The Thick of It
Mary Jo Bang (trans)
Inferno: A New Translation
Graywolf Press, 2012
Mary Jo Bang offers her new Inferno with the hope that this “postmodern, intertextual, slightly slant translation lures readers to a poetic text that might seem otherwise archaic and off-putting”. Accompanied by Henrik Drescher’s desolately fascinating illustrations, her project is undoubtedly ambitious and often powerful. Bang renders the first and most famous book of Dante’s medieval Italian poem in modern, idiomatic English, adapting its vast and now often obscure range of allusions and characters for a modern readership. This is a translation with cultural as well as literary overtones: her references do what Dante’s do, rather than say what they say. The effect is powerful. Bang’s efforts, though, frequently stumble under the weight of her poetic diction, lose rhythmic momentum, and suffer from line breaks which are at times distractingly arbitrary.
To begin at the beginning:
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
It’s difficult to describe a forest:
Savage, arduous, extreme in its extremity. I think
And the facts come back, then the fear comes back.
Dante’s most-quoted lines are powerfully liberated from the dominant tradition of Dante translations, with their often archaised tone and their plethora of “midway through the journey”s. And immediately, as the renewed allusive mechanism starts to whir, this first canto takes in echoes of artists as diverse as John Coltrane and Gerard Manley Hopkins. It is also the first of many allusions to T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land, which creates the sense of a satisfyingly closed intertextual circle: “‘In that case, you have to take a different route / To escape this place that is only rock and the sandy road’”, quoting “What the Thunder Said”.
The range of Bang’s allusions is truly breathtaking, incorporating Confucius, South Park, Shakespeare, Bob Dylan, Edward Hopper, Ponzi schemes, Sylvia Plath, and Styrofoam, to name but a few. The harpies in the wood of the seventh circle suicides have “the face of Wednesday from the Addams Family”. The demons who watch over and brutalise the barrators in the eighth circle are named for infamous serial killers and concentration camp guards (and Donald Rumsfeld…). Ulysses, encountered among the fraudulent counsellors, tells the story of his final mission ‘“to seek new life beyond this sun, / To go where no one has gone before”’, a classical Kirk on a figurative Star Trek. Ultimately, and perhaps inevitably, Milton’s and Dante’s Lucifers merge.
At times, as in Canto XII’s representation of murderers, rapists, and despots, it is Drescher’s illustrations which provide the most striking updates to the poem’s points of reference. While the sinners described in the text remain the same (the similes are given a post-Dantean overhaul), the opening illustration depicts the 20th century’s great villains, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, et al. boiling in blood under the centaurs’ armed guard. This symbiotic relationship between text and image recalls the long history of manuscript illuminations, which traditionally both illustrated and glossed their texts.
These allusions are acknowledged in the extensive (not exhaustive, but this never claims to be a scholarly work) notes provided after each canto to explain both Dante’s and Bang’s references. This tendency toward self-exegesis is appropriately Dantean (his Vita Nuova and Convivio are both structured as commentaries on his own poetry) and it is as interesting when an apparent intertext is not mentioned as when it is noted and justified. The entrance to hell proper in Canto IV, “a deep and melancholy chasm / Echoing with a roar of endless anguish”, reeks of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”, its “deep romantic chasm […] haunted / by woman wailing for her demon lover”. This apparent debt goes un-noted, reminding us of the power of subconscious intertextual influence which slips through the net even in a poem as explicitly, self-consciously allusive as this one.
While generally Bang’s points of reference are effective and unstrained one choice in particular is somewhat odd: Dante’s bella scola (beautiful school) of exalted pagan poets, condemned to hell but granted some amelioration of their torment thanks to the fame their talents still generate for them on Earth, becomes “the Eton of poetry”, a choice justified by Percy Bysshe Shelly’s attendance at the school, where “he was mercilessly bullied”. The choice of a place where a poet was persecuted seems at odds with a grouping of poets who may be in the first circle, Limbo, but whose poetic prowess allows them a lesser torment than many of their pagan peers.
Another issue is exemplified in Inferno‘s most famous (and most famously “poetical”) episode, Canto V’s meeting between Paolo and Francesca, namely the inconsistency of rhythmic momentum which is the most troubling aspect of this translation. When Francesca describes the moment of their undoing she recounts:
We were reading about the longed-for kiss
The great lover gives his Guinevere, when that one
From whom I’ll now never be parted,
Trembling, kissed my lips.
That author and his book acted for us like a Galehault,
An assisting go-between. We read no more that day.
The fourth line of this excerpt offers some hope of metrical (or even just rhythmic) drive, but it is preceded and followed by lines which stumble over their wordiness. “That author and his book…”, for example, continues the momentum just established only for it to be dashed on the unrhythmic “acted for us like a Galehault”, which overbalances the line. The comings and goings of rhythmic impetus are only exacerbated by the line breaks which, in slavishly following the three-line strophe structure commonly imposed on English translations by Dante’s terza rima, often feel arbitrary and not intentional. This jarring versification, if anything, obstructs natural speech patterns without any metrical justification.
This Inferno is, at times cogent, inventive, and beautiful. But for all its innovation and moments of excellence, Bang’s audacious modernising translation often loses its way, leaving us to struggle through a wood of distracting line breaks and the odd unfortunate inaccuracy. Her project would have benefited from a more considered approach to its form: its versification sometimes feels like fractured prose rather than “the dominant music of contemporary poetry”. Dante’s own poem has often been criticised for unpoetical moments (Benedetto Croce’s loud voice comes to mind), but such missteps are redeemed by the relative ease of the original Italian, with its rhyme scheme and the metrical strictures of hendeccasyllabic verse. The absence of a momentum such as that generated by Dante’s terza rima, the engine of the original Italian Commedia, leaves us with the sense of a stuttering starter motor on a cold morning, which keeps promising to burst into life but ultimately dies again.
After the publication of this review, Mary Jo Bang got in touch to say that she has made various changes to the advance proof on which it was based, including to the lines from Canto V quoted above, the second tercet of which now reads:
Trembling, kissed my lips.
That author and his book played the part
Of Gallehault. We read no more that day.
Similarly, she tells me, the line breaks, initially restricted by concerns about page layout, have been restructured at the points she found to be most awkward.
I look forward to seeing the final product and how these structural changes alter the effect of the poem as whole.
David Bowe is reading for a DPhil in Italian at St Hilda’s College, Oxford.