How not to translate Dante

I first heard of Mary Jo Bang while researching my post on translations of The Divine Comedy, but didn’t include her among my list of best-known editions since I’d never run across her name before. While I’ve not read or dipped in and out of most of the translations I listed, I at least was familiar with their existence.

And as I mentioned in that post, I personally prefer a translation done by someone with a scholarly background in a field like Dante studies, Medieval history, or Italian literature, not a mere English professor or poet. Ms. Bang falls into the latter category. Of course I’ve nothing against such people, but there’s an inevitable, very noticeable difference in how they approach translation and supplemental material.

To use another comparison, wouldn’t you more trust a Bible translation by a Biblical historian or religious scholar instead of someone with only surface interest in Hebrew, Greek, or the ancient world? Or a translation of The Iliad by someone who’s been immersed in all things Ancient Greece for 20+ years over a poet who studied the language for a few years and nothing more?

I’m not a pedantic nitpicker who demands a translation be one million percent true to the absolute letter of the original. While I prefer it be as accurate and literal as possible, I have nothing against gentle creative liberties within reason. After all, that’s often necessitated if the translator is using a style like blank verse in iambic pentameter or a certain kind of rhyme scheme. And oftentimes, it can enhance the beauty or emotional impact of a passage, or just make the meaning clearer than a literal word-by-word rendering.

But what I’m absolutely NOT okay with? Inserting words, phrases, and entire passages not even indirectly suggested by anything in the original, esp. when you do that over and over again.

I was beyond gobsmacked to learn Ms. Bang’s translations of Inferno and Purgatorio (the latter of which was just recently released) are full of anachronistic references and allusions to modern politics, pop culture, artists, and writers. Donald Rumsfeld, Andy Warhol, Usain Bolt, Marvin Gaye, Bob Dylan, Amy Winehouse, Gertrude Stein, South Park, Pink Floyd, Star Trek, Tootsie Fruit Chews, MGM’s Leo the Lion, Shakespeare, Freud, you name it.

Oh, and she describes something as a lemon meringue mountain, says the winds of Hell are like “a massive crimson camera flash,” and takes extreme liberties with many other lines. The famous first tercet alone is rendered as:

Stopped mid-motion in the middle
Of what we call our life, I looked up and saw no sky—
Only a dense cage of leaf, tree, and twig. I was lost.

WHAT?!

The bulk of that tercet is entirely her own imagination! Find me one other translation that strays THAT far from the original Italian!

I also read a really weird 2011 op-ed by Ms. Bang claiming if you only read Inferno, you’ll falsely think of Beatrice as a damsel in distress from the story Virgil tells in Canto II. Because she’s tearfully pleading with him to save her friend, despite the fact that Beatrice is the one who rescues Dante. She also sets out to summon Virgil after a conference with two other women, the Virgin Mary and St. Lucia.

You haven’t read the text thoughtfully at all, nor done any real outside study, if you truly believe Beatrice only wants Virgil to rescue Dante from the three beasts impeding him. Are you so jaded after years of English teachers’ overanalysis that you now refuse to consider any deeper meanings for anything?

I’d have zero problems with her approach if she were doing a 21st century retelling. That would give her the perfect opportunity to play around with the general concept while keeping core elements of the original material. But she presents this as merely a fresh translation, not a reimagining.

And to make it even more shocking, the Dante Society of America, which I’m a member of, endorses this nonsense!

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