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!

The ultimate historical accuracy on fire

While all the anachronisms and deus ex machina plot developments in Season One of Masterpiece Theatre’s World on Fire really add up, I can concede they’re not that bad in comparison to something like Anne with an E. It seems more like badly-written characters, lack of attention to detail, and over-reliance on lazy, convenient plot twists.

Still, these characters (with a few notable exceptions, like Robina) tend to speak, act, and think more like 21st century people than authentic people from the 1940s. Even the most radical, against the grain people had to operate within certain parameters.

The quintessential example everyone knows is Scarlett O’Hara. While she very much breaks the mold of her time and place, she doesn’t entirely play by her own rules. She’s a product of white, upper-class Southern society in the antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction eras, not a 1930s character who just happens to live there and then.

Which brings me to…

No woman in the 1940s, whatever her social class or political views, would’ve treated an out of wedlock pregnancy as no big deal like Lois does, let alone gone about in slinky, form-fitting dresses! Even more stunningly, 99% of everyone around her likewise treats it as totally normal instead of scandalous.

I was really confused, at age 11 or 12, to see Elizabeth Taylor’s character in Father’s Little Dividend looking very un-pregnant, even when she was supposedly nine months along. I was stunned when my mother told me it wasn’t considered decent to depict pregnancy in that era.

Even after the historic I Love Lucy episode where Lucy tells Ricky she’s pregnant, the word “pregnant” still wasn’t used, and pregnant characters wore shapeless maternity clothes. Forget slinky dresses!

In real life, Lois would’ve done one of the following:

Scrambled to find an illegal abortion.

Entered into a shotgun marriage with Harry (though it would’ve made him a bigamist).

Married a man noble and understanding enough to publicly pretend paternity.

Pretended her husband was away at war (a perfect excuse!).

Hidden herself away until the birth. In 1939–40, the baby snatch era was still a ways off, so she wouldn’t have been coerced into adoption or had her baby outright stolen unless she went to a Magdalene Laundry or similar home.

In this era, the objective was on keeping mother and baby together, “reforming” the mother, and helping her get an education and find a job which would enable her to support her child. Eventually, she might find a husband who didn’t care about her past.

Instead she casually goes around in form-fitting clothes, making no bones about being unmarried, and performing onstage at her nightclub until the moment she goes into labor. Many bosses fired women just for getting married. Pregnancy was also frequent grounds for automatic dismissal.

When she meets the man she’ll marry after the birth, he naturally asks about her husband.

“Oh, I’m not married.”

Said no woman in 1940 who cared about her reputation, EVER!

That’s like matter-of-factly telling someone you just met about being gay, divorced, having an abortion, being married to someone of another race, or working as a burlesque dancer! That information was extremely dangerous, not to be divulged to total strangers!

People in general were much more discreet in this era. They didn’t constantly overshare the most private details of their lives with anyone and everyone. Even if they had an extremely progressive, black sheep family and/or circle of friends, they would’ve exercised much more caution outside that safe little bubble.

And though it was common for single women to raise their children, that didn’t come without huge amounts of stigma. Many people started counting days after a wedding. If the baby came less than 40 weeks later, everyone would know they had premarital sex. Quite a few full-term babies were falsely passed off as premature.

One of the many things which has vividly stayed with me about A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the line hurled at men who got their girlfriends in trouble, “If she let you, she let others.” One great guy was prepared to marry his sweetheart, but his own mother and sisters used that line on him, and capped it off with, “We’re women, so we know these things.”

An angry mob also threw stones at a single mom who dared to go out in public with her baby in a fancy pram and show her love, instead of hiding away and acting ashamed.

Even the models for Lane and Bryant (the only mainstream company to make maternity clothes) weren’t pregnant. Women who didn’t have the luxury of staying home after starting to show wore very baggy clothes, wrap dresses, drawstring waists, smocks, maternity corsets.

Forget performing at a nightclub in slinky dresses! The audience would’ve been horrified, and the boss would’ve fired Lois or asked her to stay home till after the birth.

There wouldn’t have been a more relaxed attitude on account of being working-class either. 

Only in the last few decades has out of wedlock pregnancy lost its stigma, and maternity wear didn’t begin evolving past shapelessness until the 1970s. In my own lifetime, many maternity clothes were still shapeless!

If you can’t bring yourself to accurately depict the past, even if it makes you uncomfortable, hist-fic isn’t your genre.

Historical accuracy on fire

Warning: Contains massive spoilers!

While Season One of Masterpiece Theatre’s World on Fire, about the first year of WWII, isn’t nearly as egregiously anachronistic as Anne with an E, it nevertheless has much to answer for. I’m so tired of people defending historical characters with Current Year values as just “ahead of their time,” “not the kind of characters you’re used to seeing,” and “looking back on the past, not portraying it.”

I’ve zero problem with hist-fic including things like interracial couples, gay characters, single moms, assertive women, and people questioning the status quo. All those things obviously did happen in the past, even if they weren’t socially acceptable or legal. The key is in portraying them in a historically accurate way.

And what does that mean?

People being very discreet, only confiding in extremely trusted people they know to be fellow black sheep, keeping secrets, facing negative consequences.

Instead of recapping the entire season, I’m going to focus on everything wrong with it. There are plenty of other places you can find full reviews of each episode and Season One as a whole.

1. Those familiar with historical weaponry have said the guns and tanks are anachronistic.

2. The term “dumb-ass” did not exist in 1940, unless I’m very much mistaken!

3. Posh, wealthy Robina is a cold, unfeeling antagonist. Not only is she one of the few well-rounded characters, she’s just acting like anyone in her position would. Being rich doesn’t make one an automatic villain.

4. The interracial gay couple in Paris seems to have been included just to tick boxes. This storyline doesn’t feel well-integrated with the others, with far less screentime. The lovers are also a bit too out and indiscreet for their era. Even if you’re in a progressive, Bohemian bubble, the outside world still exists.

5. Nancy would’ve been an extreme rarity, a female investigative journalist and news reporter, yet we don’t see her facing any sexism.

6. We’re supposed to believe someone of Nancy’s age (forties or fifties) has never heard of eugenics or Social Darwinism before? It was hugely popular in the U.S., not just Nazi Germany!

7. Nancy’s incessant meddling and refusal to leave well enough alone leads to a huge tragedy with her neighbors the Rosslers. I predict her causing a similar situation when she’s in the USSR in Season Two.

8. How was Nancy not arrested after her anti-Nazi broadcasts?! She has no concept of the danger loose lips cause in totalitarian countries. (And egads, Helen Hunt’s mask-like facelift is so creepy and distracting!)

9. We’re supposed to believe Nancy and Hr. Rossler disposed of a dead body without anyone seeing anything? Also love the comment “She’s a dead Nazi, and that’s good enough for me.” Did the writers intend a parallel with the modern “Punch a Nazi” slogan, where anyone to the right of Antifa is deemed a Nazi and therefore deserving of violence?

Polish national shero Emilia Gierczak (1925–1945), killed in action at Kołobrzeg

10. Kasia’s surname should be Tomaszeska, not Tomaszeski! Polish surnames have grammatical gender.

11. It seems highly unlikely a Wehrmacht soldier would’ve killed an unarmed civilian so early in the war, even if she spat at him. It smacks of yet another convenient plot development.

12. How is Harry able to take Kasia’s little brother Jan back to England without papers? He could’ve only brought Kasia, his wife (who elects to stay behind and be a freedom-fighter with no apparent awareness of what danger she constantly puts herself into).

13. How did two Polish guys get all the way to freaking Dunkirk?! Huge plot holes! And of course they just happen to end up on the same boat as Harry.

14. And of course Kasia’s brother Grzegorz just happens to end up in a hospital close to Jan’s new home with Robina!

15. Why is Harry sent back to Poland to smuggle out Resistance fighters? Wouldn’t England be more concerned about resupplying them to enable them to continue fighting on their native turf, and wouldn’t a member of the Polish Free Forces be chosen in lieu of an Englishman?

16. How convenient Harry just happens to parachute into the area where Kasia’s stationed!

17. Also convenient how a bomb explodes just as Kasia is being led to the gallows before this, enabling her to escape.

18. And how convenient only Harry and Kasia are left alive after the Nazis attack their outpost!

19. Who the bloody hell leisurely, matter-of-factly wanders around in the middle of a warzone or behind enemy lines?

20. I have so much to say on the beyond-historically-inaccurate depiction of Lois’s out of wedlock pregnancy, I’m saving it for its own post on Wednesday!

21. Robina claims the Nazis didn’t bomb Paris. That’s sure news to me, after I read articles about the June 1940 bombing of Paris!

An unnecessary 21st century makeover

As I’ve said many a time, if you’re uncomfortable with historically-accurate terminology and attitudes, hist-fic isn’t the genre for you. It’s important to separate your own views from ones which might unsettle you but were widespread. E.g., it took me years to feel comfortable using the word Negro in narrative text (beyond just dialogue), but it finally got through to me that the term African–American was really anachronistic.

That commitment to historical accuracy applies perhaps a hundredfold when adapting someone else’s story to the screen. Knock yourself out being anachronistic if you must, but show basic respect to your source material!

That’s exactly the problem with Anne with an E, adopted from Lucy Maud Montgomery’s classic Anne of Green Gables. The screenwriter has openly declared her intention was to “update” it with 21st century Woke values. Laughably, she truly believes the lines between the scant original material she retained and the stuff she invented are seamless. Nope, anyone familiar with the book knows exactly what’s out of place.

By all means, put your own spin on a story that’s already been adapted multiple times. You can draw out things which were unsaid in the original but quite painfully brewing in the background during that era, or emphasise certain themes with parallels to current worries. Fill in gaps with stories of your own creation.

However, you need to stay true to the voice, style, and spirit of the source material instead of taking it in an entirely new direction to correct what you see as unenlightened omissions or embarrassing attitudes. I’ve zero problem with hist-fic including things like racism, bullying, gay and lesbian characters, child abuse, or menarche, but none of that was in the original!

Here’s an idea: If you feel so strongly about checking every single SJW box, create your own story instead of hijacking someone else’s and giving 19th century characters 21st century Woke Stasi values.

The first book in the series was published in 1908 but set in the 1870s. It’s beyond laughable to believe anyone in that era, particularly in a small rural town, would’ve done or tolerated any of this! There are so many outright inventions, distortions, and anachronisms, such as:

1. Anne never adds Marilla and Matthew’s surname to hers with a hyphen!

2. Diana’s maiden aunt Josephine is a lesbian?

3. And hosting a freaking “queer soirée” at her mansion?

4. Teacher Mr. Phillips is a closeted gay man?

5. Rev. Allan is now a raging, heartless misogynist instead of a kindred spirit?

6. Anne never ran back to the orphanage after the misunderstanding re: the missing brooch, and thus Matthew never rode like a madman to bring her back.

7. Gilbert’s dad never dies!

8. Anne never told sex stories to her classmates!

9. The relationship between Anne and Gilbert is twisted into soap opera-esque garbage, almost nothing in common with the source material.

10. Anne was never brutally bullied, despite some early difficulties fitting in.

11. Cole is an invented character, and it goes without saying any gay character would’ve been deep in the closet instead of coming out to anyone he didn’t already know was a friend of Dorothy. Even the most radical, open-minded person wouldn’t have been so nonchalant and accepting.

12. Sebastian is a wonderful character, but he’s also invented. There aren’t any significant Black characters in the books, though The Bog is a real neighborhood in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.

13. There’s no menarche storyline either. People just didn’t openly talk about menstruation in that era!

14. Also no storylines about lost loves Matthew and Marilla had.

15. Anne never investigates her family history at the orphanage or local church.

16. Ka’kwet is also an invented character.

17. Josie not only is engaged to Mr. Phillips, but leaves him at the altar?

18. Anne was brutally abused by her prior caretakers?

I hate this SJW mindset of depicting historical characters as the worst racists, sexists, homophobes, ignoramuses, and bigots who ever lived, while making sure to give the sympathetic characters anachronistic 21st century values. Even the most radical, against the grain people operated within certain parameters.

And if you can’t accept that, do us all a favor and stick to contemporary settings.

GWTW at 80, Part VI (Historical accuracy)

Margaret Mitchell did a great deal of historical research for her novel, which didn’t stop after she found a publisher. She spent six months checking her facts during the editing process. Much of her research was conducted at Atlanta’s Carnegie Library, since razed to build the Atlanta–Fulton Public Library. Its replacement, in the same spot, has a permanent Margaret Mitchell exhibit on the third floor.

But just as with all hist-fic, there are some elements which were uncommon for the era. Unlike many historical novels and films today, though, they’re within the realm of plausibility, and other characters react to them as the anomalies they are, with the obvious notable exception of the romanticised Old South.

The Atlanta Historical Society has hosted many exhibits related to GWTW, among them 1994’s “Disputed Territories: Gone with the Wind and Southern Myths.” Subjects explored included “How true to life were the slaves in Gone with the Wind?” and “Was Scarlett a Lady?”

In many ways, Scarlett perfectly fits the mold of a Southern belle. She dresses the part, understands the importance of marriage, isn’t an intellectual heavyweight, steps up as a volunteer nurse (much as she hates the job), comports herself with dominance over her house slaves.

In other ways, however, Scarlett violates several codes of her culture. It was extremely unusual in that era for white women of means to work outside the home, let alone run a business like Scarlett’s sawmill. She also flouts the dress code with her low-cut gowns, and tries to resist Mammy making her stuff herself before the barbecue near the beginning of the story. Scarlett doesn’t think a normal appetite is unladylike.

In contrast, Melanie fully embodies the archetype of the Southern belle, though her life is much less interesting in consequence. Melanie doesn’t seek work outside the home apart from wartime nursing; she’s utterly devoted to her husband and child; she’s self-sacrificing to a fault; she’s extremely loyal and trusting. She naturally fits the mold, whereas Scarlett chafes against much of it.

Though ages aren’t mentioned in the film, there are several age-gap relationships in the book, and it’s obvious Scarlett is much younger than her second husband Frank even without the film specifying their ages. Frank originally fancied Scarlett’s sister Suellen, who’s about thirty years his junior. Scarlett’s parents are also 28 years apart, and Scarlett and Rhett are 16 and 33 when they meet.

Both Scarlett and Melanie marry at all of sixteen, early in the story. As I mentioned previously, it wasn’t common for 19th century women to marry that young, nor to much-older husbands. On average, first-time brides after Antiquity, with certain specific, notable exceptions (e.g., Medieval Eastern Europe, the U.S. pioneer West), were 18–25, usually near the upper end of that range. Their grooms were typically 1–6 years older, not old enough to be their dads.

In upper-class society, however, there was more precedent of girls marrying in their late teens, and to much-older men. Though this was still unusual, it was somewhat less unusual than in the non-wealthy world.

Even with that caveat, the age gaps in GWTW still weren’t typical! Whereas it might be relatively common to find, e.g., an 18-year-old marrying a 32-year-old, or a 21-year-old marrying a 30-year-old, it was highly unusual to find the massive gaps of GWTW.

Mourning practices in the Victorian era were strict and highly regulated. Scarlett flouts custom by dancing and attending a charity function while wearing widow’s weeds. Widows were expected to wear black for four years, often the rest of their lives. Young, attractive widows transitioning to colours like grey, lilac, and lavender “too soon” were assumed to be sexually promiscuous.

Those mourning relatives, friends, employees, and acquaintances were subject to strict rules too, albeit not as severe as those for widow(er)s. Melanie only has to wear black for six months after her brother Charles dies.

As mentioned in Part V, GWTW takes a very rosy-coloured view of the Old South, one atypical for both races. Though Margaret Mitchell grew up hearing stories of this vanished world and did a lot to further popularise that image through her novel, even she admitted it wasn’t common.

In a 1936 letter to poet Stephen Vincent Benet, she wrote, “It’s hard to make people understand that north Georgia wasn’t all white columns and singing darkies and magnolias.”

Like many people of her generation, however, she believed the Dunning School of Reconstruction, which falsified history in a very damaging way and supported the KKK. It was a very wise decision for the screenwriters to significantly tone down that aspect of the book!