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"The banners of the King of Hell come forth"
September 11, 2012 12:26 PM   Subscribe

Mary Jo Bang has a new translation of Dante's Inferno in contemporary English.

Illustrations by Henrik Drescher.

Bang:
I felt that a contemporary translation that more closely approximated spoken English would better match Dante’s original intent to create a text that could be read and understood by all.
reviews from: Quarterly Conversation, Brooklyn Rail, Vanity Fair.

A passage, hosted on The Awl.

The beginning:
Stopped mid-motion in the middle
Of what we call a 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.

Death, I think, can only be slightly more bitter.
posted by the man of twists and turns (28 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
As a reminder:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier rinova la paura!

Tant’ è amara che poco è più morte;

posted by chavenet at 12:30 PM on September 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Perdition Blue.
posted by Egg Shen at 12:32 PM on September 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


As a Dante enthusiast, I thought this sounded like a great idea until I read that translation of the opening lines and was completely let down. Compare it to Mandelbaum's excellent translation:

When I had journeyed half of our life's way,
I found myself within a shadowed forest,
for I had lost the path that does not stray.

Ah, it is hard to speak of what it was,
that savage forest, dense and difficult,
which even in recall renews my fear:

so bitter-death is hardly more severe!

posted by The World Famous at 12:36 PM on September 11, 2012 [15 favorites]


These efforts are always more interesting yet less durable than the "outrage" about them makes them seem. As if a "stunt" translation will somehow supersede a poetic one (like, say, Pinsky's, in this case.) That said, I didn't ask for an Inferno with Velcro, swiftboating and Steven Colbert.
posted by chavenet at 12:37 PM on September 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


"extreme in its extremity"? Yeesh, that's an ugly phrase. You wouldn't think a translator would go there unless pretty forcefully lead by the original text.

Not that one should judge a translation by a few opening lines, of course.
posted by yoink at 12:40 PM on September 11, 2012


"extreme in its extremity"

That's what she said!

(literally, that's what she said)
posted by found missing at 12:47 PM on September 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


That said, I didn't ask for an Inferno with Velcro, swiftboating and Steven Colbert.

We get the Hell we deserve, not the Hell we want. Am partial to Anthony Esolen's translation of Dante, myself.
posted by jquinby at 12:50 PM on September 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


My suspicion is she's not a very good poet and therefore not the ideal person to translate a poem. Her grasp on the contemporary moment seems shaky too. But I'm just going on the excerpts. There are some duff bits in the original too, I'm sure. If you do a gadgety translation, though, the danger is that you're say "look at me" rather than "look at this piece of foreign literature which is amazing".
posted by tigrefacile at 12:53 PM on September 11, 2012


When we turned thirty-five
I found myself in a dark forest
the straight road lost.

Christ. It's hard to tell you how hard
those woods were, savage, scraping, gripping -
to think is to fear again

and so bitter that I think of death kindly.
posted by Your Disapproving Father at 1:02 PM on September 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


There are some duff bits in the original too, I'm sure.

I've read it several times in the original and studied it with recognized leading scholars on the subject, and I did not notice any duff bits.
posted by The World Famous at 1:03 PM on September 11, 2012


I did not notice any duff bits

Some of that terza rima was naff.
posted by Egg Shen at 1:11 PM on September 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


yoink: I assumed that "extreme in its extremity" was meant to be an echo of "selva selvaggia". Doesn't make it any less clunky though.

On the whole, though, I really like the linked Canto XXXIV. It's the most straightforward and natural translation of Dante I've seen, though I can see how references to things like wind turbines might be a bit jarring.
posted by pont at 1:18 PM on September 11, 2012


I forced myself through a forgotten version of Inferno some years back. I recall many references to Dante's contemporaries, to such an extent that I had to use a companion volume to understand. I can see how it would be tempting to bring it into a more current state, if only to ease that understanding. It must be bonus fun to choose which current political figures replace Dante's original targets.

I am sensing a blog. Category: Cartoons.
I'll start with the 9th circle because it's easiest: Family Circus.
posted by joecacti at 1:46 PM on September 11, 2012


Wait, where's the bit where Dante fights all manners of hellbeasts with the scythe he stole from Death?
posted by kmz at 1:52 PM on September 11, 2012


Does she also translate the pop-culture references into current pop-culture?
posted by Legomancer at 1:53 PM on September 11, 2012


I just bought the Mandelbaum translation. No, seriously, I bought it at a used bookstore after this post was made and before I read it.
posted by madcaptenor at 2:05 PM on September 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Does she also translate the pop-culture references into current pop-culture?

Virgil is translated as "Lou Reed."
posted by The World Famous at 2:07 PM on September 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Now where is the $0 cost e books?
posted by rough ashlar at 2:12 PM on September 11, 2012


Also, comparing the sample of Bang's translation to the corresponding bit of Mandelbaum, I just want to scream that what Bang has done is not poetry. Bang is doing prose with line breaks.
posted by madcaptenor at 2:15 PM on September 11, 2012


Does Dante meet Mussolini this time?
posted by Chrysostom at 2:25 PM on September 11, 2012


John Ciardi's translation. None better. Mandelbaum's is an attempt to do about four things at once, and it does all of them sort of okay; but the heart of Dante is the story, and if you want the poetry or the rhythm you probably should do what I do and read bits and pieces of the Italian to yourself as you go along. (I don't understand a word of Italian, but I do like the way it sounds.)
posted by koeselitz at 2:34 PM on September 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


madcaptenor: “Also, comparing the sample of Bang's translation to the corresponding bit of Mandelbaum, I just want to scream that what Bang has done is not poetry. Bang is doing prose with line breaks.”

Other things to scream:

'This isn't prose! It's various words arranged into sentences which have then been placed in sequence to form paragraphs!'

'This isn't a painting! It's various colored pigments placed on a canvas and hung on the wall!'

'This isn't music! It's a mixture of sounds created by manipulating various instruments!'
posted by koeselitz at 2:39 PM on September 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Stopped mid-motion in the middle
Of what we call a life, I looked up and saw no sky—
Only a dense cage of leaf, tree and twig. I was lost.



No..no..no...fucking NO!

As someone for whom Italian is his first language, that first paragraph is a massive fail on a number of fronts, that stops ME dead in my tracks and not wanting to go any further;

The first being the idea that the narrator is "stopped," mid-motion, he's not stopped, he's deeply lost in the middle years of his life trying to not lose the thread to what's important to him, and he feels as if he's in a dark wood, trying very hard not to become lost on some false path that strays from that and causes him to be more lost, from what and who he really is...

For me there's a sense of nervous energy and danger and movement in that first stanza, the inexorable movement of a life through time...and through the inevitable path from birth to it's end (death).

Mandelbaum gets a tiny bit too caught up on recreating a meter and rhyme, but is much much better. I haven't read anything better, yet and where Pinksy does a lovely job keeping the language entertaining and bristling, but he has a tendency to embellish for the terza rima.

Things is anything that gets away from the incredible riveting and mesmerizing aspects of the story itself, which is as great as anything: Dante and Virgil's friendship, the different actually hilarious, yet illuminating, come-uppances in the different rings of hell, and the various entertaining characters who appear and the ultimate beauty of the ideal and all encompassing love Dante feels for Beatrice, is getting away from the wickedly devastating satirical comedy and spirit of the thing.

In a nutshell: If you're not compelled and pulled in, laughing, and nodding your head in amused agreement to the richly imagined punishments while you're reading (or being read) the Inferno, something is very very wrong.

You don't stop Dante in the middle of his woods, at the beginning of one of the most amazing journey's in all literature. He has a long long long way to go until he finally sees the sun come up again...there's no stopping.
posted by Skygazer at 3:15 PM on September 11, 2012 [9 favorites]


He has a long long long way to go until he finally sees the sun come up again

Or at least the stars.
posted by The World Famous at 3:33 PM on September 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Virgil is translated as "Lou Reed."

Hmmmm, I don't think I'm gonna be checking this one out.
posted by smoke at 4:54 PM on September 11, 2012


I was kidding. As far as I can tell, she kept Virgil as Virgil.
posted by The World Famous at 4:58 PM on September 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh thank god for that.
posted by smoke at 5:27 PM on September 11, 2012


So what would she do with Paradiso? That would be the real test.
posted by redbeard at 7:36 PM on September 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


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