Poetry News

Mary Jo Bang Is Interviewed About Her New Translation of Inferno at BOMBLOG

By Harriet Staff

Over at BOMBLOG, accompanying a gorgeous picture of what we assume is Mary Jo Bang in her humble abode (somebody needs to call Design Sponge or NY Mag and do a house tour of that place stat, duh), is an interview with the poet, whose translation of Dante's Inferno (Graywolf 2012) has just been released (as we noted recently). Zachary Lazar writes of the book:

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. This email exchange developed out of three days we spent together in New Orleans, discussing God, humor, and medieval Florentine politics.

Lazar asks Bang about the impetus for the book; and interestingly, Caroline Bergvall comes up:

ZL What was the impetus for this project? How long did it take you to commit to taking these kinds of stylistic risks?

MJB The project began in 2006 when I read a poem by Caroline Bergvall called “Via (48 Dante Variations).” Bergvall’s poem is composed of forty-seven translations of the first three lines of the Inferno (“Midway in what we call our life, I found myself in a dark wood. The right path had been lost”), followed by the name of the translator and date of publication. Reading it, I was struck by the fact that as simple as the original Italian is, no two translations were exactly alike. Which led me to wonder how else those three lines could be translated, if one were willing to take some liberties that other translators hadn’t taken. I tested out various possibilities, trying to be true to what was said in the original while playing with other aspects of poetry—sound patterning, word choice, figurative language. After finishing the first tercet, I was so engaged by the exercise that I went to the library and found twelve translations so I could keep going. After I finished the first canto, I knew I wanted to do the entire Inferno.

In June 2007, I had a residency at Bellagio. I mailed the twelve translations to Italy in advance and for a month sat at a desk in the land of Dante. At that point, I began to use an unabridged Italian/English dictionary and became obsessed with accuracy, which meant I had to rein in my impulse to push language to an extreme. Another key moment was when I showed the first five cantos to a friend who is a poetry critic. She pointed out places where she thought I’d gone too far from the original or had been too “cute.” I went back and revised. From that point on, I kept negotiating between accuracy and the desire to make the poem read as if it was part of the present moment instead of an artifact of another era. I wanted the contemporary reader to enjoy the poem’s narrative drama, and I wanted Dante and Virgil to be the well-developed characters they are in the original.

I came home from Italy, bought an excellent Italian/English dictionary, and continued to work on the poem that summer. Then I stopped and for almost two years worked on the poems that would make up The Bride of E. Once I finished that collection, I had to decide whether to go back to the Dante or begin something new. Finally in May of 2009, I decided to translate the first three lines of Canto 9, just as a test to see whether the task was as engaging as I remembered it. And it was. It was so engaging that it became a bit of an obsession. Sometimes I would work all night. And I was still working on it almost up until the moment it went to the printers! What’s interesting, looking back, is that during the two years I didn’t work on it I kept thinking I needed the same ideal circumstances I’d had in Italy but once I came back to it, none of that seemed necessary. I didn’t need, for instance, to have the books spread out on a table. I could just as easily have them in a stack next to my computer.

They also end up talking about appropriation:

ZL Your translation is the first one I’ve ever read that actually scares me. You write in your introduction: “What’s the text equivalent of death metal music?” This seems to me a perfect justification of your approach: as time passes, and especially as technology evolves, we don’t get “better” at evoking terror but we do develop new styles that strike us with a new power. Because of this change in styles we can become numb to the old. Music, in the strict sense as well as the poetic sense, changes—it has to change. And not acknowledging this is basically reactionary, no?

MJB Given that language is multivalent, I wonder whether this version of Dante feels scarier to you because today’s language inevitably has today’s fears encoded in it, especially when we talk about bad behavior and its consequences. When we read language that’s been patterned today to sound like it did in the past, the risk is that we’ll read the text as if it only refers to that past moment, and that past moment’s terrors.

Also, by ironing out the syntax, the narrative arc of the Inferno is easier to follow. There’s more of a sense of drama. We’re better able to suspend our disbelief and identify with the characters, especially with the character called Dante whose quest for self-knowledge and salvation presents him with archetypal stand-ins for every possible kind of selfishness and evil.

Of course some people feel quite territorial about the poetry of the past and have a strong negative reaction to seeing it altered. Appropriation literature, which you could argue translation is, inevitably alters a text, and if someone is highly invested in the original, there’s no pleasure in examining the terms of an author’s or a translator’s tampering. The fact is, the original still exists. As a reader you can always go back to that.

Read the full interview here.

Originally Published: August 9th, 2012