There are no fewer than 200 English translations of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno — the epic, allegorical poem describing Dante’s passage, guided by the Roman poet Virgil, through the nine circles of Hell. But not one has ever referenced South Park’s Eric Cartman in its discussion of gluttony, and never before has Emily Dickinson figured at all.
For six years, Mary Jo Bang, PhD, professor of English, obsessed over the Inferno, determined to offer something new: an original free-verse translation, not from Italian to English but from the 14th century to the 21st. Her resulting translation infuses Dante’s storyline with allusions — including Shakespeare, Freud, Pink Floyd and Stephen Colbert — familiar to a contemporary reader. “Translation is a method of bringing the past back into the present,” Bang says.
Bang, author of six books of poems, including Elegy, which received the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award, was drawn to the project after reading a poem by Caroline Bergvall, “Via (48 Dante Variations),” which is composed of 47 translations of the first three lines of the Inferno. “The poem is an object lesson,” Bang writes in her introduction, “there is no single right way to carry what has been said from one language to another.”
We asked Bang about the joys and frustrations of publishing her daring vision of a 21st-century Inferno.
1. The thing I like best about publishing the translation is the opportunity to introduce the poem to people who haven’t read it before, often because they feared it would be too difficult. Even people who have previously read the poem have told me that they had never appreciated how dramatic the story was. The Italian journalist who interviewed me for an article in Corriere della Sera said that he’d been required to read the poem as a schoolboy and thought it was boring, but listening to the Italian on his iPod while he read my translation, it came alive for him. That made me very happy.
2. I don’t know that there has been anything particularly frustrating. There have been a few reviewers, and happily only a very few, who have resented my modernizing approach, but I expected that. These are people for whom any alteration of a text is an act of desecration. The fact is, most of the 200-plus translations of the Inferno into English maintain a fairly strict allegiance to the original. Since there are so many of those, I felt free to do something that I thought might make the story come alive for contemporary readers. I wanted the poem to read as it did for its original readers, as a dramatic allegorical tale that speaks about our hypocrisy, our deception, our greed. I hoped by using colloquial English, and selectively weaving in occasional modern references, Dante’s poem, and Dante’s Hell, might feel of this moment and not a quaint literary artifact of a long-ago era.
3. I’m working on revising a novel I wrote a few years ago, and finishing my next book of poems. Whether I’ll go on and do the Purgatorio, remains to be seen.