Follow Harriet on Twitter
Mary Jo Bang’s Inferno Translation Reviewed
Most poets and scholars have a favorite translation of Dante’s Inferno. We freely admit to having a soft spot for the first U.S. translation by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, but we know that not every reader wants a version rendered with such romantic language. For rhyme purists, there’s Laurence Binyon’s translation rendered in terza rima (with some advice from Ezra Pound), and those who want a literal translation can peruse Charles S. Singleton’s six-volume prose version (with extensive commentary, of course). For a recent poetic facing-page translation, there’s Robert Pinsky’s very readable version from 1996.
But even with all of these versions to choose from, we’re always curious about a new translation of Dante’s Inferno, especially if it’s by Mary Jo Bang. Two recent interviews with the poet–one in BOMB Magazine and the other in The Brooklyn Rail–make a convincing case for why this new translation is both daring while still being true to the spirit of Dante. Zachary Lazar of BOMB Magazine writes that he “tried and failed several times to describe the book to friends.” He goes on to discuss exactly why it was so difficult to describe:
Imagine a contemporary translation of Dante that includes references to Pink Floyd, South Park, Donald Rumsfeld, and Star Trek. Now imagine that this isn’t gimmicky—this is the hardest but most important part to imagine. Imagine instead that the old warhorse is now scary again, and perversely funny, and lyrical and faux-lyrical in a way that sounds sometimes like Auden, sometimes like Nabokov, but always like Mary Jo Bang. Imagine footnotes like those Eliot wrote for The Waste Land, covering everything from Eliot himself, to Virgil and Ovid, Lennon and McCartney, Mad Dog 20/20, and King Lear. Dante chose to write his poem in the Italian of his day, rather than in the dead language of literary Latin. It was an eccentric choice—Latin would have brought him a larger audience. Bang’s new English version honors this eccentricity with a living English that refreshes Dante’s living Italian. It is an audacious 332-page risk that made the poem live for me in a way it never had before.
Adam Fitzgerald of The Brooklyn Rail explicitly addresses the issue of the faithfulness of Bang’s translation, contextualizing it within the larger context of 20th and 21st century innovative art:
Is it really too taboo, too hellish to imagine re-dressing the medieval Hell of searing feces and viscera, etc., with the likes of Eric Cartman and the Rolling Stones? The problem of license and invention when it comes to the fidelity of translation is a storied and pickled one, especially given how central the subject matter is to the 20th century’s endless speculation from its most important theorists, the no-less endless appropriation from its most radical artists. To Nabokov, who was decidedly not a Walter Benjamin nor an Andy Warhol but rather a guerilla pragmatist in matters of translation, the literal rendering of a text across languages remained essential duty. Memorably, he wondered how a poet such as Robert Lowell would enjoy having his phrase “leathery love” turned into something like a “football of passion.” And while I’d argue saying no to radical invention excludes the possibility of poetry for translation, it’s equally true that without fidelity, there isn’t any hope for translation itself. Though no Italian scholar proper, Bang is, however, one of the most wonderfully disturbing and haunted poets of our time. But more than felicity aligns the sensibility of Bang to her project, as her notes make abundantly clear: she has attempted to rethink, relive, and re-envision a 21st century Inferno.
Later in the Brooklyn Rail interview, Bang talks about why she chose to translate the poem into contemporary English with contemporary references:
I felt that in many previous translations the adherence to syntactical arrangements that were more Italian than English, and the incorporation of elevated language to indicate this was an ancient text, interfered with the overall tone and the narrative arc of the poem. It’s one thing to adopt a high lyric mode—like Longfellow does in his translation—when that is the dominant aesthetic of the period, but it’s another thing to adopt a high lyric mode in our era, when it’s not the dominant aesthetic mode in poetry.
Both the interview in BOMB Magazine and the one in The Brooklyn Rail offer fascinating insight into the process of translation as well as how contentious that process can be. Until we get our hands on a copy, we’ll content ourselves with reading Canto XXXIV (and notes) available at BOMB Magazine.