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Poet Mary Jo Bang translates Dante’s ‘Inferno,’ and gives it an update

Mary Jo Bang has translated “Inferno,” preserving Dante’s story and meaning, restoring some of the beauty of his language and updating his work with a little 21st-century pop culture.
Mary Jo Bang

A great many college students give up on “The Divine Comedy,” usually after they’ve determined in which circle of hell they are destined to reside. (And most don’t get far, as the second circle is for those who succumb to lust.) Dante Alighieri’s 14th century prose, rendered even more challenging by translation, obscures what is actually a pretty rollicking travelogue about one man’s road trip into the nine circles of the underworld, where he meets some pretty interesting people (and lots of clergy). It’s worth another look.

Celebrated poet and Washington University professor Mary Jo Bang has translated “Inferno,” the most exciting part of Dante’s three-part poem, for contemporary audiences, preserving Dante’s story and meaning, restoring some of the beauty of his language and updating his medieval cheekiness with a little 21st century pop culture.

Each canto is lavishly footnoted to make sure readers don’t miss any historical, mythical or biblical references, and just as seriously, she fills the reader in on her modern references, in case you haven’t been paying attention to Bob Dylan, Mickey Mouse, Superman, Andy Warhol, Donald Rumsfeld, Jell-O or the Boy Scouts, who wonderfully help put everything into context. Also wonderful are the illustrations, by Henrik Drescher. Lots of lurid biblical monsters, plus a killer clown, Emily Dickinson, Muammar Qaddafi, and other sinners show their faces here. Graywolf Press has turned this masterwork of poetry into an art book, as thorough and thoughtful as any of the many translations out there, but — college students, take note — so much more fun.  

MinnPost: What compelled you to revisit Dante in the first place?

Mary Jo Bang: In the summer of 2005, I read a poem called “Via (48 Dante Variations)” by Carolyn Bergvall. Her poem is composed of the Italian original of the famous first three lines of the “Inferno,” followed by 47 English translations. I was struck by the fact that in spite of the simple language — basically, “Midway in our life’s journey, I came to in a dark wood; the right path had been lost” — no two translations were identical. I also noticed that most translators elevated the tone of the language, presumably to gesture to the fact that the poem was written in the medieval era. I found the elevated tone distancing. Wasn’t it enough just to know when the poem was written? I then wondered how the lines might sound if they were translated into a more colloquial form of English — colloquial and yet poetic, because after all, it is a poem. I tried doing that, and I so enjoyed the exercise that I kept going. After six years, I had put the entire poem into colloquial English.

MP: For what kind of readers did you write your translation?

MJB: I didn’t have particular readers in mind, but I think even readers who don’t normally read poetry can engage with this allegorical story of someone who has a moral crisis and comes to an awakening. That’s the basis of many works of fiction and most memoirs. This translation might also appeal to readers who do read poetry but haven’t read the “Inferno” because they assumed it would be too difficult. It’s true that some older translations are difficult because the translator was faithful to the original Italian word order. That word order doesn’t match English word order, so the reader is forced to keep unpacking the tangled syntax in order to make sense of what’s being said. I think people who already know the poem might be interested in seeing how this translation compares to others. And readers of contemporary poetry might enjoy reading an ancient poem put in today’s language.

MP: What makes Dante relevant today?

MJB: Some people wrongly assume the poem is only about ancient history, while it is actually timeless in its concerns. And it is an extraordinary literary achievement. For a poem, it’s very novelistic. It has an elaborate narrative structure, suspense, humor, horror. There are well-developed characters and a plot that moves ever forward. At the same time, the poem raises real and urgent questions about moral responsibility and ethical behavior. Dante’s nine-circled Hell is a rather ingenious encyclopedia of our human failures, and a cautionary mirror in which we’re invited to see ourselves, and our myriad shortcomings.

MP: The pop-culture references in here are surprising and really a kick to read in this context. Did they come to you in the moment?

MJB: Each pop-culture reference is evidence of my effort to find an exact equivalent, something that might read to a contemporary audience the way the original read to a medieval audience. For example, I came to a moment where the character Dante sees a boat that he says is traveling “faster than an arrow.” As a simile, that still works, arrows are fast, but when we think of speed today, our mind doesn’t usually go to arrows. We might think of a speedway, or even of Superman who is “faster than a speeding bullet.” To find a modern way to suggest something is very fast, I began by researching the speed of arrows online. I felt I had to know how fast an arrow was to know what might be faster than an arrow. As I was researching, I stumbled across the mention of a car called an Ultimate Aero, which at that time, 2007, was the fastest production car ever built. The Ultimate Aero did the work I wanted it to — it was indeed fast — plus the homonymic doubling of Aero and arrow made it an especially good fit.

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MP: Which canto is your favorite, and why?

MJB: I am particularly fond of Canto III. It’s the first moment in the story when Dante confronts the horrors of Hell. He’s only in the vestibule of Hell — not even in Hell’s first circle — but he sees how horrible things are. And they are bound to get much worse. It’s here I understood how thoughtful and nuanced Dante was in his ranking of our human shortcomings. The people consigned to this area are those who haven’t done anything explicitly sinful, but they all refused to stand up for right when they saw an opportunity to do so. In the scheme of things, that’s not as bad as active evil, but it is a wrong that can cruelly cause damage to others. By having these people suffer an eternal punishment for their moral failure, Dante is asking us to consider the evil that’s done by not being principled. Poetically, the language of this canto is also especially beautiful, in contrast to the gory punishment that is being described.

MP: Did your research change your way of thinking about the concept of an afterlife?

MJB: No, not at all. Dante clearly intended the poem to be read an allegory, and that’s how I read it. His Hell is an imaginary realm that contains Popes and Centaurs, historical figures and talking lizards. Dante’s world view was Catholic but he was clear-eyed about the church’s failures. We find many church leaders in the circles of Hell. And while we can assume Dante believed in an afterlife, the poem doesn’t require us to share that belief. The poem only asks us to agree that there should be consequences for bad behavior, that some forms of bad behavior are worse than others, and that in an ideal world, every punishment should perfectly fit the crime.

MP: Tell me a bit about your process while working on this book.

MJB: For the translation, I relied heavily on existing translations and on an Italian/English dictionary. There are over 200 translations of the “Inferno” in English. It’s possible to look at some of these and see the many different ways translators have attempted to carry the Italian over into the English. Each translator thinks his or her way is the most accurate rendering. I tested out ways of putting the poem into spoken English. That choice makes this translation sound decidedly more modern than most other translations. And for many contemporary readers, that adds a sense of fun. Dante was clearly having fun creating this strange world where history, talking animals, and Greek myth are all treated as if they’re fact, so having fun doesn’t seem inconsistent with the character of the poem itself. Also, because Dante intentionally chose to write the poem not in literary Latin, but in something closer to the Tuscan dialect, spoken English may be a closer match for the original language than a translation that incorporates antiquated language like “thoust” and “canst.”

MP: You’ve managed to make a living as a poet, which may be the very least lucrative of all career paths. How do you guide your students to push on against the odds?

MJB: I encourage my students to find like-minded others. That’s why programs that teach writing are so useful; they provide young writers with a ready-made community. Afterward, everyone one has to make his or her way in the world. No matter what your interests, or your avocation, it takes work to create a life that sustains you. If writing continues to be important to someone, he or she will find a way to keep writing.