"This Is About Living": Translating Dante with Mary Jo Bang

Emily Johnson
November 11, 2021
Mary Jo Bang headshot

When it comes to Dante, acclaimed poet and translator Mary Jo Bang ’98 is all about being as vernacular as possible.

Bang joined Associate Professor Susan Bernofsky on October 27, 2021, in a Zoom event to discuss her translation of Dante’s Purgatorio, her guiding principles for approaching Dante, and the specific choices she’s made in conceiving of this translation.

Bang published her free-verse translation of Inferno in 2013 with Graywolf Press, and eight years later, Purgatorio in 2019, also with Graywolf. She is currently at work on Paradiso.

Her work with Dante is unique in the kind of colloquial register it uses. Not only does Bang dispose of the Italian poet’s complex terza rima form in favor of free verse, but she also incorporates modern, sometimes pop-cultural allusions. 

“You’ve done a vernacular translation of an important vernacular poem, in a sense,” Bernofsky said, “It sounds like you, but it sounds like you-Dante.”

Readers of Bang’s Divine Comedy translation will find important people referred to as “VIPs;” when a place is empty, it’s like “Wall Street on the weekend;” the she-wolf of Inferno’s first canto has a “bitch-kitty face.” 

Bang even uses an Elton John reference in Purgatorio, referring to lives snuffed out like “a candle in the wind.” 

“I felt that if there were hints of our time, we would be better able to see ourselves in it,” Bang said. She does regret having forgotten to include a Bruce Springsteen reference in Purgatorio, but Bernofsky suggested she could always work it into Paradiso. (A student in the chat agreed: “the Boss would [definitely] be in heaven.”)

“I think I fell into the voice just by virtue of wanting it to be colloquial,” Bang explained.

Her motivation for this style comes back to Dante himself: “He says that literary Latin is the most noble, and sublime, but because of that it overwhelms a poem. A poem should be written in a language that has warmth to it. It should be written in the language with which you speak to your beloved, your friend, your family.” Dante wanted the poem to be available to everyone. 

“He also said he wanted the poem to change over time,” Bang continued, “and that literary Latin is frozen in time, and the vernacular isn’t.”

As Bang discusses her process with Dante, a poet who lived and worked some 700 years ago, it feels like she’s describing working with a colleague or a contemporary—someone she knows.

One can’t help but feel that the immediacy of this relationship between translator and translated is part of what makes her Divine Comedy feel so close, vivid, and relevant.

While other translators have been swayed to elevate Dante’s voice, effectively bringing it back into the rarified realm of literary Latin, “I felt that what I was doing was actually respecting the very reasons that he had given for writing in the vernacular,” Bang said.

“The other thing that elevation does is that it tamps down the difference between people’s voices,” she went on, “all of the dialogue sounds like it’s being spoken by the same person.”

For Bang, one of the most salient features of the Comedy is that it’s about how people act in life, and how they tell their stories; maintaining the integrity and differences in character’s voices was essential. As Bang puts it, “How do you make that apparent unless they can speak their personalities?”

Asked by Bernofsky what it was like to live with weighty spiritual questions for the duration of her journey with Dante, Bang said she doesn’t consider the Comedy to be about what happens after we die, but rather about how we should live, how we can be better to each other.

She pointed to the political context in which Dante was writing—a fractured Italy, where leaders refused to cooperate for the common good, and was reminded of the current state of Washington. 

In her reading from Canto 8, a section which foreshadows Dante’s own political exile, Bang’s verse describes Dante and Sordello looking at the valley of failed kings and rulers, who in Dante’s view, didn’t do enough to heal Italy.

“He makes it quite explicit,” Bang said, “that this is about living, and it’s about when you don’t take responsibility as a leader or as a citizen.”

Bang talked about compromise as an essential part of the translation process, which she says is a “tragic lesson” she learned doing photography. Too much light can wash out a photograph; too little can obscure details in the shadows. She asked a teacher how to achieve enough detail in both light and dark, and was met with the unpleasant fact: you can’t. There are techniques to compensate, but you always have to choose.

The translator, especially of poetry, is always juggling sound, rhythm, line length, meaning, register, tone, all at once. It’s a process reliant on stepping back and assessing: “well I don’t have enough of this one, let’s see what I can do,” Bang described, “In translation there is no perfect.”