October 24, 2013

The People Lost: Translators of Dante's Inferno - Mary Jo Bang

Per me si va ne la città dolente,
per me si va ne l’etterno dolore,
per me si va tra la perduta gente.

Through me the way is to the city dolent;
Through me the way is to eternal dole;
Through me the way among the people lost.
- Inferno, opening stanza of Canto III, translated by Longfellow
Last year at Northwestern I took a "Mediterranean History" class taught by an Italian visiting professor. The class was supposed to be taught in English, but because the professor wasn't quite as English-fluent as he claimed to be and most of his students were Italian majors, the class was effectively taught in Italian. One day in this class, the professor put up a copy-pasted segment of Dante's Divine Comedy in his slideshow, then he struggled to pronounce it to us, giving up halfway through to start a long rant on how the translation lacked music, lacked art, lacked rhythm, lacked everything except for an approximation of the literal meaning of Dante's words. In other words, it was a poor translation of a poem.

I agree with him, and it wasn't just whatever translation he tried to read that day. I have not yet found a full translation of Dante's Inferno that I really admired. "The People Lost" is a series of articles examining all the various attempts at translating this world-famous work from the Romance original to our equally beautiful Germanic tongue.

Let's begin with the most recent. In 2012, Mary Jo Bang took her own crack at the epic poem. The concept this time: make a modernized, readable, fun Inferno with pop culture references, internal and consonantal rhyme, and a hip poetic final product based on the works and notes of all the Italian-English translators before her. Modernizing the references isn't as nuts as it sounds, because the Divine Comedy constantly makes reference to men famous in Dante's time and place. For every Cleopatra or Muhammad in the poem, the kind of reference that remains clear today, there's a Ruggieri degli Ubaldini or a Guido da Montefeltro, famous men to Dante's audience but research-intensive biographical dictionary entries to even the nerdiest wonk today.

This translation got a lot of press for making references to South Park and Star Trek and "Hotel California" and so on. You might imagine Bang as a hipster glasses Starbucks 20-something from all this, but she was born in 1946. She went to my school, Northwestern University, back in the sixties and poets.org says her work has a "febrile, recursive lyricism," whatever the hell that means. Curious, I found her book and the South Park reference therein. It comes in Canto VI, and is explained in the endnote reproduced here:
52-53. I used to be called Cartman, sometimes Little Piggy; / The fault that did me in was gluttony: Dante assigns this character the name of Ciacco, an abbreviation for the name Giacomo--which, when used as a nickname, means "hog" or "glutton." Eric Theodore Cartman is a greedy, selfish character in the animated television show South Park, created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone. In "The Succubus" episode (1999), the optometrist, Dr. Lott, refers to Cartman as "Little Piggy"; in the "Scott Tenorman Must Die" episode (2001), Cartman is forced to sing a song: "I'm a little piggy, here's my snout; Oink oink oink, oink oink oink."
Okay, I see the reasoning, and if your stated purpose is to replace Medieval Italian references with popular current-day American ones, you could do worse. The reference seems sort of unnatural, as if it were added to either establish a "cool" connection with an imagined younger audience or to simply shock a snooty academic, but this endnote does at least justify the translation, or rather it would if it remembered to mention that Cartman is fat.

Hip! Fresh! In your face!

Now let's look at another endnote, this one from Canto VII:
1. "Pope Satan, Pope Satan, Alley Oop!": Dante's original "Papé Satàn, papé Satàn, aleppe!" has been variously translated, but most commentators agree that it's a warning cry of some kind, probably an expression of Plutus's alarm that a living human has entered an area that is restricted to the dead (Vernon, Readings, 1:220-221). Plutus is "puffed up" (line 7) with the pride of wealth--the same pride that stretches the chests of those we'll meet later pushing stones around the circle. The French phrase allez hop is a combination of allez, meaning "let's go," with an onomatopoeic hop (the h is silent), to indicate a small jump. The phrase is used as a cue to French gymnasts and trapeze artists. It is also the source of the name of "Alley Oop," a syndicated newspaper comic first developed in 1932 by cartoonist V. T. Hamlin; the title character was a Stone Age traveling salesman from the kingdom of Moo who rode a dinosaur named Dinny.
As Rolling Stone would say, what is this shit? I checked this line because it is famously odd and difficult to translate, and Mary Jo Bang seems to have, despite what she's said above, given up and translated it into English-language nonsense. Her translation means nothing and sounds goofy rather than threatening, and her explanation, in a work meant to be full of modern American references, ignores the actual modern American definition of "alley-oop," which is an airborne basketball pass leading to a dunk, not a French acrobatics or Sunday Funnies reference. I've read this endnote thirty times and still don't know why she decided to translate "aleppe" as "Alley Oop" besides the fact that they sound similar. Also, "papé" does not literally mean "Pope," so it's not clear from any direction what Bang was thinking with this sentence, which is proudly featured in one of the book's illustrations. The tone is wrong, the meaning is wrong, the modern reference is wrong. This is an important, canto-opening line, and Bang carefully molded it into silly nonsense, so the translation lacks credibility. And you need credibility if you wanna splice in Star Trek.

I sympathize with the concept: replace the arcane medieval references of an unsatisfactorily-translated work with hip, modern references which are meaning-equivalent. But why would you give that job to a non-Italian-fluent ivory tower baby boomer, a woman who is translating between two contexts she is not fluent in? I could write about this until they finally finish that Ladder to Heaven (South Park Season 6, Episode 12, 2002!!!) but there are dozens of translations left to tackle. Next week, we'll start talking about what Bang tried to rebel against: the awkward grammar, ugly poetry, and slant rhyme of an earlier generation of failed translations.