This piece reflects on the experience of having one of my best-loved authors, Dorothy L Sayers, as a guide in this new reading venture.

Dante’s work is like Hamlet, the Psalms and Shakespeare’s Sonnets – it is amazing how much language, imagery and allusion from the Divine Comedy can be absorbed by one’s consciousness without having read it. We merrily misquote ‘Abandon hope all ye…’ (H F Carey’s standard English translation has ‘All hope abandon ye who enter here’.) Paolo and Francesca, Count Ugolino, Dante’s idealised love Beatrice – all these characters and more have detached themselves from the poem and acquired a life of their own, having inspired the poets I HAVE read, from Chaucer through Milton and Byron to Eliot.

Embarking upon Dante seemed too daunting, and would have remained so, until I became curious to know just how DLS had tackled it. Her edition for Penguin Classics is a classic in its own right, having been kept in print alongside a much more recent edition, that no doubt takes advantage of modern scholarship. However, let’s hear it for a bit of good old-fashioned scholarship. DLS’s vigour, clarity and sheer love for the Divine Comedy are a huge encouragement to the timid. The poet is creating a whole landscape, geography and cosmology, distilling all that Christian tradition and classical literature had to say about the world, the underworld and the afterlife into a traveller’s tale. DLS’s edition gives the reader as much guidance, illustration, explanation and interpretation as s/he would ever need, and more. There are so many possible barriers to understanding and appreciation: language – for readers with rudimentary or no Italian a readable, clear translation is needed, worthy of the original; context: we no longer automatically have as part of our mental furniture a knowledge of Christian doctrine, contemporary (13/14th century) European politics and conflict, classical literature and belief systems. Without these, it is going to be hard going, as every scene that Dante describes in his so carefully structured journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise has a contemporary as well as a universal meaning.

Dante Alighieri, who is forever associated with Florence, lived from 1265, dying in exile in Ravenna in 1321. He was an active citizen in Florence, where he made his reputation as a writer too (Chaucer knew his work, and called him Dant). Caught up in the strife between the Guelph and Ghibelline factions, he finally was cast out from Florence after a schism among his party, the Guelphs, and from that there was no going back. He began the Commedia in about 1314, and continued to write it until the end of his life. It is an epic poem of 14,000 lines, in 3 Cantiche of 33 Cantos each, which with an introductory canto make a round 100. This emphasis on numerical perfection and symmetry is also essential to the geography of the universe he is describing (24 circles of Hell, 2 terraces and 7 cornices of the mountain of Purgatory, the 7 Spheres of Paradise). When he died, the final 13 cantos of the Paradiso went missing, and we owe their recovery, and indeed the transmission of the Commedia as a whole, to the 14th Century poet Boccaccio, whose story of his miraculous discovery in their original hiding place only adds to the mystique of the work. Reading and learning about this passage of Italian (indeed European) history has been part of the pleasure for me of discovering Dante’s Divine Comedy this way. For the first time, thanks to DLS, I have managed to get a better grip on the Guelphs and the Ghibellines (and I hope I won’t forget which is which and why again in a hurry).

DLS came to Dante quite late in her life, after reading Charles Williams’s influential work of criticism The Figure of Beatrice. This prompted her to read the Commedia, and she found a new delight and a new challenge: I can remember nothing like it since I picked up The Three Musketeers at the age of thirteen, she is quoted as saying. She was commissioned by the first editor of the Penguin Classics series, E V Rieu, for whom she had already translated and edited Le Chanson de Roland, to create an edition of the Divine Comedy. She worked on it (like Dante) until her death, publishing the first volume, Hell, in 1949, and Purgatory in 1955. At her death in 1958, she had completed 20 out 33 of the Cantos of Paradise (in extraordinary symmetry with Dante’s lost 13 cantos at his death) and bequeathed the task of completing the translation and apparatus of the final volume to the noted Italian scholar Barbara Reynolds.

Without a grounding in the language, literature and history of the 14th century, the modern reader of Dante needs all the help there is going, and DLS’s edition certainly provides this. It is the fruit of deep love and profound contemplation of the poem, and a feat of imaginative empathy – the translator asks herself why the modern reader should want to engage with the difficulties of a work that is so far removed from our modern world of thought, belief and knowledge. Her answer is to bring out as much as possible not just of what is specific to Dante’s era, but what is universal. Dante is describing in detail a landscape through which he is journeying, with Virgil and Beatrice as his guides and protectors. This edition does not just describe and explain it, but draws it and maps it too. Each canto is treated the same – there is an abstract of the story, the translation of the verses, followed by a commentary and notes. There is a very informative critical introduction, providing details of Dante’s biography and the political and economic context of his age. Each of the three Canticas is followed by essays on some of the major themes to emerge, such as Dante’s cosmology, and a glossary of the proper names. She works very hard to help the reader understand why it is necessary to challenge our assumptions. For instance, Hell is based around contemporary perceptions of the gravity of various types of sin, and our modern assumptions are almost, but not quite, turned upside down. The sins punished in the lowest circles of Hell are those of premeditation, those higher up of incontinence. So violence is more lightly punished (though everything is relative) than treachery. Why? DLS knows that this will confound the reader, so she takes pain with her explanation. All this is in her inimitable energetic and elegant style. This edition has all the apparatus (and more) that I would expect to find in an edition for students and scholars, but the emphasis is placed on making the reading the Divine Comedy accessible to any curious reader.

DLS pays great attention to finding a matching style for her translation, and an English idiom that is appropriate to the style of the original. She explains in detail her approach to translation and prosody in the introduction to Hell, which also serves as an introduction to the whole work, setting out the principles she intends to follow. Readers may not want to like the archaisms of words, grammar and style, but I think it is a tour de force. One of the reasons I have such a fellow feeling with DLS is that her education was mine too – however, I feel humbled by what she took from it – her knowledge of style and prosody is prodigious, as well as her courage in applying it to this monumental task. The Terza rima and its rhyme scheme of aba bcb cdc must have been hugely challenging – but then, she is following Dante’s footsteps. For an example, here is her version perhaps the best known passage to non-readers – the words written on the gates of Hell:

Through me the road to the city of desolation
Through me the road to sorrows diuturnal,
Through me the road among the lost creation

Justice moved my great maker; God Eternal
Wrought me: the power, and the unsearchably
High wisdom, and the primal love supernal.

Nothing ere I was made was made to be
Save things eterne, and I eterne abide;
Lay down all hope, you that go in by me

These words of sombre colour, I descried
Writ on the lintel of a gateway; “Sir,
This sentence is right hard for me,” I cried.

Given our dominant reading habit of starting a work and reading it for only as long as we can stand, which might or might not be the to the end, I am sure that the majority of readers spend most of their time in Hell; much stamina is needed to make it as far as Purgatory, let alone Paradise. I confess that so far I have only sampled the second two. DLS understands that, and in her introductions she takes pains to draw out the particular pleasures of the other two Canticas, dwelling for example on the mastery of the form in the Purgatory. I am looking forward to both. In the commentaries and notes a common emphasis is on how much Dante has to say to the reader today. One passage in particular brought me up short as peculiarly resonant to today’s news, just as it had struck DLS in the 1940s – this from the notes to Hell Canto XI:

ll. 95 sqq.: usury as a crime against God’s bounty: Dante’s thought in this passage (which is that of the Medieval Church) is of such urgent relevance to-day that it is worthwhile to disentangle it from his (to us) rather odd and unfamiliar phraseology. What he is saying is that there are only two sources of real wealth: Nature and Art – or, as we would put it, Natural Resources and the Labour of Man. The buying and selling of Money as though it were a commodity creates only a spurious wealth, and results in injury to the earth (Nature) and the exploitation of labour (Art). The attitude to men and things which this implies is a kind of blasphemy; since Art derives from Nature, as Nature derives from God, so that contempt of them is contempt of him.

What splendid stuff! That, and the passage it elucidates, should be done in pokerwork and placed on the desk of every speculator, hedge-fund manager and investment banker now poised to bet on the ruin of world economies. Not that they’d care.

So, as I said at the beginning, a progress report. Don’t worry – I shall not be back with weekly updates. I hope I have said enough to make some readers believe that, with the help every step of the way of another consummate writer, the massive challenge of reading Dante’s Divine Comedy can be a fascinating and enligtening experience.

Dante: The Divine Comedy. London: Penguin Books (Penguin Classics Series).
I. Hell (1949) translated by Dorothy L Sayers. ISBN 978010440065
II. Purgatory (1955) translated by Dorothy L Sayers. ISBN 9780140440461
III. Paradise (1960) translated by Dorothy L Sayers and Barbara Reynolds. ISBN 9780130441055

Not available (as far as I can tell) as an eBook.

14 comments on “Dante: The Divine Comedy, translated by Dorothy L Sayers

  1. annebrooke
    June 22, 2012

    An amazing and inspirational article, Hilary! It also makes me want to revisit my Chaucer … I foresee an intense literary year ahead … 🙂

  2. kirstyjane
    June 22, 2012

    This sounds tremendous — and I must admit, I was not aware that Sayers was also a translator. A extraordinarily good one, as the excerpts suggest. Thank you very much for this report!

  3. Kate
    June 22, 2012

    One of the many, many books i used to own and then jettisoned because I also moved house far too often, was a modern reprint of Gustave Doré’s illustrated edition of the Divine Comedy. It was totally gorgeous, and I spent most of my time inside it looking at the pictures rather than reading the cantos. I think I found Dante just way too heavy, and indigestible. But, having been reminded of DLS and her Italian projects here, I think I might try her 20thC religious writing, I’ve never done that, and see if I can work up to Dante again.

  4. sshaver
    June 22, 2012

    Sayers is way more talented than she’s given credit for. Among other things, if you’re trying to figure out the relation between men and women, Sayers has no superior other than Austen.

    Peter and Harriet have much to teach us.

  5. Jackie
    June 22, 2012

    I’ve always been intimidated by Dante, even while being curious about his work. But now I’m thinking I might be braver after reading this. Ms.Sayers sounds like an excellent guide & one who could explain things clearly. How amazing that she did all that translating while also writing terrific mystery novels. What a lady of many talents!

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  7. john mccartney
    September 30, 2013

    Has anyone found the Sayers trans as an ebook?

  8. Hilary
    October 2, 2013

    I’m afraid not, @john mccartney, but if I come across one later I’ll come back with details.

  9. Anthony Guter
    March 2, 2014

    I have found Hell in ebook form but it was a poorly edited version using OCR, so that page numbers are included and footnotes appear exactly as if part of the main text. I may try cleaning it up for my own use but it is not good enough to share right now

  10. daisydaae
    April 24, 2016

    Reblogged this on A CUP OF PROSE and commented:
    Interessantissimo articolo a proposito della traduzione inglese di Dante ad opera di Dorothy L Sayers!

  11. daisydaae
    April 24, 2016

    I’ve just studied some English translations of Dante and Sayers’ one’s proved to be the most exciting so far!

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  13. Matt O'Connor
    March 8, 2021

    Thank you for your beautiful review. There is an excellent Jungian interpretation of the Commedia by Helen M. Luke that relies on the Sayers translation, it too is terrific.

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