A Living Version of Dante

THE INFERNO. From the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. Translated by S. Fowler Wright. (Cosmopolitan Book Corporation.)

IT is probable that most of those who have undertaken to read any of the great classic poets in translation have experienced disappointment in some degree, and many, who are in the habit of judging for themselves, must have wondered how such great reputations were achieved.

This sense of disappointment may be due in part to the fact that the reader has brought the inappropriate mental atmosphere of his own familiar world to the masterpiece — an atmosphere in which no such work could have been created. This fault in the reader, of course, applies with equal force to the reading of a great poet in one’s own tongue.

The disappointment that many must feel in reading a great poet in translation is due chiefly to the fact that, in a strict sense, poetry can never be translated with complete success. It is seldom that a translator is as greatly gifted as was the poet he undertakes to interpret in his own tongue; for those who are conscious of creative power seldom care to trouble with the works of others. In the few instances when a poet, with great creative power, has undertaken to translate a classic, the result has been, to a very considerable extent, an original creation. Most translations have been the work of scholars, toiling conscientiously in their characteristic fashion; and the life of a great poem is not to be caught in the mesh of scholarship, however finely wrought. It was not fundamentally a matter of scholarship in the first place. To attempt to reproduce a great poem by meticulous attention to mechanical detail is like trying to create a convincing image of a living body by taking casts therefrom. What results is something corpse-like.

It may, at first, sound like an exaggeration to say that a translator of poetry may know too much for the task he assumes; [?], granting adequate skill in [?] verse, one who has merely a reading knowledge of the original may succeed in carrying over more of what is vital in it than one who has profound scholarly knowledge of the language involved. For such a person can have no other reason for translating than that he has been deeply moved by the original, truly loves it and therefore wishes to share his experience with others.

This seems to explain the rather astonishing fact that S. Fowler Wright’s translation of the INFERNO actually is not dull, and how many who have attempted to read the INFERNO in translation can say, truthfully that it has not bored them? We are told that Mr. Wright is ‘self-educated,’ having left school at the age of 10, and he himself tells us that he has no scholarly knowledge of Dante's language. What he has, evidently, is a genuine love for great poetry in general and for Dante’s in particular; and the result is a poem that may be read, not merely as a measure of self defense, which no doubt is the usual way, but with true esthetic enjoyment.

Mr. Wright states that he has been translating the two other portions of the great epic, the PURGATORIO and the PARADISO, that he is far advanced with the work and that he will publish the complete poem if sufficient public interest should be shown in the present volume. Certainly he deserves encouragement.