Series: Divine Comedy #1
Lost in a dark wood, Dante receives the gift of being guided by Virgil through hell, that he may see the effects of sin and transform his own life. But in Mary Jo Bang’s take, Dante’s original allusions and metaphors are changed to speak to the modern reader.
Mary Jo Bang’s reasoning for a new translation makes sense when she explains it. “I wanted 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,” she writes in the introduction. “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.” So far, so good. She wants to make an old book come alive for those who might think an old, religious work too boring or dry. But then she explains her method.
To appeal to a modern audience, Bang changes the allusions, references, and metaphors. She explains, for example, that “few of us use bows and arrows, so when a boat comes across the pond of Styx ‘faster than an arrow,’ the comparison can feel alien and trapped in the distant past. But an Ultimate Aero, one of the fastest production cars in the world…that’s an arrow that feels one with our culture…” And you can see all the assumptions that come into play. Modern readers just don’t know what these arrow-things are. Or maybe they just can’t relate to something that they have never seen in real life. Saying “like an arrow” doesn’t mean fast to a modern reader. Referring to an Aero does.
Well, I don’t know about most people, but I sure know what an arrow is and what it looks like. I’ve seen enough movies and Olympic footage that I understand an arrow is fast. I don’t consider it an antiquated reference beyond my ken. But you know what is beyond me? An Aero. I’d never heard of one before I read this translation. Even though my modern mind is supposed to allow me to understand it better.
Most of the substitutions in this translation made just as little sense to me. There are lines rewritten to refer to Shakespeare plays, but I am not not sure what this adds. Ulysses makes a Star Trek reference. I guess we’re supposed to relate his intellectual curiosity to space exploration? Is that really what modern people think of when they think of the limits to human understanding? I would have thought there would be a reference to more morally grey areas like embryonic stem cell research or weapons manufacturing.
And then there are plenty of allusions I did not even catch because I’d never heard of the works they come from. Many times when Bang replaces a name or a reference, she includes a footnote because apparently readers will not know there is a reference or what it refers to. But…if the point is to be more accessible, would that not mean fewer footnotes? If you are going to replace the names of demons with allusions to Nazis I’ve never heard of (apparently “Barbie” is not a reference to a doll but to a Nazi) and then provide footnotes, would it not make as much sense to leave the original names and footnotes?
And how are we to take this? Dante is said to admire Ernst and Darwin. But the action of the story takes place in 1300. How does he know Ernst and Darwin? How can he make an allusion to “Barbie?” Perhaps to wonder is to overthink.
Furthermore, to make the text more accessible, Bang uses a lot of slang, colloquialisms, and informal speech. Here you have Dante referring to himself as a “sad sack” and Virgil calling someone else a “knucklehead.” Capanaeus, hurled from the wall at Thebes for blasphemy, is said to have “Humpty Dumptied” off the wall. Suddenly he has less dignity than I imagine Dante wished to depict him having.
Bang carefully makes sure to translate the famous scenes in a more straight-forward manner, so at least Paolo and Francesca, Count Ugolino, and some of the others are not accidentally turned into a bit of a joke. Because it really is hard to take the work seriously sometimes. Dante, lost in a dark wood, says the she-wolf has a “bitch-kitty face.” Virgil asks why Dante does not “climb the meringue-pie mountain ahead of you?” Knowing this is an allusion to Gerard Manly Hopkins does not make associating Purgatory with pie less amusing. At times the work does what Bang wants it to do–it seems lively and modern and not at all stilted. But so often it’s just so accidentally funny.
I’ve always read the Mark Musa translation of The Divine Comedy, which gives Dante a sense of dignity that I find more fitting–and that I, incidentally, never found stilted or antiquated. So reading this as my second translation was a huge jump. I want to appreciate the work Bang has done, since I do think she might be appealing to an audience that would not normally pick up the Inferno. But I sometimes wonder, at what cost?