This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.
If I told you I like to assign Dante’s Inferno for 10th grade Pre-AP® summer reading, you’d say I was sadistic. But when students focus on the familiar elements of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror, they begin to love The Divine Comedy. However, asking students to look past language that seems antiquated and overwrought in order to focus on Dante’s meaning takes hard work. That’s why I was intrigued by a new translation of Inferno by Mary Jo Bang, a contemporary poet anthologized in the Best American Poetry seriesand known especially for her collection Elegy. Using accessible free verse, Bang hopes that “this translation does what the original does in terms of raising issues of honesty and scruple, responsibility and religious hypocrisy.¨
To convey Dante’s meaning to a contemporary audience, she replaces his allusions with popular references to everything from South Park to the Rolling Stones song “Sympathy for the Devil.” South Park appears in the third circle of Bang’s version of Inferno, the wet muckpile reserved for the gluttonous. Dante listens to one of the souls condemned to sit under the constant downpour of sewage:
I used to be called Cartman, sometimes Little Piggy;
The fault that did me in was gluttony. As you can see,
Because of that, I’ve been ground down by rain.
It seems that the cheesy puffs have finally caught up with him.
Maybe having Virgil described as a “street-savvy teacher” who was “once in a turf war” or the butt-tooting demon as “Badass” makes this version an easier sell to students than the classic Allen Mandelbaum text that I’ve been using for years. So was Bang going to make my job easier?
Surprisingly, I’ve found that this contemporary approach to Dante is sometimes more difficult for beginning readers. In many cases, the contemporary syntax often strives for artistry and results in complexity. The leaps in context from one line to the next can make many passages hard to grasp. However Bang’s version mostly does away with the contextualization, modernization, and reiteration that old texts require.
Bang’s contemporary allusions are perfect for teaching a high school audience about the complexities of translation. Concentrate on a single Canto and bring in multiple versions, such as those from Mandelbaum, Pinsky, and Longfellow. Specifically, you might compare Henry Longfellow’s perfect rhymes with Robert Pinsky’s often imperfect rhymes in their English renditions of terza rima. Nearing the top of Bloom’s taxonomy, these comparisons also lend themselves to evaluative questions: Which translation of Inferno is more effective? Why?
These re-invented translations are a great way to show students that these classic texts are still being discussed today. If you like Mary Jo Bang’s approach, you might also want to look into Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey. Depending on the students’ maturity level and school policies, also try Jonathan Goldstein’s jocular re-telling of much of the Old Testament in Ladies and Gentlemen: The Bible! (you can listen tosome segments here).
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