The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, with Translation, Introduction, and Commentary by Allen Mandelbaum. Drawings by Barry Moser. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press. 307 pp. $75 before Jan. 31, 1987, $100 thereafter. The University of California Press, a master of book marketing, now offers a boxed set of Allen Mandelbaum's translation of Dante, one that can also be had in paperback from Bantam (with notes). This fine-looking gift item bears looking at.
We note first that this translation of ``The Divine Comedy'' includes the original Italian on the right. It does not include the heavy annotation usually found in translations of the Comedy. This is because what we have here is only part of ``The California Dante,'' which, when complete, will involve not only this translation but three volumes of commentary. (Something of an international event, the California Lectura Dantis will include essays by scholars from all over the world. The essays will be supplemented by a comprehensive index-glossary and synoptic appendixes.)
Over 90 translations of ``The Divine Comedy'' into English exist. Some are in prose, some are in meter and rhyme, most are in a loose metrical language that sometimes sacrifices the immediacy of normal word order and natural rhythms for artistic effect.
Mandelbaum, who won the National Book Award for his translation of Virgil's Aeneid, has produced a popular translation. As poetry, it's often neat, sometimes powerful. It lacks the astonishing grace of C.H. Sisson's work (available in a Pan Classics paperback edition).
Mandelbaum's translation is illustrated by Barry Moser's full-page washes. Though described by Moser as ``quick and terse'' and thus in keeping with Dante's style, the art has a somewhat cloying quality that muffles Dante's candor. Moser has a dark, almost sardonic vision; perhaps the technique that best suits his vision is engraving, as he has proved elsewhere.
The books are carefully designed and the hard-cover edition is printed on fine paper. Mandelbaum's translation has been described by a noted critic as ``the Dante of choice.'' Rather I would say it's a part of a project - ``The California Dante'' - at once ambitious and feasible, given the backing of the University of California.