Q&A: Mary Jo Bang’s Translation of ‘Inferno’ Offers a Fresh Taste of Hell

BY Mike Melia  November 2, 2012 at 3:19 PM EDT

inferno_bang.jpgStopped mid-motion in the middle
Of what we call our life, I looked up and saw no sky –
Only a dense cage of leaf, tree, and twig. I was lost.

So begins Dante’s arduous decent into the depths of Hell with Virgil in a new translation of the classic epic by award-winning poet Mary Jo Bang.

Bang worked on the project for six years after being inspired by Caroline Bergvall‘s poem, “Via (48 Dante Variations),” which is composed entirely of those first three lines from 47 different translations.

“How might the lines sound if I were to put them into colloquial English? What if I were to go further and add elements of my own poetic style?” Bang writes in her note on the translation. “Would it sound like a cover song, the words of the original unmistakably there, but made unfamiliar by the fact that someone else’s voice has its own characteristics? Could it be, like covers sometimes are, a tribute that pays homage to the original, while at the same time radically departing from it?”

The translation is true to the moral and emotional intensity of the original, but Bang infuses the text with her own voice and modern allusions to Stephen Colbert and “South Park.” The text is accompanied by drawings by Henrik Drescher, which adds to the modern but still haunting tone.

We first profiled Bang on the NewsHour in 2008 for her book “Elegy,” which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. She is the author of six books of poetry and teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.

We recently caught up with Bang to talk about “Inferno”:

MIKE MELIA: Let’s start at the beginning. Caroline Bergvall’s “Via (48 Dante Variations),” the poem with the different translations of the first lines, sparked your interest?

MARY JO BANG: What I was struck by was that even though the Italian is really fairly simple, no two translations are alike. I found that rather interesting, both in terms of that there are so many ways to say the same thing and that there is no right way to carry over something from one language into another language. In addition, a lot of those expressions of those first three lines were a little bit stilted, because they are translations and because the translator was faithful in a number of ways to the original.

The translation that I’m familiar with was Charles Singleton’s translation, which had been done in 1970, and like many of these other translations, takes a fairly elevated tone and presumably one does that as a translator to gesture to the fact that this is an old poem. But the poem was written in the early 1300′s, and the kind of English that’s adopted in order to gesture to its antiquity is really, you know, 17th century English, so using thou‘s. I thought, why do we need to do that? For one thing, we have very accurate translations, so if one were to translate it again, I wonder if it would be possible to bring that tone down to iron out the syntax, so it sounded like normal English and actually bring people back to the poem who might be put off by a poem that sounded like it was ancient or it sounded like it was a quaint literary artifact. I decided to try. As I began to know the poem in a new way, in a way that only a translator can know something, I saw how important the poem was.

MIKE MELIA: In that vein, you use fresh language. When did you make that decision? I mean your analogies — you drop in everything from Stephen Colbert to Shakespeare and Freud and even “South Park.” Did you realize there was contemporary language in Dante’s original that you felt needed to be included to make sure that the story was relevant and alive for a contemporary reader?

MARY JO BANG: I knew that there were very academically correct translations, so I thought, well, what if I put into this the language of contemporary English? Then I thought, well, if I’m going to put it in the language of contemporary English, can I also rationalize giving myself permission to make it contemporary in other ways? As I went about doing that I began to see that there would be serious value in doing that, that it would be as if Dante lived today and was writing this poem, if he used the strategies that he used in his own time, which was to create this tapestry. One of the strengths of the poem is that it creates this parallel universe that is very real and yet also imaginary, because it’s Hell, but that Hell looks just like the world in Dante’s world. He incorporates in it architectural structures and statues, all the recognizable elements of society so that people couldn’t argue, oh, this is a fantasy world. No, this is our world and he’s talking to us. So I thought, if I could do the same thing, if I can put in elements of our world, then Dante’s talking to us and maybe we’ll be able to hear him. Whereas if someone is a new reader and comes to that old poem, it feels like the poem is about a gone world, but it’s not. The poem is clearly meant to be read allegorically. It’s about a spiritual crisis and it’s about a world that has failed to live up to the ideals that are embodied that we all agree we should live by.

MIKE MELIA: And when we don’t, Dante tells us the punishment can often fit the crime?

MARY JO BANG: The book is so clever, how every punishment is perfectly keyed to the crime, so even the counterfeiters, for instance, they are suffering from all kinds of disease that come from having metal poisoning, and you know they are going to suffer that eternally, so whatever you did on Earth, the idea of Hell and Dante’s conception is that you’ll suffer that, but you’ll suffer it forever. So now is the time to repent and change your ways. It’s done with so much humor, too.

MIKE MELIA: You write in the note on the translation that you know “the Inferno is a dramatic, harrowing and often extremely witty demonstration of the timeless pernicious effects of corruption, malice, selfishness and nefariousness.” And you go on to write, “my hope is that this translation does what the original does in terms of raising issues of honesty and scruples, responsibility and religious hypocrisy.” Was that part of your goal then by the end, this a kind of a moral lesson for us readers?

MARY JO BANG: No. Dante wrote it that way, so what I’m saying is that I’m just trying to get people to read what was always there. I think it’s very difficult to get people to read poetry at all, and this poem operates both on the level of allegory and as a narrative. It’s very much like a novel and it’s very film-like. You have all these scenes, you have these very well-developed characters. I’m not adding anything in terms of the moral properties of it; that is what Dante put in there. I’m just trying to get people to read it, and I’m trying to get them to read it as a mirror of this moment, because it’s timeless and that was his intent.

I think that this character, Dante, there are many moments where he reveals his thinking or his feelings. At one point he’s very tired, he’s huffing and puffing because he’s climbing this very steep block, and just like all of us he’s so relieved when he gets to the top and gets to sit down. And instead Virgil turns on him and says, what are you doing, you got up this far, but there is a lot farther to go and nobody got where they needed to go by being a lazybones and sitting around on a tuffet. And you know how Dante feels, and he tells you how he feels in that moment, and you feel crushed to be scolded and yet you know the lesson is right. And Virgil even says that to him, “now if my words mean anything, act like it.” It’s like a parent talking to a child or a mentor talking to someone that they have great faith in, but that person has to earn the respect. They have to realize the promise that this person has in them. There’s just a tenderness in that. That’s why this book is so novelistic, because the characters have these kinds of emotional interactions. Again, I wanted that to be clear, and it was only by ironing out the language that the drama could really surface again.

MIKE MELIA: Going back to the first lines. Your translation begins: “Stopped mid-motion in the middle / Of what we call our life, I looked up and saw no sky — / Only a dense cage of leaf, tree, and twig. I was lost.” Was that the original for you? In terms of the editing process, how many times did you go back and even revise those lines that sparked the whole project for you?

MARY JO BANG: It’s funny you ask. I actually did two translations of those first three lines. I would go back and forth between them. I put a lot more words in this one, the one that I finally settled on. It took me some time to begin to believe that that was the best way to begin this translation. Some of it’s on the basis of sound, because the way I use sound announces it as a poem.

For me there was always a tension between poeticizing my translation and making it very sound-based, because Dante’s is written in terza rima, which was a very musical sound patterning, it’s this interlocking rhyme. You can do that in Italian, but you can’t do it in English. People who try to maintain that kind of rhyme scheme, they end up having to say things in a way that is very odd and calls attention to the fact that they were forced into that rhyme. I didn’t want to do that, but I also didn’t want to flatten out the prose and just do a prose translation. I had to decide how much I could infuse it with a kind of contemporary music that is based on alliteration, internal rhyme. That’s what I’m announcing, I think, in that first stanza, my willingness to do that. That this is going to be a poem, it’s not just going to be a prose translation.