Afterwords, Commentary

Afterwords // Deep Circles: Mary Jo Bang Talks Translation at Hugo House

by Jack Chelgren | Special Projects Intern
Mary Jo Bang

Near the beginning of Disney’s first Pirates of the Caribbean film, a kohl-eyeshadowed Johnny Depp, behind bars as Captain Jack Sparrow, issues this warning to a pair of treacherous former crewmates: “The deepest circle of hell is reserved for betrayers and mutineers.” He’s alluding to Dante’s Inferno, wherein the ninth and most abject stratum of the underworld—not to mention the permanent residence of Satan himself—is that of treachery. Odd though it may seem, Depp’s admonition proved highly apropos on Friday, when the poet Mary Jo Bang visited Richard Hugo House to give a talk on translation, as a part of a new lecture series on craft entitled Word Works. The Dante/Depp association arose not only because Bang has just released an acclaimed and zanily modern new translation of the Inferno—one in which, alongside nods to Muammar Gaddafi, Star Trek, and South Park’s Eric Cartman, Jack Sparrow might fit right in—but also because much of Bang’s talk pivoted on questions of treachery and fidelity in translation: what is it to be “faithful” to a text that one translates? How does one translate accurately?

In fact, Bang’s whole foray into Dante began as an inquiry into treacherous translation. She recalls coming across a found poem by Catherine Bergvall entitled “VIA,” which consists of forty-eight numbered translations of the first tercet of the Inferno, each followed by an attribution listing the translator’s name and the year of publication (click here to listen at PennSound). Bang was struck by the simple fact that no two translators had done it the same way; every translation of those three, ostensibly unambiguous lines of verse differed markedly from the others. This, she said, led her to wonder if there really was a “right way” to do it. “What if,” she remembers asking herself, “I didn’t have to be absolutely faithful to the original?”

Bang doesn’t approach translation as a free-for-all, a process with no accountability to the source text, an opportunity to hijack another poet’s work and sail away with it as Jack Sparrow might a prized frigate. To the contrary, she emphasized throughout her lecture the simultaneous difficulty and necessity of handling the form of Dante’s original, a chain of tercets held together by an interlocking rhyme scheme, collectively known as terza rima. Over the centuries, translators of Dante have employed different strategies to address the terza rima, with the general consensus that it doesn’t work very well in English. Bang, instead of writing in rhyme or meter, employs alliteration, assonance, and internal rhyme to approximate the regular cadences and sounds of the Italian:

DANTE: Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita

mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,

ché la diritta via era smarrita.

BANG: 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 is not that Bang rejects the challenges and responsibilities typically associated with translation, for even as she radically questions and suspends many long-held assumptions about how Dante should read in English, she does so ultimately in the hope of creating a more truthful rendering of the text. Bang discussed in her lecture how many translations of the Inferno are written in elevated, renaissance-style English—a trend she speculates stems from translators’ desire to acknowledge the poem’s age and the disparities between modern English and fourteenth-century Italian. Yet Bang argued that such piously old-fashioned renderings of the Inferno were flawed from the start, since the fourteenth-century English of Dante’s contemporaries differed drastically from the seventeenth-century Elizabethan variety favored by these translators. A truly historically accurate translation of the Inferno in this sense would have to sound a lot less like Milton or Shakespeare and a lot more like the Middle English of Chaucer. Bang also felt that her predecessors’ ornate and anachronistic renderings of the Inferno overlooked Dante’s decision to write the poem in vernacular Tuscan Italian rather than the far more esteemed, rarified, and literary Latin—a deliberate and exceptional choice indicating his desire for the poem to be direct and relevant.

It was with all this in mind that Bang began casually writing a new Inferno in modern English, seeking to give the text new currency through allusions to contemporary figures and pop culture; quotations from recent writers like Baudelaire, Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, Sylvia Plath, and Bob Dylan; and visceral, graphic novel-style illustrations by Henrik Drescher. “I wanted the poem to speak to contemporary audiences,” Bang attested early in the lecture, and to accomplish this, she modernized as many nonessential names, places, and phenomena as she could while still preserving the import and structure of Dante’s original. In Bang’s version, a harlequin tar-pit devil becomes the Illinois clown-killer John Wayne Gacy, Jr.; Ciacco from the circle of gluttony becomes Eric Cartman from South Park; jelly becomes jell-o; Dante’s complaint to Virgil at the beginning of Canto III, styled in one translation as “‘Master, their meaning is difficult for me,’” becomes simply “‘Sir,’ I said, ‘this is harsh.’”

To hear Bang tell it, these audacities don’t strike her as audacious at all, perhaps because she didn’t start out with the intention to translate the whole poem; it wasn’t until she got a residency in Bellagio and picked up an Italian-English dictionary that she began to worry about finishing the whole work, let alone about the literal accuracy of what she was doing. Even Friday at Hugo House, accuracy for Bang remained primarily a question of how best to carry the experience of reading Dante across the historical and linguistic gulfs that separate him from us, as opposed to one of replicating particularities like the original names and syntax. “I’m not a translator,” she stated flatly, and it may be this attitude of self-avowed amateurism that has allowed her to adopt such a revisionist stance toward translation. Or perhaps Bang is a translator, but not the kind we’re used to—let’s call her a poet-translator (for aren’t all poets translators to some degree, if only of their own thoughts and experiences?)—the kind of translator who asks us to consider how “unfaithfulness” to a translated text might elliptically become faithful, how treachery in translation might ultimately bring us closer to a truth.


Word Works is a new series presented by Richard Hugo House featuring talented writers discussing a particular element of craft and reading from their own work. The next speaker will be prose author Pam Houston, who will discuss dialogue. For dates and information about the rest of the series, visit the Hugo House website.

Mary Jo Bang’s Inferno: A New Translation, is available now in cloth and paperback from Graywolf Press, and features illustrations by Henrik Drescher. It was named an Academy of American Poets Notable Book of 2012, and one of Top 100 books of 2012 by the Kansas City Star. Click here to read Bang’s translation of the first canto.