The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2011

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NOV 2011 Issue


Mary Jo Bang
(Graywolf, 2012)

Hundreds of translators have sought to render the Divine Comedy with relevance, force, and verve. It’s no easy task, but with a new translation of Dante’s Inferno, this is exactly what Mary Jo Bang aims to do. From all I have seen, Bang’s version is unlike anything that has come before.

When Bang embarked on her own translation, she read translations and commentary by William Warren Vernon, Charles S. Singleton, John D. Sinclair, Robert and Jean Hollander, Ciaran Carson, Mark Musa, Allen Mandelbaum, Michael Palma, John Ciardi, and Robert Kirkpatrick. She also made pages of literal translations using Sansoni’s Italian-English dictionary. In time, she became clear about her own priorities in translating the Inferno. She wanted to render the terror and pathos of the original with a language, structure, tone, style, and format the modern reader could access and appreciate; to render “Dante’s genius for talking about hypocrisy—perfectly matching sin and punishment—as object lessons to help us critically question our own behavior and the behavior of people around us, people in power.” 

In the fall of 2008, New Letters published Mary Jo Bang’s first five cantos in translation (the very same magazine where John Ciardi published his own translations of the first five cantos in 1952). In an e-mail exchange, the editor, Robert Stewart, underscored to me that Bang’s “poetry and this translation illustrate an artistic temperament, which insists on a fresh approach to language, imagery, and even form… Mary Jo could not, by nature, be content with a traditional translation, no matter how elegant and important some have been.”

According to Caroline Bergvall, “Ever since the Rev. Cary’s translation of 1805, translating Dante into English has become something of a cultural industry. Some 200 translations in less than two hundred years” (Salt Modern Poets: Cambridge, 2009). To fully appreciate Bang’s Inferno, I re-read snippets of 15 translations to better understand the “traditional” approach. The first 14 versions appeared in Rainer Schulte’s Comparative Perspectives: Anthology of Multiple Translations. They include side-by-side translations of the first canto by Sisson, White, Mandelbaum, Longfellow, Singleton, and Ciardi. In a course on comparative translation with Edith Grossman, I also read the verse translation by Robert Pinsky. In rereading 15 translations of the epic’s opening, I gained a better understanding of what features set the newest version apart. Mary Jo Bang’s version is actually new. It’s contemporary, and at points laugh-out-loud funny. 

One of the aspects of the text Mary Jo Bang foregrounds in the new translation is the vernacular, the shifting high-then-low language of the original.  The Divine Comedy was not written in Latin.  It was written in the vernacular, a Tuscan dialect that prefigured modern Italian.  According to Bang, “Making everything feel contemporary, making the English contemporary seems to serve Dante’s project.”

To ground us in the rhythm, rhyme, and sound of the original, here is Dante’s opening:

                        Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
                        mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
                        ché la diritta via era smarrita.

                        Ahi cuanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
                        esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
                        che nel pensier rinova la paura!

                        Tant’ è amara che poco è più morte;

Here is Mary Jo Bang’s rendering:

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

                        It’s difficult to describe a forest:
                        Savage, arduous, extreme in its extremity.  I think
                        And the facts come back, then the fear comes back.

                        Death, I think, can only be slightly more bitter.

The effect of these seven lines is sustained in the first eighteen cantos.  This is poetry. Every resource available to the savvy poet-and-translator has been employed. 

To be sure, some translations exist in prose, alongside astute and careful notes, to help people who do not read medieval Italian begin to appreciate Dante’s Divine Comedy.  Other translations intend to read like poetry.  When these versions of the Inferno fail to do so, it’s often because they suffer from one of two flaws: first, the translator may be too constrained by his or her notion of maintaining closeness to the original, and lose a sense of how to help the poetry stand alone in translation.  Or, the translator is simply unable to take advantage of poetry’s vast resources in order to successfully render the translation in verse.  The result, in both cases, is not poetry—or poetry of a caliber that is not very pleasant to read.     

The new translation by Mary Jo Bang does not suffer from either pitfall.  On the contrary, every single word is there for a reason (though not to fulfill any obligation to a particular rhyme scheme). As a result, this free-verse translation may come closer to the poetry Dante wrote than a translation that simply fills in the blanks to satisfy the demands of terza rima.

In an e-mail, Sharmila Cohen, co-editor of the journal Telephone (where Mary Jo Bang published a translation in the fall of 2010) describes the “immediacy” of the new version:

As Dante points out at the beginning of the first Canto of the Inferno, fear is revived in remembering and retelling a story, or, as Mary Jo Bang puts it, “I think and the facts come back, then the fear comes back.”  Based on this introduction alone, it is no surprise that the Inferno has been translated so many times…  It seems to me that the Inferno is a story passed down throughout the generations and Mary Jo Bang is doing us the wonderful service of passing it to us, within our contemporary context.  Although, perhaps, the fear and pathos may always be intrinsically understood by human kind, Bang’s use of clear, straightforward (but still poetic) language, alongside a modern frame of reference, gives the translated text a new immediacy that I have never encountered before.

By way of alliteration, assonance and internal rhyme, Bang creates a matrix of sound whose effects musically re-create the effects of the original Italian.  The alliterative mezzo del cammin, then, finds a counterpart in mid-motion and middle.  Similarly, the repeating Qs and Ds in, “Ahi quanto a dir qual era é cosa dura,” find an analog in the repetition of Ss and Ds in the translation, “It’s difficult to describe a forest.” 

There is extraordinary assonance in the original from the first line forward.  Note, for example, the short E sound in the first line—nel mezzo del.  This repetition of certain vowel sounds—the sound of a long I for instance—subtly adds to the overall music of the translation with word-choices like life, sky, I, describe, I, I and slightly, all holding positions of importance in the first seven lines.

The decision to use internal rhyme in lieu of end-rhyme allows for the kind of lyricism characterizing some of the most striking contemporary American poetry.  Folding rhyme into a line of poetry can yield exquisite sound-play, even if the rhymes are only slant- or half-rhymes.  Notice, for example, the play with life and leaf in the second and third line of the translation:

                        Of what we call a life, I looked up and saw no sky—
                        Only a dense cage of leaf, tree, and twig.  I was lost.

Notice, also, the internal rhyme amplifying the power of the line,

                        And the facts come back, then the fear comes back.

In addition to creating a satisfying sound-play, the decision to rely on internal-rhyme (instead of the end-rhyme typical of terza rima) avoids the awkward, antiquated and, at points, expedient rhymes that can pull a reader out of an otherwise elegant translation of the Inferno.  If not well-managed, the decision to carry the terza rima into English risks undermining the terror and pathos of the epic. 

In a translator’s note for his own well-regarded verse translation of the Inferno, Robert Pinsky explains the decision to rely on consonantal rhyme:

Italian is rich in rhyme, while English—despite having a far greater number of words—is relatively poor in rhyme.  Therefore, the triple rhymes of the original can put tremendous strain on an English translation.  One response to this strain, one way of dealing with the torturous demands of terza rima in English, has been to force the large English lexicon to supply rhymes: squeezing unlikely synonyms to the ends of lines, and bending idiom ruthlessly to get them there.

“Squeezing unlikely synonyms to the ends of lines, and bending idiom ruthlessly” to force a rhyme may have the unfortunate effect of rendering Dante Alighieri à la Ogden Nash.  Wrench the rhyme, and there are consequences.  There are consequences for every unnecessary archaism, and for every inversion, interjection, elision and intervention used to “poeticize” some of the previous translations of the Inferno.

Let us look at an example of the kind of poeticism Bang is careful to avoid.  Here is Melville Anderson’s translation of the opening:

                        Midway the path of life that men pursue
                           I found me in a darkling wood astray,
                           for the direct way had been lost to view.
                        Ah me, how hard a thing it is to say
                           what was this thorny wildwood intricate
                           whose memory renews the first dismay!

 The poeticism is at odds with the sound of the original (as in the line, “the direct way had been lost to view”).  At other points, the poeticism is at odds with the sense of the original. Una selva is literally a wood or forest.  The decision to render the forest as “wildwood” is strange and complex when the Italian is fairly straightforward.  Look at Dante, “esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte,” and then at Bang:  “a forest:/ Savage, arduous, extreme in its extremity.” 

 Several features of Patrick Cummins’s translation epitomize the kind of archaism Bang is careful to avoid.  In Cummins, interjections (“Ah!”), elisions (“e’en”), and interventions (“hard penny I am paying”) conspire with inversions like, “I found me straying” to date the translation of the epic’s opening lines.  The decision to rhyme “position” with “perdition,” and tweak “my fear renewing, not allaying” to complete the aba, bcb scheme (and rhyme “allaying” with “paying”) creates an effect which unintentionally risks alienating the reader. 

By “alienating the reader,” I mean, alienating us from a translation which takes advantage of the vast resources available to poetry.  Sensitive to the demands of creating poetry-in-translation, Mary Jo Bang has prepared a version of the Inferno that’s anything but alienating or quaint.  In attempting to avoid anything archaic, though, some readers may believe she’s gone too far to create a translation that new generations of readers can access and enjoy.  By inserting a plethora of odd and quirky references to popular culture, music and television—even South Park’s Cartman makes an appearance—Bang may risk undermining the pathos and terror she is aiming to carry over above all else. 

Will Dantists push back?  Will other translators prove resistant?  After all, a peasant and a cart in the original is now a worker and a car.  Where Dante may have incorporated a line from Terence or Cicero—sometimes without any acknowledgement or attribution—Mary Jo Bang incorporates words and phrases from Sylvia Plath, T.S. Eliot, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones, creating an entirely new set of intertextual relationships.  She, however, is scrupulous about noting every import and allusion.  The notes for the new version of the Inferno are, themselves, a work of art, and they contribute meaningfully to the discourse on translation.  The notes also clarify references to John Coltrane, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Shakespeare

The project is sure to engage Mary Jo Bang’s understandably enthusiastic fan-base. Given the arresting poetry, wit, feeling, humor and, illustrations, the newest version of the Inferno will do very well with “the next generation of readers,” despite the occasional lapse of pathos at the hands of Bang’s brilliant but admittedly quirky references.


Julia Guez


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2011

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