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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2013
Open, third prize

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John RG Turner

Hell's ante-room Inferno, canto III, 1–60


THIS WAY TO THE METROPOLIS OF GRIEVING.
   THIS WAY TO SORROW THAT ENDURES FOR EVER.
   THIS WAY AMONG A PEOPLE LOST AND RAVING.
HIGH JUSTICE WAS THE MOTIVE OF MY MOVER:
   THE POWER DIVINE, THE SUM OF WISDOM MADE ME,
   THE LOVE THAT WAS AT FIRST AND SHALL NOT WAVER.
NO THINGS BUT THE ETERNAL BEINGS PRECEDE ME.
   I STAND THROUGH ALL OF TIME AND WHAT SHALL FOLLOW..
   EXTINGUISH EVERY HOPE, AND PASS INSIDE ME.
This text, its colour dark, its outline hollow,
   I read across the lintel of a doorway,
   saying 'Maëstro, this is hard to swallow.'
He said, as one accustomed to the sure way,
   'Here it were much the best for you to set aside
   all doubts, all chickenheartedness – for your way
as I have said, must be upon the bitter side
   of this last barrier, to see how broken
   are those who lose the good sense of their better side.'
So with his hand upon my arm, a token
   which gave me much encouragement, he cheerfully
   led me in there to secrets yet unspoken.
Such sighs, such moaning, and such wailing, tearfully
   reverberated in that starless vaulting,
   I felt my throat begin to tighten fearfully.
Hollers of anger, or remorseful bleating,
   babels of tongues and hoarse yells of bravado,
   unlovely oaths, the sound of hands too, smiting,
pumped with the rhythm of a bastinado
   in the stained atmosphere time had forsaken,
   like sand thrashed in the eye of a tornado.
I cried out, feeling that my head would break in,
   'What am I hearing, and what is this nation
   that grief has so entirely overtaken?'
He said 'This is the bawling congregation
   whose lives, devoid of virtues as of vices,
   merited neither blame nor commendation;
joined with an angel choir who in the Crisis
   battled not for their God nor for the Other Team,
   but for themselves and for their own devices.
The beauty of the heavens will not harbour them,
   fearing disfigurement; and the pit also,
   in case the damned should feel some glory over them.'
I ask 'What sorrow is it makes them howl so,
   what perfect anguish powers all this crying?'
   Reply: 'A simple answer: being all so
conscious of the abject unedifying
   course of their lives, they envy every other,
   but are so dead they have no hope of dying.
Their worldly fame is buried in the heather.
   Pity or justice is beyond their compass.
   Glance and go on. Ignore them altogether.'
I stared, and saw beside us in the gloom pass
   by a banner, careering all and any
   which way, hurtling too fast for pause or impasse.
Then after, mimicking its every zany
   gyration, poured a crowd: so vast a horde that
   I could not think death had undone so many.
And in that sea of souls the cavern roared at,
   I thought I recognised the timid prelate
   who out of terror signed the vile Konkordat.

Translated from the Italian by John RG Turner
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Inferno III, 1–60


«PER ME SI VA NE LA CITTA DOLENTE,
PER ME SI VA NE L'ETTERNO DOLORE,
PER ME SI VA TRA LA PERDUTA GENTE.

GIUSTIZIA MOSSE IL MIO ALTO FATTORE:
FECEMI LA DIVINA PODESTATE,
LA SOMMA SAPIENZA E `L PRIMO AMORE.

DINANZI A ME NON FUOR COSE CREATE
SE NON ETTERNE, E IO ETTERNO DURO.
LASCIATE OGNE SPERANZA, VOI CH'INTRATE».

Queste parole di colore oscuro
vid'io scritte al sommo d'una porta;
per ch'io: «Maestro, il senso lor m'è duro».

Ed elli a me, come persona accorta:
«Qui si convien lasciare ogne sospetto;
ogne viltà convien che qui sia morta.

Noi siam venuti al loco ov'i' t'ho detto
che tu vedrai le genti dolorose
c'hanno perduto il ben de l'intelletto».

E poi che la sua mano a la mia puose
con lieto volto, ond'io mi confortai,
mi mise dentro a le segrete cose.

Quivi sospiri, pianti e alti guai
risonavan per l'aere sanza stelle,
per ch'io al cominciar ne lagrimai.

Diverse lingue, orribili favelle,
parole di dolore, accenti d'ira,
voci alte e fioche, e suon di man con elle

facevano un tumulto, il qual s'aggira
sempre in quell'aura sanza tempo tinta,
come la rena quando turbo spira.

E io ch'avea d'error la testa cinta,
dissi: «Maestro, che è quel ch'i' odo?
e che gent'è che par nel duol sì vinta?».

Ed elli a me: «Questo misero modo
tegnon l'anime triste di coloro
che visser sanza 'nfamia e sanza lodo.

Mischiate sono a quel cattivo coro
de li angeli che non furon ribelli
né fur fedeli a Dio, ma per sé fuoro.

Caccianli i ciel per non esser men belli,
né lo profondo inferno li riceve,
ch'alcuna gloria i rei avrebber d'elli».

E io: «Maestro, che è tanto greve
a lor, che lamentar li fa sì forte?».
Rispuose: «Dicerolti molto breve.

Questi non hanno speranza di morte
e la lor cieca vita è tanto bassa,
che 'nvidiosi son d'ogne altra sorte.

Fama di loro il mondo esser non lassa;
misericordia e giustizia li sdegna:
non ragioniam di lor, ma guarda e passa».

E io, che riguardai, vidi una 'nsegna
che girando correva tanto ratta,
che d'ogne posa mi parea indegna;

e dietro le venìa sì lunga tratta
di gente, ch'i' non averei creduto
che morte tanta n'avesse disfatta.

Poscia ch'io v'ebbi alcun riconosciuto,
vidi e conobbi l'ombra di colui
che fece per viltade il gran rifiuto…

Dante Alighieri
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Translation commentary


Why is translating Inferno like playing the piano accordion? Because a real gent is someone who can do it, but doesn't. This translation arose, despite the plethora of others, from many years of wanting to have a go at the inscription on Hell Gate, and a personal crisis; eventually coming to fruition when I spotted the happy accident that although Dante's treatment of the Vestibule of Hell took 69 lines, there was an arresting image at the sixtieth 'Spender line'. Trying to avoid the 'not another free/blank/terza rima version' situation, I plumped for feminine (sometimes trisyllabic) endings. These are a completely different animal in English, being associated with either comic or lyrical verse. But, partly by irony, they can develop a nasty bite. I wanted to get close to Dante's plainness and hardness.

The chief gains over a blank/free verse medium are the extra oomph of rhymes, and the extra impetus for the translator to think imaginatively about what to say, given that the prosody blocks the easy solutions. The necessary periphrases are an opportunity to gloss words with multiplex meanings.

The question of opportunism versus real ethical behaviour feels very modern. It was tempting to fill up the ante-room with merchant bankers, but Dante insists on total anonymity. Except for his hint about the rifiuto of Celestine V, whose abdication led to the succession of Boniface VIII, and the transfer of the Papacy to Avignon. Likewise the signing of the Reichskonkordat between the German Reich and the Holy See (by Cardinal Pacelli, later Pope Pius XII), which allowed Hitler's final rise to power. Some readers may find the updating disturbing or offensive. The translation does permit some doubt. Are we really responsible for unintended consequences?

Thanks to Richard Andrews for education on the consequences of the Papal abdication of 1294.

John RG Turner