Mary Jo Bang's translation of Dante's Inferno replaces his original references with more current ones like Bob Dylan, the paintings of Rodin, and Star Trek. The result is Dante for the next generation. Here, she tells us her method for modernizing the epic.
In translating the Inferno, I knew I couldn’t imagine what it was like to be Dante—I wasn’t born in the 13th century, I wasn’t male, Italian, Florentine, Catholic, and a political exile—but I am a poet and I thought if I could wear that mantle as I did the translation, I might at least intuit how he had put his poem together and try to replicate aspects of that. I could translate the poem into colloquial English, for instance, and in that way mirror Dante’s radical decision to write the poem in the Tuscan vernacular, instead of in the more traditional, and loftier, literary Latin—which he rejected for the poem because, as he wrote in a letter, it was frozen in time.
Although his nine-circle Hell is clearly an imaginary construct, in which Greek myth and history are treated as equals, he created a sense of verisimilitude by weaving into his poem place-names and cultural artifacts, and by creating well-defined characters—some based on real people, some pure literary invention. I wondered whether, if I kept the poem’s overall framework intact, I might be able to make occasional substitutions in order to make Dante’s Hell seem like it also belonged to the present moment. I wanted the poem to have the same allegorical power it had then—to be a cautionary tale that speaks with urgency about our human foibles: our hubris, hypocrisy, deceptions, betrayals and greed. It’s more or less a chronicle of the ways in which we fail to embody the ideal of excellence.
My allusions—Prufrock, Star Trek, Jekyll and Hyde—are elements in today’s vast cultural landscape. So are Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Susan Sontag, and Stephen Colbert. Dante’s time and place, and his consciousness, are in the original Inferno; in my translation, a contemporary consciousness has been folded into the poem.
An example: At the end of Canto V, after listening to Francesca’s poignant story of her and her lover Paolo’s fall from grace, the character Dante faints from the intensity of his sense of compassion. He comes to at the beginning of Canto VI and finds he’s in the third circle of Hell, a place presided over by Cerberus, the three-headed dog from Greek myth. The shades lie in the mud and howl like dogs as they’re pelted from above by a sleety mix of foul-smelling sewer water. As Dante and Virgil walk over the shades, one sits up and asks whether Dante recognizes him, since he was also Florentine. Dante says no, but perhaps his face is distorted now from his suffering. He asks his name. The shade answers: In Florence they use to call me Ciacco, because I was a glutton.
In Italian, when Ciacco (a shortening of Giacomo) is used as a nickname, it means “hog” or “glutton.” Unlike most of the characters in the poem, Dantists haven’t been able to connect this character to a historical person, which means the name alone cleverly does the work of defining the character’s flaw. There’s also a sly form of divine justice here, with the gluttonous forced to wallow like pigs in manure-scented mud.
As a translator, I needed to find a name that would signify gluttony for American readers in 2012, the way the name Ciacco did for Dante’s Italian readers in the 1300’s—a name that wasn’t attached to a real person, that would gesture to piggishness, and that would reflect a wry sense of humor. I thought of the animated character Eric Cartman from the television series South Park. Eric is defined by his persistent selfish gluttony. In two episodes he’s called “Little Piggy”; at the end of one, he reprises the role of the Looney Tunes character Porky Pig by signing off with “That’s all, folks!” He seemed a perfect fit and all the more because sound-wise, the names Eric, Cartman, Ciacco, and Giacomo all share a hard c. For those readers who weren’t familiar with Eric Cartman, I could have a note, just as other translators provide a note that explains how the name Ciacco works in the Italian.
Another example: The eighth circle of Hell, where the fraudulent are punished, is called Malebolge. The circle is divided into ten concentric ditches. In each ditch, sinners suffer consequences based on the specific type of fraud they perpetrated on earth. The fifth ditch is for grafters: bribe-takers, corrupt politicians, and the like. Since they operated under cover, they’re now submerged in a river of boiling tar; any who try to escape, or even cool off above the surface of the pitch, are stabbed back down by winged devils with pitchforks and grappling irons. Those who were “on the take” now take a piece of the fork. These devils, called Malebranche (“evil claws”), are crude to the point of burlesque. “Wanna see me poke his butt?” one asks; the other answers, “You gotta make sure you really gouge it.”
One of the devils is named Alichino, which combines wings (ali) with harlequin (arlecchino), a devil-clown character from medieval passion plays. When I began to think about a substitute name that would suggest a modern devil-clown, someone who would deserve to be in Dante’s Hell, I remembered John Wayne Gacy, a serial killer who entertained at children’s parties as a clown. The media at the time dubbed him the “Killer Clown.” Found guilty of raping and murdering thirty-three young men, some of whose corpses were found in a crawl space beneath his home, Gacy seemed an apt embodiment of an evil devil-clown.
Dantists speculate that the individual names Dante chose for the devils may be derisive corruptions of the names of the political leaders who exiled him from Florence. Translators often have fun with these names, since it appears Dante himself was having fun. That said, even when Dante is having fun in the Inferno, he’s also emphatically serious about the evil humans do and the punishment they deserve.