Dante argues that judgment consists in knowing and pursuing the good. Those who err in either respect are not free.
“Any translator of Dante is nowadays in an awkward position. Hundreds of translations have already appeared,” writes Dorothy L. Sayers in defense of her translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy. She started the work in 1949, and left it unfinished at her death in 1957. Sayers explains the double bind: “If [a translator] supposes that he is going to surpass all his predecessors, he is in danger of appearing a presumptuous ass. If he modestly admits that he cannot surpass them, then he is a presumptuous ass.”
It seems that anyone who translates The Divine Comedy must be a presumptuous ass of one kind or another. Yet, Sayers herself translated the fourteenth-century Italian poem because “all great works should be retranslated from time to time, lest we should have to wrestle with two strange frames of discourse instead of one.” For the poem to stay alive for readers and possess a vital presence in our imagination, translators must join the great tribe of asses courageous enough to go where many have gone before.
Following in the footsteps of Sayers, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Jean and Robert Hollander, Anthony Esolen and others is Mary Jo Bang, a poet who has received the National Book Critics Circle Award, a Hodder Fellowship, a Guggenheim, and a list of other accolades. Bang shares her reason for translating The Divine Comedy as well as her process in an interview with Kevin Young from The New Yorker. She began with Inferno, intrigued by the experiment: “What if I took the kind of translation liberties that a translator can take with a poem?”
Translators must carry over the meaning of a work from one language into another, but sometimes the figurative or spiritual meaning can be lost in a literal, one-to-one carryover. Bang gave herself the freedom to aim at the significance of the poem. Just as Dante was aiming at writing a vulgar poem—written in common Italian rather than scholastic Latin—so Bang translates his verse into common American English. In her note on the translation, Bang explains “The vernacular has intimacy, familiarity, and a sense of generosity.” Her version of Purgatorio is as inviting as Dante’s original was intended to be.
To produce her translation, Bang read more than a dozen other translations and books of commentary, and of course, used a bilingual dictionary. While she enjoyed translating the poem more than creating the notes—as she admits to Young—the notes are very beneficial. Bang makes a wide variety of Dante scholarship accessible to common readers. She explicates the mythical and historical references, as well as contextualizes Dante’s meanings with lines from his other works, such as Convivio and De Monarchia. Her introduction alone is worth the money for the whole book; she writes out the story of Purgatorio without one citation. It sounds as though someone is sitting by a fire and telling you a story, inviting you on a grand adventure. Every teacher of Purgatorio should read this introduction aloud to students before diving into the poem.
Bang has translated two volumes of Dante’s three-volume epic, not yet translating (nor committing to translating) Paradiso. In Bang’s Purgatorio, we read Dante as though for the first time. Unlike some previous translators, who were more Italian scholars than poets, Bang emphasizes the poetry. In the Italian, Purgatorio is written in terza rima, a rhyme scheme of interlocking lines between stanzas of three lines each, but in English this form causes a hurdle to finding the right words. Bang chooses a different method of poetic devices than the original schema, helpful for an audience that does not habitually read poetry. She employs assonance, alliteration, consonance, and so forth.
For instance, “To sing backup with the same bold notes/ That knocked the poor magpie girls into knowing/ Their audacity would never be pardoned.” Notice the interlacing of sounds between lines 1-3: backup, mag, and –acity; the repeated long o, as well as the consonant repetition of b, p, and kn sounds. Although the Trinitarian significance of terza rima is lost, the three-line stanzas still showcase the importance of three.
To understand what Bang is up to and how she accomplishes it, let’s compare two other translations of a passage from Canto 30 with Bang’s. In the first American translation by Longfellow (1867), Beatrice says, “God’s lofty fiat would be violated,/ If Lethe should be passed, and if such viands/ Should tasted be, without any scot/ Of penitence, that gushes forth in tears.” Longfellow tries to show forth the Italian in his diction. Words such as “fato,” “vivanda,” “scotto,” and “pentimento” become “fiat,” “viands,” “scot,” and “penitence.” When Esolen translates these lines in his 2004 version, he attempts to keep the terza rima but must force some words into a different order than we’re used to: “Broken would be God’s will, His high decree,/ should he pass Lethe’s waters and partake/ of its sweet drink before he paid the fee/ Of tears that flow for penitence’s sake.” After studying these translations and the Italian, Bang creates a colloquial translation that saves the spirit of the original: “God’s supreme decree would be shredded to bits/ If Lethe were crossed and a meal like that/ Got eaten without the piper being paid/ In scalding hot tears of remorse.”
Bang captures innovatively the paradox of Dante’s personal and transcendent verse in Purgatorio. As the realm connected to earth, Mount Purgatory is rooted to familiar things such as the natural oscillation between day and night, while also pointing us upward towards heaven and giving us a spiral to ascend. “How many purgatorial situations have we all suffered through?” Bang asks in her note on the translation.
Eric Auerbach calls Dante not merely a poet of religious imagination, but also of the “secular world,” for “the Comedy is a picture of earthly life. The human world in all its breadth and depth is gathered into the structure of the hereafter…. Doctrine and fantasy, history and myth are woven into an almost inextricable skein.” In Bang’s translation, which carries forth Dante’s allusions to the Bible now alongside references to Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, or Bob Dylan, twenty-first-century readers intuit—even if they cannot articulate it—how the divine and human are intermingled.
So, how does a religious poem seven centuries old still speak to so many? In Matthew Pearl’s 2004 mystery novel The Dante Club, a murderer is copycatting Dante’s Inferno, and famous nineteenth-century writers, among them Longfellow, must solve the crimes. Hardly anyone in Boston during this time knew of Dante’s poem. In the novel, the character of George Ticknor, the famed progenitor of Dante studies at Harvard, laments that many Americans celebrated Shakespeare’s birthday, while the 600th anniversary of Dante was overlooked.
Much has changed. In 2021, almost half a million people joined 100DaysofDante to read the poem together and watch mini-lectures by professors across the country elucidating each canto. Reflecting on the poem, the character Oliver Wendell Holmes in The Dante Club, thinks, “Dante’s faith was so perfect, so unyielding, that a reader found himself compelled by the poetry to take it all to heart.” Even those who do not share Dante’s religion, country, or time period cannot help but be awed by his poetry and the faith he expresses through it.
Thanks to Mary Jo Bang, more readers than ever can access Dante’s Purgatorio. For those who confined the poem to the classroom, or feared the Italian epic had little to do with their own lives, Bang brings the work to life, sharing the power of Dante’s poetry with a twenty-first-century, American audience. I would not hesitate to recommend Bang’s version of Purgatorio to first-time readers, especially those worried that The Divine Comedy is not their kind of book. In Bang’s hands, The Divine Comedy once again becomes, as Dante wanted it to be, not just his but “our” journey.