“Under James’s uncanny touch, seven long centuries drop away, and the great poem is startlingly fresh and new.”―Stephen GreenblattThe Divine Comedy is the precursor of modern literature, and Clive James’s translation―decades in the making―gives us the entire epic as a single, coherent, and compulsively readable lyric poem. For the first time ever in an English translation, James makes the bold choice of switching from the terza rima composition of the original Italian―a measure that strains in English―to the quatrain. The result is “rhymed English stanzas that convey the music of Dante’s triple rhymes” (Edward Mendelson). James’s translation reproduces the same wonderful momentum of the original Italian that propels the reader along the pilgrim’s path from Hell to Heaven, from despair to revelation.
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Dante Alighieri was born in 1265 in Florence to a family of minor nobility. He entered into Florentine politics in 1295, but he and his party were forced into exile in a hostile political climate in 1301. Taking asylum in Ravenna late in life, Dante completed his Divine Commedia, considered one of the most important works of Western literature, before his death in 1321.
Born in Australia, Clive James lives in Cambridge, England. He is the author of Unreliable Memoirs; a volume of selected poems, Opal Sunset; the best-selling Cultural Amnesia; and the translator of The Divine Comedy by Dante. He has written for the New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic. He is an Officer of the Order of Australia and a Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
Critic extraordinaire James (Cultural Amnesia, 2007) is also a poet (Opal Sunset: Selected Poems, 2008), and he has been working his way to this daring project ever since he was in Florence in the mid-1960s while studying at Cambridge, as he explains in his rousing introduction. His companion, whom he would soon marry, the future Dante scholar Prudence Shaw, revealed to him the “great secret of Dante’s masterpiece,” the fact that it possesses both “interior intensity” and propulsion. How, James wondered, could a translator re-create this dynamic? Deciding that Dante’s terza rima is too strained in English, he uses robust, rollicking quatrains. He also avoids footnotes, which so rudely interrupt the flow and drama of this defining classic, by working necessary explanations into the poem itself. James’ revitalizing translation allows this endlessly analyzed, epic, archetypal “journey to salvation” to once again stride, whirl, blaze, and sing. Anyone heretofore reluctant to pick up The Divine Comedy will discover that James’ bold, earthy, rhythmic and rhyming, all-the-way live English translation fulsomely and brilliantly liberates the profound humanity of Dante’s timeless masterpiece. --Donna Seaman
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