In 1882, while on a lecture tour of America, Oscar Wilde was surprised to find a copy of The Divine Comedy in a Nebraskan penitentiary. ‘Oh dear, who would have thought of finding Dante here?’ he marvelled. No doubt the inmates were supposed to be edified by Dante’s medieval epic of sin and salvation: ghastly retribution is meted out to sinners in the nine circles of Hell. However, if Dante speaks to our present condition, it is not because we fear damnation, but because he wrote the epic of Everyman who sets out in search of salvation. (A more recent sinner, Jeffery Archer, subtitled the three volumes of his prison memoirs ‘Hell’, ‘Purgatory’ and ‘Heaven’.)
At least 50 English translations of The Inferno — the first volume of Dante’s three-part epic — have appeared in the 20th century alone. And now we have another, by the Yorkshire-born poet Sean O’Brien. O’Brien’s is a brave undertaking, given the scores of august literary figures who have attempted the task in previous centuries, often obscuring Dante’s brilliance in the process. Part of the blame must lie with the Victorians, who reduced the Italian poet’s crystalline cantos to pious fustian, full of righteous morality. After the Victorian distortions, it was Dorothy L. Sayers who put the fizz back into the Florentine; many who know Dante from the Penguin Classic (published between 1949 and 1962) are surprised that most of it was translated by the same Sayers who gave us the dandified sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey.
O’Brien’s Inferno is touted by the publishers as ‘the most fluent, grippingly readable English version of Dante yet’. Really? In 2002, the Belfast poet and novelist Ciaran Carson offered a wonderful translation of the brimstone epic. Daringly, Carson had incorporated archaisms from 18th-century Irish ballads, which moved with the rough grain of Dante’s speech and sustained the stabbing beat of the original.