A. S. Kline Versus Clive James: Virtue Versus Virtuousity

Yesterday I looked at how Clive James translated Statius’ account of “perfect blood” in Purgatory 25. Today I will look at a few more lines of the passage, concluding with line 66,

perché da lui non vide organo assunto.

Dante, Purgatorio 25, 66.

Yesterday we left off in the middle of line 41, and in the middle of Dante’s sentence,

Sangue perfetto, che poi non si beve 
da l’assetate vene, e si rimane 
quasi alimento che di mensa leve,                                39

prende nel core a tutte membra umane 
virtute informativa, come quello 
ch’a farsi quelle per le vene vane

Dante, Purgatorio 25, 37-42

We did so simply because Clive James splits the sentence and joins the part that commences with “come quello” to the following sentence,

Ancor digesto, scende ov’è più bello 
tacer che dire; e quindi poscia geme 
sovr’altrui sangue in natural vasello.                             45

Dante, Purgatorio 25, 43-45

Here is Clive James’ translation:

Like blood that takes

The standard course through veins to fashion these,

The perfect heart’s blood subsequently makes

Its way down to where words are bound to please

Less than a decent silence, and from there

It joins another’s blood in the right place,

The natural vessel.

Dante, Purgatory 25, 41-45, translated by Clive James

I did not find this passage too obscure. I enjoyed the way in which the thought that “words are bound to please” is reversed by the delayed arrival of “Less than a decent silence” – reversing Dante’s order:

scende ov’è più bello  descending to that which it’s better
tacer che dire              to be silent about than to mention

Dante, Purgatorio 25, 43-44, my translation.

One problem with breaking the previous sentence into two is that the pronoun “these” does not refer directly to the immediately preceding “veins” but to “the future body’s parts” (which of course includes “veins”) of Clive James’ previous sentence.

Just as with the problematic line ending “state” that is pushed into service to rhyme with “generate” that I took issue with in yesterday’s blog post on this topic, so here James’ needs something to rhyme with “please” two lines later, and so presses “these” into service at the end of the line. And so once again, the needs of the rhyme scheme trumps the clarity of the original, or of translations such as A. S. Kline’s:

Perfect blood… acquires a power in the heart sufficient to invigorate all the members, as does the blood that flows through the veins to become those members.

Dante, Purgatory 25, 40-42, translated by A. S. Kline
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The narrative flows well enough through the next few lines. It’s clear enough that two types of blood – passive and active – are flowing together, and it is evident that the active is the male “perfect blood” and the passive is the female blood, flowing (“streams,” “streaming”) in some way and mingling in the womb, the “natural vessel” of the previous section. It’s almost as if Clive James has found his flow too, here:

In this way the pair

Of matched streams mingle as they share the space:

One passive, and the other, since it flows

From sheer perfection, active. The twinned stream

Begins to function as its thickness grows,

Coagulating, quickening its seam

Of virtue into potent readiness—

Dante, Purgatory 25, 46-51, translated by Clive James

But then we stumble over this:

A soul, much as a plant’s, but not the same,

Because the plant’s soul sets out never less

Than all set to arrive, whereas the frame

Of this soul is sea fungus at the most.

It moves, it feels, it goes on to produce

Organs for faculties. 

Dante, Purgatory 25, 52-57, translated by Clive James

I think we can deduce that by “the plant’s soul sets out never less than all set to arrive” means something like the plant’s soul does not develop; it’s an off-the-peg sort of soul, a keg-beer type of soul rather than a cask ale. But then we are brought up short by some new information. Apparently the “frame” of “this soul” that we had inferred to be human is sea fungus “at most.”

There is something odd about the comparison. It is, I think, because the structure “whereas B is X at most” is comparing “B” to “A” in an unfavourable light. “A” beats “B” because “B” is merely “X” at most. So we are brought up short. It’s only when we press on to the next line, the next sentence, that we discover that, after all, the “sea fungus” continues to develop and from that it becomes evident that “sea fungus at most” refers to a stage of development of the fetus on its way to becoming fully human.

Once again, the two phrases that caused the problems are there for the purposes of the rhyme scheme. “never less” rhymes with “readiness,” two lines above, while “at most” rhymes with “host” two lines later.

In contrast, A. S. Kline’s translation is once again more faithful to the original and elegant in its clarity and economy of expression:

The active power having become a spirit, like a plant’s, different in that it is developing, while the plant’s is developed, now operates so widely that it moves and feels, like a sea-sponge, and then begins to develop organs, as sites for the powers of which it is the seed.

Dante, Purgatory 25, 52-57, translated by A. S. Kline

Returning to Clive James’ translation, there is one more point I want to mention about his translation of Statius’ speech, and it occurs in this part:

… you can’t see how it’s done

As yet—quite how from the dumb animal

A creature comes that speaks—and neither could

A wiser one than you. He saw it all,

Except one special part that would come good

And be the mind. No, Aristotle thought

The intellect was separate from the soul

And common to all men, and so he taught.

Dante, Purgatory 25, 37-66, translated by Clive James

Here Clive James references Aristotle as the one who taught that intellect “existed independently of human form” (Kline), but that is a gross error. Dante’s Statius is alluding to Averroës and not Aristotle. It is true that Averroës saw his doctrine as completing Aristotle’s account of the material intellect (see Taylor on Averroës mature philosophical position), but the doctrine is what the mature Averroës is famous for, and which spread across Europe as a new trend in philosophy in the late middle ages.

The mistake comes about because Dante does not feel it is necessary to name names:

quest’è tal punto,                                 this is the point
che più savio di te fé già errante,       which caused one wiser than you to err,

Dante, Purgatorio 25, 62-63, my translation

What is telling is that Kline, who does not as a rule stuff his translation with notes, chooses to insert the name of the one who erred:

this is the point which made one wiser than you, Averroës, err,

Dante, Purgatory 25, 62-63, translated by A. S. Kline

In other words, if you are going to insert notes into your translation of Dante, do it sparingly, and accurately. What Kline demonstrates in his translation of Dante is the value of virtue over virtuosity.