A Freewheeling Translation of Dante’s Purgatorio

In 2006, the poet Mary Jo Bang came across Caroline Bergvall’s “VIA (48 Dante Variations),” a pastiche poem containing every translation of the first stanza of Dante’s Inferno Bergvall could find in the British Library. The famous opening lines — which are about Dante being lost, midway through life, in a dark wood — are simple and decorous 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 own hand at the stanza, and see what she made out of Dante’s Italian. The exercise led her to spend the next seven years translating all of Inferno, before continuing to work on the rest of his Divine Comedy. Now, her take on Dante’s Purgatorio, the lesser-known yet much-loved second canticle of his epic poem, has hit the shelves — just in time for the 700th anniversary of the great poet’s death.

Bergvall’s “Dante Variations” is an auspicious place for a translator to start. In finding so many different ways of saying the same thing, her pastiche is a testament to the creativity of translation, it’s beautiful inaccuracy. Dante’s fabulous Comedy has never received what one might call a definitive English version, or even one definitive enough to slow the steady stream of new attempts. Over the centuries, dozens of translators (or hundreds, when it comes to just the Inferno), have created not so much a comprehensive understanding of Dante’s journey from Hell into Heaven as a chorus of variations of his song, both piecemeal and prismatic. This may sound like a wonderful thing in the abstract, but considering that most people only read one translation at a time, and imprint themselves upon the one they know first, it can be a little frustrating to try and make an informed decision about which Divine Comedy you might like best.

By almost any standard, Bang’s translation is the most liberal interpretation of Dante available in English. Her Inferno, when it first 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 uniquely 21st century about it — even, one could say, something uniquely 2010s; no small feat for a text first written over 700 years ago. The publication of Purgatorio 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 antecedents like Lord Byron, Emily Dickinson, Hilda Doolittle, and Lewis Carroll).

Bang makes no attempt to pass herself off as a scholar of medieval Italian, and defends her unfamiliarity with the ancient language as a way to better interrogate it. “I go back to [each] word’s origins, explore its history, research how Dante used it, read tons of commentary, and multiple other translations,” she told The Southeast Review recently. “And then I try to capture what I believe Dante intends to say, falling back on the research I’ve done and what I know as a poet.” Clearly, this last step includes thinking about which snippets of English Dante’s language most reminds her of. The result is a phraseology immediate to Bang, as idiosyncratic as her own experience as a reader.

 As preposterous as a medieval text with inserted snark about selfies and Donald Rumsfeld may sound, there is some historical logic to it. Dante’s Divine Comedy hit frightfully close to home when it was first published, filled with judgements about ancient heroes and near-contemporaries alike. It was also irreverently political, such as when it cast the still-living Pope Boniface VIII in the eighth circle of hell for simony. And, particularly in the later sections, after Dante passes through this realm of suffering into spaces of redemption and beatitude, it was a way of mourning and elegizing lost friends. (Bang knows something about elegies; she composed a book of them in 2009, a response to the untimely death of her son.)

Dante elevated many of his contemporaries from historical obscurity to literary immortality just by casting them as minor characters in his verse. In Canto IV of Purgatorio, we encounter a musician named Belacqua among a group sitting under a boulder (in Bang’s language: “like a bunch of good-for-nothing slackers”), loathe to climb toward Heaven (“Fine, Mister Lightning Bolt, you go right up”). Though Belacqua’s identity in real life is still debated among scholars, his afterlife is the stuff of legend — a few lines of Dante gave Samuel Beckett the inspiration to use this character time and again, to embody the latter’s grand themes of inertia and futility. Though they can certainly be obscure, there no such thing as a caustic reference in Dante’s enduring text, a generosity 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 has instead chosen to make a Divine Comedy that sounds the most like her, the most like now. It is perhaps the first Comedy to make it into English that actually sounds comedic, and her mischievous sense of fun, though it can sometimes distract from (and in a few instances, even undermine) the points Dante is trying to make, faithfully echoes him in spirit and intention. The vertiginous highs and lows of the epic — from the devilish schadenfreude of others’ suffering to the blinding transcendence of their salvation — are at their starkest in Bang’s heterodox verse. While some of her neologisms are sure to annoy almost anyone who reads them, such as when Currado Malaspina, awaiting the entrance to Purgatory, tells us he “was once a VIP,” her overall sentiment strikes me as delightful and true.

And she’s getting better. Absent from my reading of her Inferno, I was shocked by moments in Purgatorio 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 exemplary Canto X, where Dante, having climbed onto the first cornice of Mount Purgatory (where the sin of pride is excoriated), stands before a cliff face of “white marble / Inlaid with engravings, the likes of which / Would outclass Polycletus and Nature.”

These engravings, depicting Biblical scenes, are so well-rendered that Dante spends several stanzas imagining they move, and even speak. The scene is strange, and surely an imaginative leap for the early readers of that era; Bang, however, wastes no time comparing it to the thing it reminds her of most — “a delicate form of stop-motion animation,” noting simply in her endnotes that “Dante’s imagined visibile parlare (visible speech) anticipated talkie films by some six-hundred years.” Which is true enough, and more interesting than hemming and hawing with the original intent.

At the end of the canto, the prideful themselves appear, burdened by boulders that correspond to the size of their sin. “They were more or less bent over / Based on more or less weight on their backs; / Even the most patient ones, crying, // Seemed to say, ‘I can’t go on (I’ll go on).’” The final line here is exceptional, a direct reference to Samuel Beckett’s literary mantra, from the final line of his novel The Unnamable (1953). It is, of course, not how Dante originally wrote it — other translators render the original Tuscan, “Più non posso,” as “I can no more.”

The parenthetical is new. But to incorporate Beckett, who was himself so influenced by Purgatorio, back into the book creates a literary ouroboros that spans centuries, and allows for the possibility of enhancing the text while upholding the original meaning. It also tells the story better. The penitents must go on, as must Dante and as must Bang (who has begun translating the first cantos of her Paradiso), past the endurance of their existence. Their reward, and ours, is the final prize at the end of every canticle of Dante’s Divine Comedy, one as arresting as it is annihilating — a glimpse of the cosmos.

Purgatorio by Dante, translated by Mary Jo Bang is published by Graywolf Press and is available online and at independent bookstores.

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