How not to translate Dante

0

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!

IWSG—September odds and sods

4

InsecureWritersSupportGroup

It’s time for another meeting of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group. The first Wednesday of each month, we share struggles, triumphs, quandaries, and fears.

This month’s question is:

How do you define success as a writer? Is it holding your book in your hand? Having a short story published? Making a certain amount of income from your writing?

As I’ve said many a time, though my dream is to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, and my secondary dream is to win the Sydney Taylor Book Award, what I want most of all is immortality through my writing. I want to be remembered as a writer for all time, like Dante and Shakespeare, not someone who’s only praised and known about for a little while before being consigned to the bargain bin.

************************

I really, really struggled with the story I wrote for the IWSG contest. My first idea was quickly abandoned, a story entitled “Illuminated Summer.” It was to be set in Fiesole, Italy, during the summer of 1478, one of the deadliest outbreaks of the Black Death’s second wind. My problem was that I only had some general ideas about what to fill the story with, as much as I pulled together mentally.

Since I liked the characters I crafted in my head so much, though, I decided to save them for a full-length book. Maybe it was a mistake to abandon this story before I even finished one page, but it’s too late now to change that decision.

Then I moved to the idea I’d had originally, using my secondary characters Virgil Rein and Liliána Buchsbaum from my hiatused WIP The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees, and showing the genesis of their romantic relationship in Sweden after the war. It was called “Traces of an Ancient Flame” (a line from The Aeneid and later used in The Divine Comedy in homage). But almost the entire time I was working on it, it just wasn’t clicking.

It was a huge struggle to get over the minimum 5K mark, and that contained a lot of garbage I would’ve edited out in the final draft. At no time besides the opening pages, set in an antiquarian bookstore, did I feel excited about this project; on the contrary, I didn’t want to work on it, and getting as many words as I did was like pulling hens’ teeth.

I had more and more of a sinking feeling that this wasn’t my strongest effort, and that romance didn’t feature prominently enough. The story didn’t want to be primarily a romance, despite those elements being there. It also felt too unfocused and not paced well, with more of an episodic structure instead of a real plot.

I also feel like, should I write a full book about these characters, their romance ought to have started soon after liberation, not only in early December 1947.

I finally decided to scratch that hot mess a day before the deadline, and went back to my material of Cinnimin meeting Levon in 1942 and reworked it into a standalone story exclusively in Cinni’s POV. Yes, I cut it really close, but my heart was only in the final of the three stories. Had I continued forcing the second story that didn’t want to be written, and felt all wrong most of the time, I wouldn’t have been submitting my best work or something I was proud of.

*************************

In other news, I finally renamed my YouTube channel so people can more easily pronounce and remember it. I plan to start adding regular content, including vlogs about writing. It might help with improving my confidence, though I’m afraid I’ll always have the nasal twang of Southwestern Pennsylvania.

Have you ever abandoned a project partway through because it just wasn’t working or didn’t represent what you’re capable of?

IWSG—June odds and sods

11

InsecureWritersSupportGroupIt’s time for another meeting of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group. The first Wednesday of each month, we share struggles, triumphs, quandaries, and fears. This month’s question is:

For how long do you shelve your first draft, before reading it and re-drafting? Is this dependent on your writing experience and the number of stories/books under your belt?

The books I wrote on MacWriteII, ClarisWorks, and AppleWorks were inaccessible to me for up to a decade, due to being either stuck on obsolete file formats on disks or on an older desktop I didn’t bring over all the files from. Obviously, I finally learnt how to convert and open all those file types.

The ones created or saved in MacWriteII have/had a lot of bizarre formatting issues caused by data migration; e.g., floating chunks of text that belong elsewhere in the document and need to be C&Ped back together in their proper order (often breaking off in the middle of words or sentences!), gibberish at the beginning, words I taught the ’93 Mac’s spellcheck, text from files on other disks, symbols in the middle of words, repeated letters, huge indents. That needed addressed before I could even begin editing and assigning them places in my long queue.


As I’ve said many times, it was a blessing in disguise that the original files of Little Ragdoll were held hostage for so many years. There was no way I could’ve salvaged even a halfway decent story by writing around this Grimms’ fairytale on acid. I needed a complete rewrite from scratch and memory, though I kept the same general outline.

Being away from a story for 5–10 years provides one with a whole new set of eyes. Now, I like to wait at least a few months before diving back in. When we begin editing and revising too soon, we’re often blind to mistakes both big and small.

I learnt a big lesson from my mad dash to the finish with And Aleksey Lived in 2018. Since there was almost no time between the day I wrote the last word in the final appendix and the release date, I had to fly through with proofreading. A lot of little errors also turned up in the first printed edition, which I thankfully was able to correct for free.

I’m doing JuNoWriMo for I believe the sixth year, though I’m not hopeful of reaching 50K. All part of the joy of being stuck in a home not my own, with the local libraries still not open to more than brief browsing, and in an open concept house that makes privacy all but impossible. </extreme sarcasm>

I’ll be using June to work on my radical rewrite of the book formerly known as The Very Last, start my new alternative history, and do my final proof-check of the third edition of Little Ragdoll. I also count blog posts as creative non-fiction.

After daydreaming about this for at least 20 years, I’ve finally begun the process of applying to make aliyah (move to Israel). I came up with a lot of stupid excuses and reasons to postpone it, and even let my now-ex talk me out of it. Unfortunately, I’ve aged out of a lot of great opportunities, like work-study programs and volunteering on most kibbutzim.

I’ll be discussing this much more in future posts. If all goes well and I’m approved, I should be there by next summer. Though I used to want to live in Haifa, my dream city now is Tiberias in the Lower Galilee.

In response to the awful events of May, I’ve changed my Twitter display name to my Hebrew name, Chana Esther Dafna.

What are your summer writing plans?

IWSG—April odds and sods

7

InsecureWritersSupportGroupIt’s time for another meeting of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group. The first Wednesday of each month, we share struggles, triumphs, quandaries, and fears. This month’s question is:

Are you a risk-taker when writing? Do you try something radically different in style/POV/etc. or add controversial topics to your work?

I’ve written at length in many prior posts about how, until my early twenties, I often gut-loaded my Atlantic City books with over the top controversial content merely for its own sake, to goad my imagined future censors. In my juvenile mind, edgy and realistic=as over the top as possible.

Part of it was an extreme overreaction to my annoyance at the unrealistic, G–rated goody-goodies in books like The Babysitters’ Club series, kids who never encountered any normal junior high issues like peer pressure, serious fights with parents and siblings, skipping school, secretly drinking beer, etc.

Another reason was because I attended such an awful school from K–10. With no counterexample, I genuinely didn’t grasp how abnormal and concerning it is for preteens to have sex, smoke, drink, do drugs, have unchaperoned wild parties, get into knife fights, wear clothes suit for a nightclub, stay out past midnight, etc.

Without being consciously aware of it, I reveled in the worst of human nature. So many times, my characters came across so unsympathetically because they were so mean-spirited and cruel, above and beyond normal youthful cattiness and rebellion.

I think many times of the talking-to my buddy Bruce got from the junior high music teacher we nicknamed Busload, on account of the parody he wrote of “My Favorite Things.” Bruce tried to defend his assignment by saying, “Yeah, I was being satirical,” and Busload shot back, “This isn’t satirical. This is filth!” I feel much the same way about a lot of the things in my earlier drafts.

While I still don’t believe in treating young people like overgrown babies and glass flowers who can’t handle anything not 100% G-rated, my stance back then was basically “Expose them to everything! It’s no big deal!” I seriously had spoof magazines called Playteen and Playkid, and one of my planned soft sci-fi books had a porn channel for teens!

I really wish more people had had the guts or sense to ask, “These kids are twelve?” Or whatever age they were in any given scene or book. My Atlantic City characters don’t start to read their supposed actual age till they’re about fifteen.

One of my main themes is that real life isn’t like a Norman Rockwell painting or Andy Hardy movie for most people, and that kids are a lot sharper and smarter than many adults give them credit for. But that shouldn’t mean going as over the top as possible in depicting edgy, realistic content.

Hence why I’m leaning so strongly towards finally officially aging them up two years. As it is, they read that way already.

Though my declared project for April Camp NaNo is my radical rewrite of the book formerly known as The Very Last, I think I may also start work on the alternative history about Dante and Beatrice I’ve been wanting to do probably since 2004. For all those years, I only had the most general idea, and I needed a compelling reason for Dante to still write his magnum opus if he never lost Beatrice.

I have so many great ideas now, transforming it from a vague, romantic idea into a saga with lots of twists and turns. Now I only need to think of a good title.

Very, very, VERY unusually for me, I also feel drawn to doing it in first-person instead of my usual third-person omniscient. Since Dante wrote all his major works in first-person, and sometimes broke the fourth wall to directly address his readers, it feels like the most natural POV. I hope I live up to the great responsibility of writing in the voice of one of my literary idols.

Types of autobiographical characters

1

Let’s talk about the different kinds of autobiographical characters one can create. There’s a whole spectrum between ciphers and wish-fulfillment Mary Sues/Gary Stus.

1. The thinly-fictionalised version of yourself. Seriously, why even bother presenting your real-life story as if it were a novel? Just write a memoir or publish your old journals and be done with it! Bully for you that you had an idyllic childhood with no major problems. You might write these stories beautifully, but even a deliberately episodic, slower-paced, character-driven book or series where coming of age IS the plot needs hung on some kind of trajectory and story arc.

Give us tension and stakes, not just a bunch of random episodes or silly, minor dramas that easily, quickly resolve. If you’re drawing solely from your own life, or only slightly tweaking it, odds are you won’t have the kinds of plots and characters that drive along a good yarn.

A lot of these autobiographical or thinly-fictionalised stories also are only interesting if you know the people involved. E.g., you’re charmed by stories of your grandparents playing paper dolls and eating lunch in a piano box, but could care less when anyone else does it. At least use it to further character development or elevate it beyond a random episode.

2. The wish-fulfillment Mary Sue or Gary Stu. This is the kind of character who gets all the job promotions, successful art shows, military advancements, high grades, spicy sex life, etc., which you never had but always wished for. No one wants to read about a perfect character with a charmed life.

3. The bully pulpit for your frustrated failed ambitions. It’s so obvious when a writer uses an autobiographical character, or one with a similar life trajectory, as a way to constantly whine about why s/he didn’t get those military promotions, salary raises, successful art or music career, scholarship, dream job, etc., or to blame it on everyone and everything but oneself.

Maybe it really is unfair how you lost or were never offered those opportunities, like spiteful co-workers, a boss who inexplicably hated you from the jump, or the kids from well-connected families being ushered into your school’s college prep track despite not having very good grades. You can explore that with a story based on your own life, but dwelling on it and ranting so often makes you look unhealthily stuck in the past.

4. A character based strongly on yourself, but with some significant differences. I’ve spoken many times about how Emeline Troy is my Doppelgänger. We both had hyperlexia at age three; the first book we ever read was the adult, uncensored Grimms’ Fairytales; we adore Hermann Hesse; we’re very influenced by Eastern philosophies and religions; we didn’t have our first relationship till age 28; our beaux were both walking DSMs from emotionally incestuous immigrant families, maintaining a hurtful, inappropriate friendship with a deranged ex, and with a bizarre aversion to kissing; we both had menarche a month before our twelfth birthdays; and so much more.

However, I only wish I’d gone to Vassar; I didn’t have a double major in history and German Studies; I didn’t switch to a private school for disadvantaged young women, on full scholarship, late in my sophomore year of high school; I was cheated out of the chance to study Latin my last two years of high school; I don’t have eight siblings; my walking DSM ex is Belarusian, not Hungarian; I didn’t grow up in tenements or in NYC; and I’ve never smoked pot.

5. A character based somewhat on yourself, but fully her/his own person. E.g., this character might have a different religion, ethnic background, political party, or hometown than you, but have a similar family background, personal values, and hobbies. There are also a number of incidents drawn from or based on your own life, but not to the point of a strongly autobiographical story.

6. A character who lets you vicariously explore the path not taken. Maybe you’ve always regretted a certain choice and wished you’d made a different one, or always wondered how your life might’ve turned out had another opportunity been available. E.g., taking school more seriously and qualifying for a full scholarship to a prestigious college, accepting a job offer in another country or state, marrying and having kids earlier or later, getting financial aid for a private school with an excellent music program, studying abroad, not being so provincial, studying architecture instead of business.