Il miglior fabbro: Dante Alighieri, by Gustave Dore

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.

“Rip every last ounce of flesh off his back!”


Does this poem succeed?  Mark Ford doesn’t think so, in the pages of BookForum. Its success, I think, all depends on expectation and point of view.   The main issue I have is with the title on the cover of the book — there’s the word “translation.”   Why call it that when “An Interpretation” or “After Dante” would more accurately describe what Bang does?    If you’re going to give an old poem a fresh new update, you’re not exactly translating anymore, are you?  That’s no criticism against the author: This book shows Bang at her most provocative and startling. But if you’re expecting to find Dante, you should really look elsewhere.


  1. Bang up to date, or just bang out of order? Excellent review. I love those Gustave Doré engravings by the way. Do you know his.. oh, never mind, of course you do. Great post, look forward to reading more of them in future. -Arran.

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