In Conversation

MARY JO BANG with Adam Fitzgerald

Dante Alighieri
Inferno: A New Translation
translated by Mary Jo Bang
(Graywolf Press, 2012)

Mary Jo Bang’s new translation of Dante’s Inferno is, among its other achievements, a breathtaking risk into returning a classic of world literature into history—our own. In doing so, Bang will continue to ruffle the feathers of classicists, translators and tamer poets who prefer to have the Florentine removed from the filth (though I would add and stress vitality) of contemporary pop culture. Is it really too taboo, too hellish to imagine re-dressing the medieval Hell of searing feces and viscera, etc., with the likes of Eric Cartman and the Rolling Stones? The problem of license and invention when it comes to the fidelity of translation is a storied and pickled one, especially given how central the subject matter is to the 20th century’s endless speculation from its most important theorists, the no-less endless appropriation from its most radical artists. To Nabokov, who was decidedly not a Walter Benjamin nor an Andy Warhol but rather a guerilla pragmatist in matters of translation, the literal rendering of a text across languages remained essential duty. Memorably, he wondered how a poet such as Robert Lowell would enjoy having his phrase “leathery love” turned into something like a “football of passion.” And while I’d argue saying no to radical invention excludes the possibility of poetry for translation, it’s equally true that without fidelity, there isn’t any hope for translation itself. Though no Italian scholar proper, Bang is, however, one of the most wonderfully disturbing and haunted poets of our time. But more than felicity aligns the sensibility of Bang to her project, as her notes make abundantly clear: she has attempted to rethink, relive, and re-envision a 21st century Inferno. Most crucial, I would argue, is that in Bang’s attempt to weave a classic into the vernacular of American poetry, fully alive to the bristle and push of contemporary associations, she has done something like bridging the high and low that made Dante’s own work (which imported the literary sources of Latin masters into his Florentine dialect) so daring in the first place. Her knowledge of countless translations, as well as referencing so copiously Anglo-American poetic and cultural memory, makes the glosses which follow each canto one of the most rewarding and enlivening surprises about her bold work (one thinks, like Eliot’s immortal footnotes in The Waste Land, which they resemble not slightly, she has mapped almost accidentally something like her imaginative autobiography, a truly creative pedantry). The book, published by Graywolf, is lavishly produced, featuring the cartoon savagery of artist Henrik Drescher who contributes full-page glossy treatments episodically throughout, as well as dozens of joyously perverse margin-doodles that perfectly triangulate the spirit of all three makers. Mary Jo Bang’s Inferno, to an astonishing degree, is the Dante of our time.

Adam Fitzgerald (Rail): How soon after beginning this project did the nature of what you were up to cause you to anticipate that there might some resistance to such a radical contemporization, full of inventive riffing, of Dante’s masterwork?

Mary Jo Bang: I actually encountered resistance very early. I was first prompted to translate the first three lines of the Inferno by reading Caroline Bergvall’s “Via, 48 Dante Variations.” From there, I decided to translate the first canto. I should say that initially, I was very indulgent, even silly. For a while I had a Freud finger puppet in the first canto. I was having a lot of fun. I felt no pressure to do a rigorously accurate translation because there were already so many translations that were true to the original. And I didn’t have any illusions about publishing what I was doing. I was simply playing a game that might be called “Find the Modern Equivalent for This Word in Dante’s Inferno.” However, I so enjoyed reimagining the language of the poem that when I finished the first canto, I decided to keep going.

The following summer, I was awarded a residency at Bellagio in Italy to work on the translation. Some of the scholars there were very cool to the idea of what I was doing. I found that interesting. I didn’t know whether they weren’t able to imagine what I was trying to create, or whether their notions of translation were so fixed that they couldn’t entertain the possibility of a radically different approach, or whether the problem was that certain poems are so deified that change of any kind is perceived as an act of desecration. There was a Russian Cold War historian there who was positively infuriated by the idea of my taking any liberties at all with this ancient text. He said somebody had recently tried to do the same thing with Eugene Onegin (I assume he was referring to Douglas Hofstadter’s colloquial translation) and it had failed miserably. He said the kind of modernizing gestures I was talking about, including those in the Inferno, could never work. The next morning, his girlfriend, to whom he had clearly spoken about this, began to interrogate and challenge me at breakfast.

Rail: [Laughs]

Bang: The fact that they were so heated about the project was fascinating. It did, however, introduce me early on to this idea that there would be at least pockets of resistance. On the other hand, when I would talk to poets or painters about what I was doing, they were very encouraging and very excited by it, w hich lead me to think there would also be people who would embrace the idea and who would enjoy reading the final product.

Rail: I find that fascinating, t hat external resistance in some ways might have been daunting, or even a provocation to continue. What about your own anxiety, the inner critic of, “Hey, wait a minute, this is pretty risky business.”

Bang: I can’t remember feeling that way. I do think that encountering that initial resistance made me feel I had to have a good reason for any contemporizing gesture I made. I don’t think I had felt that before. I would have been quite happy to throw in a toaster oven if I felt like it. After realizing I would be called to account for what I was doing, I became much more thoughtful and more selective. I wanted to be able to defend every choice I made. That curtailed a lot of my silliness. Even when I was being playful, I held myself to a kind of seriousness.

At the same time, there were others who were pushing me to be more self-indulgent. When the book was published, one of the early reviewers, who was somewhat approving, made the comment, “If only she’d had an editor,” because “here and there she goes too far.” The funny thing is that my editor kept pushing me to go farther in terms of abandoning my continual allegiance to the original text translation. Of course, not everyone will be charmed by the same things. So in terms of the reviewer’s comment, while there were voices telling me to pull back from the colloquial edge, my editor was not one of those.

Rail: Can you tell me more about what you were after in your particular translation, and how that evolved? There have been so many versions of Dante in English, even in the last 15 years, and yet I find yours extremely, and I add pleasingly, distinct.

Bang: One of the basic drives behind this project was to somehow create a text that people would be willing to read, especially people who might resist reading one of the existing translations. It’s easy to forget how hard it is to get someone to read poetry, any kind of poetry. And then to get them to read a book-length poem written in the 1300s—what would ever motivate you to do that? Well, you might read it because you want to be a well-read person. That is one sort of mandate under which some of us operate. We take the position that to be whole we have to somehow expose ourselves to things we might not particular enjoy, to take our medicine, as it were.

But to me, reading the Inferno is not at all like taking medicine. It’s like reading a novel, or watching a film. The poem is constructed of vivid scenes in which well-developed characters have transformative experiences—in particular, Dante, our lead character. I kept thinking that if I could somehow allow that aspect of the text to surface, people would be eager to read this poem and they would take great pleasure in reading it. And, hopefully, after reading my translation, they would be curious to see where I diverged from the original. Readers will know that Eric Cartman clearly could not have been in the original. I hope they’ll wonder about how he works as a 21st century American equivalent to the character Dante named Ciacco, a nickname that means “Piggy.” I want those moments of modernity to speak about the nature of translation itself. Many of the notes are designed to raise issues about what translation is, about the many ways in which translation searches for an equivalent in another language, in another time, in another voice. How does one say the same thing that was said so long ago?

Rail: Given the weight and gravitas of the Inferno, and your own need to justify each instance of these sorts of gestures, how did you balance the conscientiousness associated traditionally with the translator versus the free play licensed essentially to the poet?

Bang: The translation was fluid over many years. Every time I finished a new canto, I would go back over all of the previous cantos. It was very labor intensive. Every time I returned to a canto, I would see multiple opportunities for change. Nothing was set in stone until the manuscript went to the printer. It would be interesting to go back to the early drafts of some of these cantos to see how radical the changes are. When I first turned in the first draft of the manuscript to Graywolf, my editor Jeff Shotts said he felt there were many more opportunities where I could relax the language.  His criticism, that it sounded like a translation, is one that is frequently made of a translation. At that point, I realized that while I’d been committed to putting the poem into spoken English, I might also have been unnecessarily loyal to the original. I stepped back and asked myself how would someone say that line if speaking to a person across the table? I would then take what I had and begin to reimagine it as spoken English. In the process of doing that, I would sometimes find a moment in the text where I could introduce something modern.

I felt that there should be a rhythm to those moments of modernization—nothing mechanical, like every 18 lines—but they should appear with some regularity. Most of all, I wanted them to feel necessary. I wanted to create the sense that hell had continued to exist, from the time of its inception—whether with Dante, or with God’s ejection of Satan from Heaven—up until the present moment.

Rail: Something appears to be happening in regards to translation poetics in our moment; a radical breaking loose and invitation to re-appropriation, wild citation, re- or denaturing source materials. Sometimes it fails for me—even often—because these gestures become ironical, easy, cute. They can patronize people’s intelligence by giggling at high culture, as if drawing the proverbial mustache onto the sacred painting is a new idea. In your work, however, for all of its interventions and inventions on behalf of “Bang,” an extreme sense remains: This is really hell, folks. Yes, we can recognize our present idols and idioms, but the world you seek to hallucinate is dark, morbid, grotesque. This felt to me a real accomplishment to be so playful yet never at the expense of a certain literary seriousness, a singularly Dantean vision of the world.

Bang: That was my design. I felt that in many previous translations the adherence to syntactical arrangements that were more Italian than English, and the incorporation of elevated language to indicate this was an ancient text, interfered with the overall tone and the narrative arc of the poem. It’s one thing to adopt a high lyric mode—like Longfellow does in his translation—when that is the dominant aesthetic of the period, but it’s another thing to adopt a high lyric mode in our era, when it’s not the dominant aesthetic mode in poetry.

I considered putting the poem into prose. Many have done that. However, I have a deep commitment to poetry and I didn’t want to simply boil the poem down to its storyline. And Dante had very strong ideas about poetry, particularly about rhyme and form. I felt it was important to be respectful of that. I also felt that adopting the constraints of poetry would make the endeavor more interesting and more intellectually satisfying.

There were other issues I had to resolve. I’m not Catholic, so what was I going to do with this Catholic poem? I decided it would be a betrayal of Dante to be untrue to the poem’s Catholicism. Additionally, the poem would fall apart. Catholicism is one of its pillars. Without that theological premise, the organization of the poem would fall apart, and the underlying anxiety that fuels the poem would fall apart. The same issue was raised by the historical figures in the poem—what was I going to do with those? Should I replace them with contemporary figures? The problem with that is that the contemporary moment is continually in flux. Figures are quite literally here today and gone tomorrow. Plus the figures in the original— while it’s true they were once real people— over time have become characters in the story of a man named Dante who descends through the nine circles of Hell. Farinata, who was an actual Ghibelline general, is a character for us the same way that Isabel Archer is a character in James’s The Portrait of a Lady. I decided to keep history as it was in the original. And I decided that whether or not I believed in the underlying theology was irrelevant.

All of these elements are essential to the poem’s subjectivity. Dante’s outraged response to his exile, which came about because of the historically real political developments, creates an underlying tension in the poem. Another layer of tension comes from his deep indignation at the part the Catholic Church played in the politics of the day, and his fury at the religious hypocrisy that he saw in the Church leaders. Once all of those things began to seem essential to the story, they no longer seemed like obstacles.

Rail: You bring up a perennial question about the nature of belief and the work of art. For someone like Dr. Johnson, faith was not an appropriate subject matter for poetry. Eliot talks about this same matter in regard to Dante and Rilke, and I wonder how you dissect or delineate your own place as a non-Catholic to that of Dante’s; how you understand the role of a work of art which engages in a foreign system of belief to our own. What do we owe to it?

Bang: That’s an interesting question—you’re making me deconstruct my own psychology.

Rail: [Laughs.] Please don’t feel the need to do that!

Bang: Why was it hard to resign myself? I wonder whether it is more basic than Catholicism itself. I think the difficulty for me was in deciding to embody a consciousness that believed in a Christian God, one that believed that Satan was a fallen angel who was tossed out of heaven. Of course there’s the question of believing metaphorically and believing literally. One way to get distance from disbelief—or even the difficulty of belief—is to allegorize religion. What I couldn’t know for certain is how literally Dante believed in these things.

Rail: I know to the warrior-gnostic Harold Bloom, Dante’s use of dogma was deliberately metaphorical and mischievous—an “orthodox” scaffolding of Aquinas’s theology to conceal a tremendously heretical remaking of Catholic faith, foremost through Beatrice being siphoned into salvation history.

Bang: Possibly. I think I would have to go back and find where in the poem I first encountered this question.

Rail: Speaking of which, when did you first encounter Dante?

Bang: I first read the Inferno when I was a student at Columbia working on my M.F.A. Timothy Donnelly and I were bemoaning the fact that there was so much literature we hadn’t yet read. It turned out that neither of us had read The Divine Comedy so we decided to read it together. I had the Charles S. Singleton translation and he had the 1933 Carlyle-Wicksteed translation. When I suggested that I should get a copy of that one, he said no, that we would each read from a different one. At the time, I thought that was a very odd idea but it turned out to be brilliant because reading from the two translations meant we could talk about the translation choices. We spent one winter sitting on the floor of my apartment taking turns reading a canto aloud and afterwards comparing the differences between the two, and discussing the notes. We finished the Inferno, and then read Purgatorio the same way. We began Paradiso but grew bored and never finished it.

Rail: [Laughs.] I haven’t either.

Bang: Exactly. That was 1995, I think. At Columbia I took two translation workshops, one with Frank McShane, the other with the Italian translator William Weaver. On the first day of class, Weaver brought in three different translations of the first chapter of Don Quixote. They were so different, one from the other, that I began to understand what translation really was. It wasn’t simply the act of finding that one word that was the obvious equivalent for the original. Instead it was imagining how the author might have wanted this text to read, and then consistently taking measures to create that effect, through word choices and sound patterning. Reading the Dante in two translations was a reiteration of that.

Rail: Some readers I imagine might forget that the ways in which you’ve heightened certain effects via contemporary slang, pop cultural allusions, and whatnot, were all essentially analogous issues to Dante’s creation of an epic poem in the Italian vernacular.

Bang: In Book I of the Convivio, Dante writes about his choice to write the Commedia in the vernacular instead of in literary Latin. He points out how generous the vernacular is, because we have an intimate relationship to it. And because the vernacular is sensory, it allows one to particularize experience and feelings. Latin lacks the vernacular’s sense of familiarity. It can ultimately only provide a commentary. It’s so beautiful, virtuous, and noble that it is non-specific. It is also temporally frozen. The vernacular is like a city, he says, in that it changes so much over time that if you leave and come back after many years, it looks totally different.

Rail: Inspired by what you had done, this semester I brought in Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” and asked my Rutgers students to rewrite as if it was written today. We ended up surfing the echoes and recesses in diction. How “subway,” “metro,” “underground rail,” “tube” conjure such distinct images, scenes. Then, in bringing a dozen or so different versions of Dante to class, I tried to stress to them the importance of Dante’s vernacular gamble at a time when there was no “unified” literary language besides Latin. I told them (somewhat ridiculously): Imagine writing an epic poem for a heavy Boston or Long Island accent. This leads me to wonder when did the novelty of rethinking Dante in our contemporary, colloquial mindset emerge for you?

Bang: When you begin to deconstruct the poem, you find a very sophisticated and timeless appreciation of human psychology. The poem is essentially about how humans think and act. Even the historical characters read as if they are novelistic inventions in the service of constructing a social universe that is identical to our own. The characters don’t serve some limited purpose, something local to Dante’s particular moment and circumstances. Instead, they serve as archetypes. There’s a great economy to that. The individual backstories create narrative depth. Once I understood what he was doing as a writer, as a poet, I saw how much intelligence there was woven into the extremely intricate plot. And once I saw how contemporary that intelligence was, it made perfect sense to create a contemporary idiom for it.

Rail: I can remember a teacher in college saying quite bluntly one day, re: Dante’s persona:“Pretty cold son of a bitch.” Obviously that exaggerates the point, but still, here he was, a partisan in wars who placed people he knew in his own lifetime, among others, in eternal damnation, calling them out for their indecencies, making them forever famous by cataloguing their flaws. I wanted to know what your reaction to Dante as a persona in The Inferno was. This might not have occurred or mattered to you at all, for all I know. 

Bang: I’m aware that one way of viewing the writer Dante is as someone who exacted revenge on those he blamed for his misfortune, and especially for his exile, by putting them in Hell. As a translator, however, I’m much more invested in the character named Dante and I find a great deal of tenderness in that character. He is so moved by the story Francesca tells him about how she and Paolo fell in love that he faints. He also faints at the end of Canto III, after passing through the Gates of Hell and confronting the horrors of hell and understanding for the first time what it means to be eternally damned. 

One of my favorite moments in the Inferno is at the end of Canto 30. Dante is in that part of the 8th circle where counterfeiting and other kinds of fraudulent misrepresentation are punished. Dante watches while two of these pathetic sinners are having a spat. They punch and slap one another and trade childish insults back and forth. The one says: “You didn’t tell the truth when asked about your role in the Trojan horse incident. I hope you’re miserable knowing that the entire world knows about that”. The other says: “Well, you counterfeited coins; that means that while I have one sin, you have one for every coin you minted.” As they go on and on, Dante is mesmerized. It’s like watching an episode of reality TV. In the poem, he’s suddenly mortified when Virgil says, “Keep on staring and any minute now, I’m going to be cross with you. . . To want to listen to this sort of thing is a base desire.”

There is a certain kind of humiliation that comes when someone you admire sees you acting in a way that doesn’t reveal your best self. Dante periodically indicts himself as he goes along. By doing that he indicates to the reader that there are moments when all of us fail to be our finest selves. And we ought to suffer when we do, because that suffering makes us want to modify our behavior and be a better person. That is also an effective strategy in terms of the writing. It’s easy to create a dystopian society that we can all agree is despicable, but the fact is we are a part of that society too. If we’re honest, we have to include ourselves in any critique of it.

Rail: I wonder if maybe people make too much of Dante as Eternal Judge and Jury. According to the narrative of Dante’s own life, poetically, Beatrice is this great love and loss that changes him and engenders his poetry––Vita Nuova, and years later the Divine Comedy. One way to read his life’s work, if it doesn’t sound like too much of a stretch, is that Dante is our greatest elegiac poet, cycling through heaven and hell to imagine a reunion with someone he still loved.

Bang: I can’t speak for Dante in terms of the question of whether there is an elegiac impulse behind the poem. His motivations for this work are extremely complicated. What Beatrice means to the poem is somewhat of a conundrum because she was a real person, but she’s also an artistic device. Somewhere between those poles is Dante’s own relationship to her and the way he used her as a moral compass. In terms of my understanding of Beatrice, I have read some essays about her role in the poem but in terms of the translation, I only felt compelled to be true to the text and to limit myself to the poetic aspects of that.

Rail: Stevens talks about how the modern poet doesn’t really have the recourse to the imagination that a poet like Dante, or even Blake, had. His point, I believe, was that when you have a shared cultural inheritance, homogenized but at least literate for a community of readers, the poet doesn’t have to posit or doubt a purely mental world (pace “The death of Satan was a tragedy for the imagination”). I wonder to what degree your translation of the Inferno shows how the entertainment culture, in our time, hasn’t just usurped the place of faith, but serves a similar purpose, even as a tool, to the modern writer.

Bang: What you’re saying is very interesting. One way to frame the issue might be to consider the abstract versus the concrete. Going back to the Stevens quote about having lost Satan, we have these grand abstractions. Satan was a time-honored, concrete embodiment of the idea of evil, but does that mean we can’t imagine other metaphoric equivalents for that same abstraction? No. But, you’re right—today religion provides us with some metaphors, culture provides us with others, history provides us with still more. We can use Hitler, for instance, in lieu of Satan, or we can use Pol Pot, or Gadhafi, or any number of other people who embody the idea of evil.

Poetry gestures to the ineffable by concretizing the abstract. All religious texts allegorize abstractions and create metaphors for them. What we refer to as culture is a place where these same abstractions get played out in the form of other stories, non-religious ones, or religious ones that are divested of their sacred qualities and only charged with their philosophical underpinnings. And writers reuse all of these stories, writing over them as time goes forward.

The ability to read any particular allegory is often predicated on the knowledge the author expects the reader will bring to the story. If you just have one dominant allegory—say, the Judeo-Christian allegory of an all-knowing God, or the Christian allegory of Satan—everyone in the community knows what is being communicated through those metaphors. But if you have a diverse culture, you no longer all know the same stories so allegory is more difficult. But there are some cultural icons that are very widely known and those can be useful. Historical figures can do a certain amount of work too, but only for so long because we have a surprisingly short memory for historical events.

Rail: So whether it’s an allusion to Lego or “South Park”, you’re interested in engaging with a popular and entertainment-based vocabulary. I bet there’s even more references of it in your Inferno than even in your own poetry. To what degree is being more permissible, more with-it by consciously mining artifacts of our zeitgeist, a necessity for poetry today? Does that make any sense?

Bang: I wouldn’t say it’s a poetic necessity to mine cultural artifacts. There are many brilliant poets who don’t engage with contemporary culture. In terms of my own practice, and specifically the Inferno translation, the cultural markers I put into the poem form a map of my consciousness; however, I’m counting on there being a great deal of overlap between my consciousness and my reader’s. Dante is the dummy and I’m the ventriloquist. I’m giving Dante the character other lines in addition to the lines that Dante the writer gave him, but very few of those lines are mine and mine alone. Mostly they are lines by other poets who lived in the years between Dante’s era and now. And what they are saying is almost always nearly identical to what the original poem says. Occasionally I have the character say things the particular way I would say them, if I wanted to say the very same thing. That’s what we do with a foreign language. Translation answers the question, “How do you say this phrase in your language?” While translating the poem, I would ask myself how Dante might say something if he were speaking American English at this moment in time. And, additionally, how would he say it if he knew everything that I know.

Rail: Poetic language and literary culture seems much more willing to engage with pop-culture; the frustrated, dismissive, or nose-turning toward taking seriously, a certain frame of reference (mass-produced, corporatized, etc.) by defaulting to a dry homage to a dead 19th- century Europeanism—well, that seems to be in the past. Some recent reading of mine puts these thoughts into motion: John Ashbery’s endlessly variable poems, David Foster Wallace’s essays and interviews, Pauline Kael’s energetic reviews of Hollywood. As a translator, is it also about honoring your personality in making a version for our moment?

Bang: I think I’m like a lot of poets of my poetic generation, which is that I want to make use of everything that is available to me. For me, that sometimes includes American culture. I’m interested in semiotics, which I came to through photography. I’m always trying to find a way to make cultural icons serve as metaphors. We all grow up in a particular historical era and we have a relationship with that world. It’s possible to use that episodic experience to communicate about timeless issues. Of course not everyone will read cultural metaphors the same way, but I think that’s part of the pleasure of reading, to explore all the possibilities. 

Rail: As a last question, I wonder if the example of Anne Carson’s translations, I’m thinking especially of her work with the Greek playwrights, served as something of inspiring or important model?

Bang: I’ve read much of Carson’s own work but I haven’t read those translations. There’s a piece in Plainwater, "Mimnermos: The Brainsex Paintings," where Mimnermos (630 c. BCE) is being interviewed by someone with a tape recorder. That moment was revelatory to me when I first encountered it in 1995. I remember the excitement I had at the idea of collapsing time like that. I also have a debt to Ciaran Carson’s 2003 translation of the Inferno. Writing in terza rima, he allowed himself a tremendous range in the register of the language he used. The translation bounces between, on the one hand, a high lyric intensity that sometimes incorporates anachronisms like “thoust” and “canst,” and on the other, moments of contemporary colloquial speech where you have Virgil telling Dante not to be a dolt. There’s a great virtuosity in operating under the formal constraint of terza rima and there’s an additional layer of virtuosity in the way Carson allowed himself to continually play with shifting tonal registers. That model gave me a lot of permission. I opted to keep the tonal register even throughout and instead play with shifting time periods. I found that Carson’s tonal roller coaster sometimes undermined my empathic relationship to the poem. I wanted to maintain what I felt was the poem’s deep seriousness and sadness, and its convincing sense of terror. Dante wants us to be continually horrified as we view of the consequences of human behavior. He wants us to reflect on what it means to espouse ideals and yet not abide by them.

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Adam Fitzgerald

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