Mary Jo Bang's Inferno

Review by: 
John James

book coverA significant contribution to the ongoing dialogue on translation, Mary Jo Bang’s new version of Dante’s Inferno will certainly turn a few heads. Not only does Bang abandon the author’s renowned terza rima, she uses allusion and colloquialism to render the epic’s esoteric political backdrop accessible to today’s readers.

To most Dantists, this new "translation" may purport sacrilege, but translators of contemporary poetry will likely disagree; Bang’s version is itself a work of art, as much a glimpse into the mind and aesthetic of the translator as any of her previous books. Bang faithfully recreates the tone of Dante’s original, fashioning the same pathos as other English versions—Robert Pinsky jumps to mind, but also John Ciardi and Charles S. Singleton. Readers will recognize many elements of Dante’s original, the “leopard” and “she-wolf” of the first canto, and also Virgil—“Mr. Übermensch,” Bang calls him, “Mr. Man / Of the World.” Bang references a wide variety of texts, placing Shakespeare and Nietzsche alongside Bob Dylan and South Park’s Eric Cartman. Pairing Dante’s medieval politics with pop culture, Bang refocuses Dante’s many cultural critiques and centers them on contemporary readers. In doing so, not only does Bang’s Inferno portend a shift in translation theory, this new version offers an arresting and essential perspective on our nation’s cultural affairs.

In many aspects, Bang’s translation maintains stylistic elements from her previous six books. Readers familiar with Bang will recognize her quotidian syntax, expansive lexicon, and characteristic enjambments. Compare the title piece of Bang’s Apology for Want (University of New England/Middlebury, 1997) with instances from The Inferno. “Apology” opens, “I’ve worried far too much about the eye / of the other” (1-2). “[E]ye” clearly puns on “I,” suggesting the speaker’s neuroticism. She has “worried” far too much about the self. The radical enjambment—quintessentially Bang—severs that self from the qualifying clause, “of the other.” This “eye”/“I” is another’s, and though the speaker expresses concern for that person, she remains syntactically and emotionally separated from that individual.

In Canto II of The Inferno, Bang writes, “I am who I am and thus, I don’t feel / The flames of Hell down here” (92-93). The speaker’s idiosyncratic identity prevents her from affectively communicating with others, which leads to a paralyzing numbness. She claims, “I don’t feel.” That isolation—so particularly Bang—is undermined in the following line, which recontextualizes the voice as Dante’s. Such enjambments are less frequent in The Inferno, evincing Bang’s attempt, as translator, to distance herself from the text. The result is a work by turns playful, somber, and sardonic, exhibiting the plasticity of this voice as it adapts to the range of emotions and experiences throughout the epic.

Similar to her radical enjambments, Bang’s juxtaposition of high and low cultures also transfers from previous books. The ekphrastic pieces of The Eye Like a Strange Balloon (Grove, 2004) engage a broad cultural spectrum, from oil paintings by Jasper Johns to David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Even Elegy (Graywolf, 2009), as solemn as it is, references Icarus and Mickey Mouse. It is no surprise that Bang’s new work includes such a wide purview of allusions, but the references in The Inferno serve a unique purpose. For one, they allow Bang to condense a great deal of information into just a few lines. More importantly, Bang uses them to contemporize and comment on Dante’s political allegory. The penultimate tercet in the first canto reads, “Poet, I beg of you, / By the God you never knew, help me out of this Denmark, / Which threatens to go from bad to worse” (130-32). If you’ve read The Inferno, you are unlikely to recall this reference to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. That’s because it’s not there. Bang uses the allusion to localize Hell as a place rather than an abstract entity. The Italian word is male, meaning “evil” or “pain.” While “evil” captures the intangible burden of Dante’s Catholicism, Bang’s “Denmark” reprimands our cultural readiness to identify nations as military targets in the place of abstract anxiety.

While Bang’s allusions contribute meaningfully to her censure of American culture, their absence from Dante’s original remains problematic. The Inferno is a translation, not an original work, and Bang’s innovations raise questions regarding authorship and artistic license. To what extent does a translator owe allegiance to a source text? How much of a source’s cultural genesis are translators responsible for conveying? Bang’s version obviously opposes the conventional wisdom that the translator should remain "invisible," but how far can translators stretch a text before it is no longer considered a translation? Bang’s Inferno certainly tests our presumptive limits. Her notes alone recall those of Eliot’s The Waste Land, and juxtapositions throughout create fresh intertexts for a new generation of readers. Bang’s version may undesirably alter The Inferno for scholars, who might prefer a line-by-line translation, but it also creates a new form of accuracy, one not burdened by the literal meaning of each line, concerned instead with recreating an affective impression of the work as a whole. In this, Bang certainly succeeds. Moreover, in developing these intertextual relationships, Bang challenges her readers to confront the arbitrary distinctions between "high" and "low" culture, and thus between canonical and dissident art.

Innovations aside, Mary Jo Bang’s version portrays The Inferno in all its power and fury, readily appealing to readers unfamiliar with Dante’s epic and veterans of The Divine Comedy. The language is accessible, even fun, and eschews the remoteness common to translations of ancient and medieval poetry. This version presents new complexities, further augmenting the long list of ‘imperfect’ English translations. Bang’s lexicon is largely colloquial, for example, but her syntax is complex, often contorting her sentences to permit instances of assonance or alliteration. This isn’t a bad thing—for many, that’s the fun of Bang’s translation—but it will certainly forge a division between this book’s potential audiences. The work’s greatest value is its ability to question the translator’s role to represent translator and author alike. If this work’s formal inventions at all presage the future of poetic translation, I anxiously await the result.


John James holds an MFA in poetry from Columbia University, where he received an Academy of American Poets Prize. His poems, essays, and reviews have appeared in Boston Review, the Kenyon Review, DIAGRAM, Pleiades, and elsewhere.

The Inferno
Mary Jo Bang
Graywolf Press, 2012
$35, hardcover, illustrated; ISBN: 1555976190
352 pages