Mary Jo Bang Translates Dante’s Poetry with Pop Culture Twist

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Poet Mary Jo Bang translates Dante’s ‘Inferno,’ and gives it an update

A great many college students give up on “The Divine Comedy,” usually after they’ve determined in which circle of hell they are destined to reside. (And most don’t get far, as the second circle is for those who succumb to lust.) Dante Alighieri’s 14th century prose, rendered even more challenging by translation, obscures what is actually a pretty rollicking travelogue about one man’s road trip into the nine circles of the underworld, where he meets some pretty interesting people (and lots of clergy). It’s worth another look.

Celebrated poet and Washington University professor Mary Jo Bang has translated “Inferno,” the most exciting part of Dante’s three-part poem, for contemporary audiences, preserving Dante’s story and meaning, restoring some of the beauty of his language and updating his medieval cheekiness with a little 21st century pop culture.

From an interview by Amy Goetzman:

MP: What makes Dante relevant today?

MJB: Some people wrongly assume the poem is only about ancient history, while it is actually timeless in its concerns. And it is an extraordinary literary achievement. For a poem, it’s very novelistic. It has an elaborate narrative structure, suspense, humor, horror. There are well-developed characters and a plot that moves ever forward. At the same time, the poem raises real and urgent questions about moral responsibility and ethical behavior. Dante’s nine-circled Hell is a rather ingenious encyclopedia of our human failures, and a cautionary mirror in which we’re invited to see ourselves, and our myriad shortcomings.

 MP: Did your research change your way of thinking about the concept of an afterlife?

MJB: No, not at all. Dante clearly intended the poem to be read an allegory, and that’s how I read it. His Hell is an imaginary realm that contains Popes and Centaurs, historical figures and talking lizards. Dante’s world view was Catholic but he was clear-eyed about the church’s failures. We find many church leaders in the circles of Hell. And while we can assume Dante believed in an afterlife, the poem doesn’t require us to share that belief. The poem only asks us to agree that there should be consequences for bad behavior, that some forms of bad behavior are worse than others, and that in an ideal world, every punishment should perfectly fit the crime.