Inferno by Dante Alighieri (trans. Mary Jo Bang). Graywolf. 352 pp., $35.00.
Some kind of outrage seems the natural response to the new book Mary Jo Bang is calling her “translation” of Dante’s Inferno, and that outrage can begin before you reach the first page: Sharmila Cohen, editor of Telephone, has contributed a blurb that reads: “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 on to us, within our contemporary context.” A reflexive answer would be: “If it seems that way to you, you’re badly mistaken. Dante is not transcribing a folk ballad or an oral tradition. The Inferno is not a meme; it’s a long and incredibly complex poem conceived and crafted over the course of years by one man. It isn’t passed down through the generations, it’s read by them.” Zachary Mason, author of The Lost Books of the Odyssey, also contributes a blurb, warning us that “there is often a remoteness about translations of ancient poetry” and again the reflexive answer is: “no, there’s often a remoteness about bad translations of ancient poetry.”
Fairness dictates that we let Bang speak for herself, but that hardly dims the outrage. She looks at the typical ways Dante has been rendered into English in the last century and asks, “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? 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?” These are excellent, thought-provoking questions about the reception of literature across temporal and cultural boundaries, but they leave out two important considerations: first, songs are performances, inherently adaptable, and second, at least 87 percent of all covers are really, really bad. Translators of centuries-old texts must perforce import their own poetic style (as Dryden pointed out four hundred years ago, there’s almost no other way to do it), but there are nevertheless some fairly clear demarcations. If you manage to work a mention of Darfur into “Proud Mary,” you are no longer covering Creedence. Past a certain point, you can’t have it both ways.
Bang wants to have it both ways, and that could be seen as fairly outrageously arrogant. She wants to create “an English-language version of the Inferno that would adhere to the original but would seem neither remote in time nor elevated in diction. I thought one way to do that would be to allow the poem to speak with intimacy about the world we live in: the postmodern, post-9/11, Internet-ubiquitous present.” This desire—and its sincerity shines through on every page of this deeply interesting, deeply problematic book—to make Dante speak to the modern world would be entirely admirable in a teacher, perhaps, or somebody with a classroom of sullen teenagers in front of her. But as Bang herself points out, “Translation is a method of bringing the past back into the present” – the amount it can accommodate the present is limited by what’s actually there on the page. Anything beyond that accommodation isn’t translation—it’s adaptation. Bang’s book is haunted by one such adaptation, Electronic Arts’ 2009 video game Dante’s Inferno, which, as she notes, comes up first if you do a Google search for “Dante’s Inferno,” with Dante’s version coming in second.
Many translators wouldn’t care two figs about the Google-ranking of their subject, but the minute you start to court faddish popularity, you almost have to care. So Bang creates a version of the Inferno that Dante and his legion of translators would scarcely have recognized. Terza rima is of course out the window—instead, we get the jazzy, informal slop of modern poetics. And Dante’s medievalisms—all those mentions of peasants and arrows in flight and the rest—get transposed with contemporary fixtures instead. This is an Inferno with velcro, machine guns, Mickey Mouse, heat-seeking missiles, swiftboating, and the like. The worry here—aside from the wide galaxy of distance from Dante it represents—is twofold: first, that these references will quickly date into incomprehensibility (something that hasn’t happened to arrow and peasant and has arguably already happened with swiftboating), and second (and more worrying), that Bang herself is mis-using them. Take the section of Canto XVI where Dante is telling poor doomed Guiglielmo Borsiere all about modern-day Florence:
“The McMansion crowd with their instant profits
Have created such arrogance and waste in you, Florence,
You’re already in mourning.”
I raised my eyes to the sky as I spoke;
The three took this as my answer and stared at one another
Like people in the presence of a silencing truthiness.
Bang provides a footnote for that last word, citing its popularization by comedian Stephen Colbert: “He uses it to describe the sense that something is true, whether or not there is evidence or logic to support it.” But that’s not quite right, obviously: Colbert’s very funny bit on the word characterizes it as something spouted by people who can’t be bothered with evidence or logic—it’s an item of demented ideology, not blind faith. Colbert’s “truthiness” is false —it’s falseness that believes in itself so thoroughly it doesn’t know it’s false, or care. In other words, it’s the exact opposite of Dante’s simple “ver” in that passage: in the original, the damned are silenced by the truth of the description they hear. In Bang’s version, the reader is encouraged to doubt that any of it is actually true. And there’s a strong argument to be made that an adaptation that drags its readers into a dim and twisty ant farm of competing YouTube clips about an old TV comedy routine is serving no good purpose at all in any case.
It’s tempting to dismiss outright an endeavor that refers to Virgil as “street savvy” and that imports Milton and Shakespeare retroactively into a poet who didn’t live to see and use them himself (this last is a particular face-slap to Dante; one suspects that Bang might object if somebody in 3150 stuck 24th-century poets into her own Elegy, and the fact that she doesn’t credit Dante with equal poetic sensibility is the signal tone-deafness of this whole project). It’s tempting to roll your eyes at the dutiful, artless notes that trail after so many points in the book—explaining to us that “In Western culture the obscene gesture known as ‘the finger’ is formed by showing the back of a closed fist with the middle finger extended,” and so on. There are so many aesthetic misfires here that they threaten to obscure the things that actually work.
Which is frustrating, because there are things that work here. Just as with the late Christopher Logue’s adaptations of Homer’s Iliad (a clear cousin to the present work), Bang’s Inferno—her weird, funhouse-mirror version of Dante—is frequently saved from all that reflexive outrage by the best means possible: the clear, bright line of Bang’s own poetic voice. Readers are often treated to that voice even in the midst of the misfires, as in this bit from Canto XXIV:
Early in the year when one has a mind of winter,
And the sun sets its curls under Aquarius,
And the length of a night is nearly half a day,
And frost prints out a picture of its sister
As Emily in a White Dress
With ink that soon vanishes,
A worker wakes late for work, goes out
To find the street covered with white,
And chews his lip . . .
That is smoothly and adroitly done—except for that mention of Emily in a White Dress, just sitting there like the most obnoxious of hipster intrusion-allusions, daring the reader to admit they had to look it up (as young readers most certainly will have to)—an entirely obstructive reference, something Dante wouldn’t have consciously done to save his life, and yet it’s set in some undeniably lovely verse that’s far more Bang than Dante. Moments like that lift the curtain briefly and give the reader a glimpse of what this Inferno could have been, if Bang had decided to make it expressly personal and deconstructive (honestly, what madness—or hubris – possessed her to call this an actual translation?), a poem about her own journey through both Dante’s Inferno and Dante’s Inferno. She can be the Florentine’s best ally, as when she gets to the thrilling point in Canto XVII where Dante and Virgil climb on Geryon’s back for a ride:
He swims on, slowly, slowly, wheeling down
In continuous ascent, which I only know by the feel
Of the wind on my face as it blows from below.
On my right I hear the hideous roar
Of the eddy the boiling blood empties into,
So I lean my head out to have a look.
That made me even more terrified of the cliff below,
Since I could see fires and hear howling;
Trembling, I shrank back into myself.
Passages like that inadvertently give the lie to all that nonsense about hauling Dante into the post-9/11 age; by working with the poet to translate (and yes, shape) what he says, instead of making him say what you say, you do indeed bring the past into the present, and you don’t need velcro or Mickey Mouse to do it. Simple reflexive outrage ends up being a poor response to the intelligent, complicated things Bang is trying (and mostly failing) to do here, but even so, sadness and frustration will win out over any clean excitement, except maybe for video gamers.
Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Washington Post, The National, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, and Historical Novel Review Online. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.
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