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Dante’s Inferno (Philip Terry)

Phillip Terry’s tranlation and adaptation of Dante;s Inferno will be part of Polish Art Festival in Southend-on-Sea this year.

Panel on the 19 October, 2013:

DANTE’S INFERNO (Philip Terry)

Translating Dante again, especially the Inferno, given the wealth of recent translations from C.H. Sisson, Mark Musa and Ciaran Carson among a host of others, calls for some explanation. When that translation involves shifting the action from the twelfth to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and relocating it to the University of Essex, some explanation is all the more urgent. One starting point was architectural: the walled cities of the Italian city-states in the middle ages, typified by Montereggione with its fourteen high towers that stood on its perimeter like giant sentries, to which Dante makes allusion in Canto XXXI, which underpin the iconography of the Inferno, also underpin the architecture of Essex University, where a number of towers surround a central campus, divided up into squares modelled on Italian campi (the origin of our modern word “campus”). Another was psychogeographical, taking its cue from the revisioning mappings of the situationists and of writers and artists such as Rebecca Solnit and Jorge Macchi, and involved the palimpsestic strategy of superimposing a map of one place (here Dante’s Inferno) on another (Essex University and its environs). As the work proceeded, the two maps, by twists and turns, sometimes guided by instinct, sometimes by unpredictable coincidences, began to converge more and more: Dante’s Phlegethon, the river of blood, became the river Colne; his popes were replaced by vice-chancellors and, at the suggestion of Robert Sheppard, David Willetts; his suicides, whose souls are reborn as the seeds of trees, later to be preyed on by harpies, became the trees planted to commemorate untimely student deaths on the Essex campus; the warring Guelfs and Ghibellines of Dante’s Florence were replaced by the sectarians of Belfast, my home city; and Virgil, finally, was replaced by one-time Essex writer-in-residence Ted Berrigan, who, like the Latin poet, had imagined the underworld in his poem “Memorial Day”: “I heard the dead, the city dead/The devils that surround us”. By replacing the historical figures in Dante with our contemporaries I hope to have dispensed with the need for extensive footnotes, one of the unavoidable burdens of a more traditional translation, while remaining faithful to the spirit and integrity of Dante’s text. Canto XXXIII, where Dante’s Count Ugolino is replaced by Bobby Sands, is printed below.

CANTO XXXIII

Raising his mouth from that horrible snack,
This blood-soaked shade wiped his lips clean on the
Squashed thatch of that head he had chewed up behind

Then spoke: “You’ve got a cheek, wee man, asking
Me to rake over the coals of a grief so desperate
That the very thought of it freezes my bones;

But if my words are to be a seed, that may
Bear the fruit of infamy for this traitor
That I gnaw, then prick up your ears,

For you shall hear me weep and gas at once.
I’ve no idea who you are, nor what business
Brings you traipsing around down here, but something

In your voice tells me that you were once from Belfast.
Know then, that I was Bobby Sands, and this
Here is Maggie Bloody Thatcher – now let me

Tell you why I am so unneighbourly.
Maybe I’ve no need to tell youse that it was her
Government that locked us up with common criminals,

Denying us political status
When there was a war on. But the cruelty of
My imprisonment you can not imagine.

When they took away our fucking clothes, we went
On the blanket; when they emptied our chamber pots
All over our fucking beds, only then did we

Start our dirty protest. The stench was appalling,
The cells were literally covered in shite,
And everywhere you looked there were flies and maggots.

It was like something out of Dante, you know,
Only this was really happening, in 1979.
Through the thick pane of frosted glass

I had gazed on many passing moons, when I
Woke to the banging of truncheons on perspex.
Before you could say ‘Up the IRA!’

We were ripped from our cells and dragged along
The corridor by our legs, then we ran the gauntlet
Of the ranked riot police who hit us with

Truncheons as we passed; we were kicked and
Pushed to the floor, where they held us down,
Then sheared us like sheep, scrubbing us

With floor mops, before they tossed us back inside
Our cells. They had done their best to break us,
And had failed, when at last they seemed to give in

To our demands – but it was a lousy trick,
The clothes they offered were not our own.
We trashed the place screaming blue murder,

Vowing revenge on the whole pack of them.
The next day we sat in silence, and the
Day after that as well.

It was around the time they brought our food
That the idea came to me, it had
Worked in the past, so why not try it again?

Hunger Strike. But this one would be to the death,
Each striker starting at intervals, and each time one
Of us died, another man would step into his shoes.

It’s no joke watching yourself die like that,
The pain is indescribable
As you start digesting your own innards –

Anyone but the immovable Thatcher
Would have compromised before ten men died,
But all she said was ‘A crime is a crime is a crime.’”

When he had spoken these words he rolled his eyes
Like a famine victim, then seized the miserable
Skull with his teeth, which as a dog’s were

Strong upon the bone. Oh Long Kesh, blot
Upon the landscape of that fair country
Where the sound of “aye” is heard!

So what if Bobby Sands bombed the
Balmoral Furnishing Company,
Did that give you the right to make him

And nine others die before letting the
Politicals wear their own shirts?
The greatest betrayal in politics is retrenchment,

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