Does Dante Alighieri look mad in this picture? Well, if he is, it’s not because he just finished reading a new “translation” of “Inferno” (Graywolf Press) by poet Mary Jo Bang. On the other hand, it wouldn’t surprise me if that was the reason behind his surly expression.
Bang’s new translation of “Inferno” either impresses or irritates — there is nothing in between. No Limbo. No Purgatory. You have no choice: It’s either Heaven or Hell.
Bang has turned the Florentine maestro’s epic into a poem for our time, replete with cultural references to our world, notes and news headlines. It’s an exhilarating tour de force that takes the reader by surprise. The opening lines, for instance, in which Bang gives us her own version of Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita mi ritrovai per una selva oscura are:
Stopped mid-motion in the middle
of what we call our life, I looked up and saw no sky–
That opening seems fairly tame. The reader — this reader, I mean — easily assumes that Bang’s translation will be mostly an interesting exercise in basic modernizing of an old story.
Soon enough, the reader realizes it is hardly that. Bang is up to far more than providing a translation to join those by Sinclair, Singleton, Mandelbaum, Musa, the Hollanders, etc.
In the eighth circle, for instance, where the sin of fraud is punished, Bang’s Dante-pilgrim encounters … get ready for this …. Colonel Qaddafi as well as a former U.S. Secretary of Defense referred to as “Crazy Rummy”:
I knew all their names by now,
Having heard them once when they were selected
And again on the ridge when they called to each other.
“Work those talons, Crazy Rummy,”
The whole disgusting group was cheering.