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Inferno

As far as serious, professional literary translation goes, Mary Jo Bang’s Inferno tests the boundaries of acceptability. Just how far afield from the original text the translator may venture yet still be found to be arguably holding true to the original is relentlessly challenged. Bang contends that since “Dante paid homage to poets and figures who meant something to him and to his readers; he appropriated stories once told by Virgil, Ovid, Lucan, and sometimes adapted them to suit his purposes,” her translation likewise will “include, through allusion, some of the poets and storytellers who have lived and left a mark in the time since Dante wrote.”

As far as serious, professional literary translation goes, Mary Jo Bang’s Inferno tests the boundaries of acceptability. Just how far afield from the original text the translator may venture yet still be found to be arguably holding true to the original is relentlessly challenged. Bang contends that since “Dante paid homage to poets and figures who meant something to him and to his readers; he appropriated stories once told by Virgil, Ovid, Lucan, and sometimes adapted them to suit his purposes,” her translation likewise will “include, through allusion, some of the poets and storytellers who have lived and left a mark in the time since Dante wrote.”

The extensive use of footnotes by Bang—as evidentiary indicators of her translation/reading practice—is most usefully exciting. Among the poets making repeat appearance are Shakespeare, Milton, John Berryman, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Keats, and T.S. Eliot. She acknowledges and welcomes the fact that a figure such as Tiresias is as likely to be known to current day readers via Ovid (who is Dante’s source) as well as Eliot, citing The Waste Land in a footnote alongside Ovid’s own lines. Such practice enlivens the translated text itself by widening the scope of the reader’s various approaches to the original, offering grounding in what may be more familiar, more recent texts.

Bang not only draws upon previous English translations of Dante, she riffs off lines by numerous poets (predominantly those writing in English) coming after him. Her sources include both those who make specific, direct reference to Dante, such as Eliot in The Waste Land, as well as those who do not directly cite Dante but whose work shows some measure of regard for him. In this way, she acknowledges not only where her own wording has been borrowed or influenced by choices other poets have made, but also notes, or otherwise guesses at, where other poets have perhaps found inspiration through Dante in wording their own poems, which she has then incorporated into her translation. By “bringing the poem into the present,” Bang reassesses and joins in the crowd of responses to Dante’s classic across a broad historical swath of the Western poetic tradition, magnifying the irrefutable dominance of the poem’s influence.

It’s a rather rare day when reading Dante you find lines dolloped with such contemporary allusions:

Unless you’re wearing a Halloween mask,
You must be Venèdico Caccianemico.
What brings you to this bitter Sing Sing?

Bang’s mixture of a more classical Dante reference to an individual personality of his day, sandwiched between the contemporary references, works well stylistically and brings fresh light for seeing just how relevant Dante’s work was to his own time and place while proving how it might be seen as pertinent to our own era. The footnote for the above lines reminds us that “Sing Sing is a maximum security prison in Ossining, New York” while also noting that Dante’s original word here is “salse,” which (according to her source, Dante scholar William Warren Vernon) refers to Le Salse, a spot outside Bologna “where criminals were punished in various ways; where pimps and such-like were flogged, where perhaps robbers were buried head downwards.” Sing Sing is a fairly notoriously known prison. Bang’s substitution in this case is quite apt. Rather than leave the foreign sounding location without any current relevancy in ears of today’s readers, she locates a comparable locale equally vivid to many contemporary readers.

While Bang’s is clearly not the most academically rigorous of translations, it is a tellingly revealing exposé of how poets read and thereby write. Bang lets the reader in on the echoes she hears as a poet reading Dante. If nothing less, she gives the reader one more poet’s notebook from which the more in-tune reader might search out further sources worth fleshing out. The texts from which Bang herself borrows, learning as she goes—and no doubt continues to draw upon—will benefit any reader, but would-be poets will reap the greatest reward. Bang shows how things work in poetry. In words are words. Poems speak to poems: poet to poet, reader to reader. There is no other way to engage in the poetic practice than borrowing as you go. A debt is always owed, and the writing pays no attention to historical time and circumstances outside of its own concerns. Immediate and raw, Bang brings Dante into her own reading/writing cairn and offers readers efficient means of following her as she accomplishes the task.

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