Gray was presumably drawn to Dante because, unlike many other translators, he was rather like Dante: astonishingly inventive; an insider-outsider in his own land, who profoundly understood the relationship between language, dialect and power; a fearless iconoclast unafraid to combine historical and contemporary subjects in his work; a true geographer of the imagination. It seems entirely fitting that the hero of Gray’s 1981 first novel Lanark, Duncan Thaw, an artist rather resembling the author, aspired to “write a modern Divine Comedy with illustrations in the style of William Blake” – and in Lanark, Gray did. This late Divine Trilogy is a lesser thing, but a wonder nonetheless.
The Glasgow-born novelist and illustrator Alasdair Gray, who died last year, also dedicated the end of his life to translating Dante’s entire trilogy. Published posthumously, Gray’s Paradise is a work of taut cadence and vigour that captures the drum-beat rhythms and lyric beauty of the original. Daringly, it draws on words and speech patterns of Gray’s native Scotland (‘bairns’, ‘midden’, ‘gloaming’, ‘blethering’), which accord well with Dante’s everyday volgare and make for an adventurous rehabilitation.
Gray did not call this a translation and it is not. The folksy chumminess of his prosaic verses are all well and good as a crib, but the problem with the Paradiso is that it is profoundly serious. This is a poem that wrestles with free will and predestination, with the different moral qualities of action and contemplation, and above all with the inability of the human to utter the divine. I read the book almost stereoscopically, with three other versions by my side and an excellent online resource from Columbia for the Italian. The Paradiso has images both homely and intellectual, but in this part the tension of the form becomes paramount.