In 2006, poet Mary Jo Bang came across Caroline Bergvall’s “VIA (48 Dante Variations)”, a pastiche poem containing all the translations of Dante’s first stanza. Hell Bergvall was able to find at the British Library. The famous opening lines – which speak of the loss of Dante, halfway through his life, in a dark wood – are simple and proper in the original Tuscan dialect. Yet, no two translations sound exactly the same. Bang liked the piece so much that she thought she would try her hand at the stanza and see what she would do with Dante’s Italian. The exercise led her to spend the next seven years translating all Hellbefore continuing to work on the rest of his divine comedy. Now his vision of Dante Purgatorythe lesser-known but much-loved second hymn to his epic poem has hit shelves — just in time for the 700th anniversary of the great poet’s death.
Bergvall’s “Dante Variations” are a good place to start a translator. By finding so many different ways of saying the same thing, his pastiche testifies to the creativity of translation, it is a beautiful imprecision. Dante is fabulous The comedy never received what could be called a definitive English version, or even definitive enough to slow down the constant stream of new attempts. Over the centuries, dozens of translators (or hundreds, when it comes to Hell), have created less an overall understanding of Dante’s journey from hell to heaven than a chorus of variations of his song, both fragmentary and prismatic. This might sound like a wonderful thing in the abstract, but since most people only read one translation at a time and print out the one they know first, it can be a little frustrating to try. to make an informed decision on which divine comedy you may like better.
By almost any standard, Bang’s translation is the most liberal interpretation of Dante available in English. Her Hellwhen it reached readers in 2012, scandalized purists and delighted postmodernists – a vision of hell with references to Pink Floyd, South Park, and Steven Colbert. There was something unique in the 21st century about it – even, one might say, something unique in the 2010s; no mean feat for a text first written over 700 years ago. The publication of Purgatory finds her emboldened in this process; Canto I alone contains allusions to Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, Richie Havens and Cyndi Lauper (as well as more familiar poetic backgrounds like Lord Byron, Emily Dickinson, Hilda Doolittle and Lewis Carroll).
Bang does not seek to pass herself off as a specialist in medieval Italian and defends her ignorance of the ancient language as a means of better questioning her. “I’m going back to [each] the origins of the word, explore its history, research how Dante used it, read tons of commentaries and many more translations,” she said. Recount The Southeast Review recently. “And then I try to capture what I think Dante intends to say, drawing on the research I’ve done and what I know as a poet.” Obviously, this last step includes thinking about which excerpts from Dante’s English language remind him the most. The result is an immediate phraseology for Bang, as idiosyncratic as her own experience as a reader.
As absurd as a medieval text with a snark inserted over selfies and Donald Rumsfeld might sound, there’s some historical logic to it. by Dante divine comedy hit terribly close to home when first published, filled with judgments of ancient heroes and near-contemporaries alike. It was also politically irreverent, like when he threw the still-living Pope Boniface VIII into the eighth circle of hell for simony. And, especially in the final sections, after Dante had passed through this realm of suffering into spaces of redemption and bliss, it was a way of mourning and uplifting lost friends. (Bang knows something about elegies; she composed a book about them in 2009, a response to her son’s untimely death.)
Dante elevated many of his contemporaries from historical obscurity to literary immortality simply by presenting them as minor characters in his verses. In Canto IV of Purgatory, we meet a musician named Belacqua among a group sitting under a rock (in the language of Bang: “like a bunch of good-for-nothing lazy people”), reluctant to ascend to Heaven (“Well, Mr. Lightning, you ascend straight ahead “). Although Belacqua’s real-life identity is still debated among scholars, his afterlife is a legend – a few lines from Dante gave Samuel Beckett the inspiration to use this character time and time again, to embody the great themes of inertia and futility of the latter. While they can certainly be obscure, there is no caustic reference in Dante’s enduring text, a bounty that this new version is more than happy to take advantage of.
I admire the audacity of Bang’s freewheeling translation. Taking the lesson of Bergvall’s “Dante Variations” to heart, she has no interest in pursuing the impossible dream of a definitive text, and instead chooses to make a divine comedy who resembles him the most, the most like now. It may be the first The comedy to make it an English that sounds genuinely comical, and its mischievous sense of fun, though it can sometimes distract (and in a few cases even undermine) the points Dante is trying to make, faithfully makes it echo in spirit and intention. The epic’s dizzying ups and downs – from the diabolical schadenfreude of other people’s suffering to the blinding transcendence of their salvation – are at their strongest in Bang’s heterodox verses. While some of his neologisms are sure to annoy almost anyone who reads them, like when Currado Malaspina, awaiting entrance to purgatory, tells us he “was once a VIP,” his overall sentiment strikes me as delightful and true.
And she is better. Absent from my reading of her HellI was shocked at times in Purgatory where she seems to improve the text beyond its original constraints, expanding its possible meanings with the help of several hundred years of history. This is the Canto X copy, where Dante, mounted on the first cornice of Mount Purgatory (where the sin of pride is excoriated), stands before a cliff of “white marble / Encrusted with engravings whose similar / Would outclass Polycletus and Nature.
These engravings, depicting biblical scenes, are so well rendered that Dante spends several stanzas imagining them moving, and even talking. The scene is strange, and surely an imaginative leap for early readers of this era; Bang, however, wastes no time comparing it to what it most reminds him of – “a delicate form of stop-motion animation”, simply noting in his endnotes that “Dante imagined visible language (visible speech) anticipated talkies by some six hundred years. Which is true enough, and more interesting than hemming with the original intention.
At the end of the song, the proud themselves appear, laden with rocks that match the size of their sin. “They were leaning more or less / Based on more or less weight on the back; / Even the most patient, crying, // Seemed to say, ‘I can’t go on (I will go on).’ The last line here is exceptional, a direct reference to Samuel Beckett’s literary mantra, from the last line of his novel the nameless (1953). This is of course not how Dante originally wrote it – other translators translate the original Tuscan, “Più non posso”, as “I can no longer”.
The parenthesis is new. But to incorporate Beckett, himself so influenced by Purgatory, back in the book creates a literary ouroboros that spans centuries, and allows the possibility of improving the text while preserving the original meaning. It also tells the story better. Penitents must go on, just like Dante and like Bang (who started translating the first songs of his Paradise), beyond the duration of their existence. Their reward, and ours, is the final prize at the end of each canticle of Dante divine comedyone as startling as it is overwhelming – a glimpse of the cosmos.
Purgatory by Dante, translated by Mary Jo Bang is published by Graywolf Press and is available online and in independent bookstores.