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Take Five: Wash U professor refreshes Dante's 'Inferno' with pop culture

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 3, 2012 - Do you remember Dante’s "Inferno” as daunting, riveting or only as a vague literary title that you hope to never encounter in a trivia game?

Washington University English professor Mary Jo Bang hopes her new translation of the best-known segment of Dante Alighieri’s three-part “The Divine Comedy” will resonate with high schoolers, college kids, grad students and all other readers.

Numerous pop culture references ranging from Stephen Colbert to frozen Jell-O to a 1967 Procol Harum hit are among the tools Bang uses to anchor the 14th-century work to today’s world. “He made my face turn a whiter shade of pale” reads a line from Canto (section) IX.

“Monty Python”-esque drawings by Henrik Drescher underscore the bits of whimsy in this serious literary pursuit. Bang talked with the Beacon about the painstaking process of translating this classic poem.

The Beacon: Can you briefly describe Dante’s "Inferno?”

Mary Jo Bang: It’s a wonderful, very dramatic story. It’s kind of a coming-of-age story. This young man, Dante, who’s in the middle of his life, which means age 35 because in medieval times it was assumed that a lifespan would be 70 years.

He comes to himself in a dark wood and, allegorically, that means he’s kind of in the middle of a spiritual crisis. He then encounters this guide, the Roman poet Virgil, who says that in order to get out of this state you have to go deeper in. So he takes him through these nine descending circles of hell.

Looking at it as a spiritual quest is just one way to look at it. There are many ways to simplify what this poem is about. One of the reasons it’s so successful is that it has so many layers. It’s an investigation of religious hypocrisy and the kind of corrosive effect of political infighting, which makes it very current in terms of a mirror of our own time, even though it was written in the year 1300.

How does Dante use the concept of hell to make a point?

Bang: Dante is trying to make a hell that mirrors the world of bad behavior. So he includes every kind of human flaw and foible -- the big ones and the small ones.

We have a boiling river of blood for the despots that rule a nation and slaughter their people, but we also have people whose faults are selfishness or hoarding or miserliness or tricking people, or politicians who are on the take.

Everyone finds a place in Dante’s hell. And even Dante makes mistakes and is embarrassed when Virgil points them out to him. So there’s no one who escapes the kind of scrutiny that Dante is using to talk about human behavior. He wants us to see ourselves and do better, be a better self.

What went into the translation?

Bang: Before I did translation, I was very naive about it. I thought, “There’s the original text and you just find the equivalent words.” So if “table” is in the original text, then you find “table.”

But it’s not just that because you also want to echo the author’s style. And there are many different kinds of “tables.” I find that really engaging, intellectually, and I love doing it.

In the Italian, the poems are arranged in three-line stanzas, so my constraint was that my three lines would have to mirror those three lines. I couldn’t go over. And I also had to set a line length that would fit on the page. So I had a kind of box in my mind, and everything had to fit, in English, into that box.

Will you eventually translate “Purgatorio” and “Paradiso,” the two other parts of “The Divine Comedy?”

Bang: It’s very tempting, but at the same time I feel I’ve put a lot of my own projects on hold so I think what I’d like to do is spend a year or two finishing things I’ve started and then decide whether or not I want to devote more time to this.

I told a friend recently that I think I did the translation of “Inferno” because I wanted more people to read it so I would have more people to talk about it with, because I so love the poem. I don’t have that same deep connection to “Purgatorio” or at all to “Paradiso” so I’m not sure I’ll have the motivation to do it. I’d like to do “Purgatorio” but I don’t know that I’m ready yet to devote years to it.

Do you see your book becoming part of a regular school curriculum?

Bang: I would love that. I have had a number of teachers come up to me at readings and tell me that they want to use this with their students. I think students will be much more eager to read it, and they'll love it.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.

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