Treating Shadows Like Solid Things: An Interview with Translator Mary Jo Bang about Dante’s Purgatorio – curated by Tiffany Troy

The Poet Mary Jo Bang as photographed by Matt Valentine

Mary Jo Bang is a poet and translator. She has translated Dante’s Inferno and Purgatorio and published eight books of poetry, including A Doll for Throwing, The Last Two Seconds, and Elegy, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. She teaches creative writing at Washington University at St. Louis.

Tiffany Troy: I’m very excited to talk to you about Purgatorio! It’s my first time reading it.

Mary Jo Bang: Thank you so much for your interest in it. Not everyone is interested in Dante so I’m always happy to meet someone who is.

You are atypical, and particularly for your age. In previous eras—well before my era—the so-called “Great Books” were always read as part of a traditional education. Education changed at some point and became more eclectic. Over time, it became obvious that women, except perhaps for Sappho, were altogether excluded from the very notion of greatness, as was writing by anyone in any marginalized group. Eventually, the notion of greatness, and who gets to define what is great, began to be questioned. Today there’s an increasing awareness that there is a great deal of literature that is equally great, in this country and elsewhere, that has been ignored. All of this means there is no longer a set list of the “must read” books. Dante is one of those who gets moved to one side in preference to other things. 

In Italy, however, everyone still reads Dante. It is required reading in high school, so it remains part of that culture.

Tiffany Troy: Yes, and though there are three parts of the Divine Comedy, it’s the Inferno that is on the Great Books curriculum. 

Mary Jo Bang: Now that you’ve read Purgatorio, perhaps you’ll agree with me that Puragtorio is every bit as rich as the Inferno in terms of having a great deal to say about human nature. Inferno has the devils-with-pitchforks high drama, but Puragtorio has its own particular drama—which is because there are people in it and people are always interesting. After all, we’re social animals and Dante understood that. One of the pillars of each of the books is the way Dante draws people out by asking them how they found themselves in that particular place.

Paradiso is somewhat different in that, while there are still people with their stories, there is also a layer of theological and philosophical thinking. Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Albert Magnus, a bit of Plato, and many other early Christian thinkers gets woven into the text. I can understand someone thinking that it would be difficult to teach Paradiso. I do think that with the right translations, Purgatorio and Paradiso could be taught quite easily. And both would interest students. 

Tiffany Troy: My dentist visit today convinced me that Dante’s Inferno is like that first visit where you realize that everything is going downhill, and then Purgatorio is the hope of redemption during a follow up visit. 

In your Translator’s Note, you talk about the forests in Inferno and Purgatorio. The forest in Inferno is the dark one that Dante finds himself in and then, near the end of the Purgatorio journey, Dante finds himself again in a different forest, which I find very interesting.

Mary Jo Bang: The forest at the beginning of Inferno is near the gateway to Hell and the forest at the end of Purgatorio is quite literally at the gateway to Heaven. Some scholars argue that Dante was very aware of the structure of each of the three volumes as he was writing them. There are certain cantos in all three books that deal with the same topic, which makes it appear that he’s formally tracking the action, book to book. It must have been like writing an epic novel where you have to keep track of what everyone said and what they thought and who they are, and make everything consistent throughout.

Tiffany Troy: Can you talk about how you approach translating Dante? I know this is your second book.

Mary Jo Bang: It’s the second Dante book, but in the meantime, I’ve translated other things. I translated Colonies of Paradise—a book of poems by the German poet, novelist, and translator, Matthias Göritz—using the same techniques that I use to translate Dante’s medieval Italian. 

I’ve also co-translated The Poetic Experiments of Shuzo Takiguchi 1927–1937 with Yuki Tanaka, a poet, scholar, and native Japanese speaker. He creates a literal translation of the Japanese, sometimes inflecting it with his own poetic sensibility. We then discuss all the possible synonyms for any given word. This is because the poet we’re translating is invested in wordplay and wit and it’s important to choose a word that expresses the wry humor of the original. Because I don’t know Japanese, I’m totally dependent on Yuki Tanaka for whatever words we use.

Tiffany Troy: How did you get started translating Dante?

Mary Jo Bang: In 2004, I read a found poem by Caroline Bergvall, a British experimental poet, called “Via: 48 Dante Variations.” Bergvall had taken the first three lines of the Inferno from the forty-seven translations that were on the shelves of the British Library in the year 2000 and used those to compose to poem. At the end of each three-line stanza, she added the name of the translator and the year of publication. Because they are all translations of Dante’s original three lines (Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita / mi ritrovai per una selva oscura / ché la diritta via era smarrita) they have some similarity. Yet, even though they span several hundred years, none of them is identical. That difference becomes an argument that there is no single right way to carry one language over to another, which interested me greatly. The other thing that interested me was that the language of all the translations, even the most recent ones, was very elevated in register. 

It appeared that no one had ever thought to put the poem into contemporary English and I wondered why that was? And I further wondered what the poem might sound like in contemporary English. I decided to try to do that with these three lines but first, I had to determine was whether I was going to attempt to maintain the terza rima pattern of end rhyme—aba/bcb/cdc/etc—a pattern Dante invented for his poem. Because English is a rhyme-poor language, as compared to Italian, many poets don’t even try, and some even translate the poem into prose. I could see that sound was important, since it gives the poem a sense of forward momentum, so I decided that instead of trying to maintain the pattern of end rhyme, I would substitute contemporary phonic echoes like alliteration and assonance and internal rhyme. I would also keep the three-line stanzas because that was part of the language patterning of the original.

Relying on the translations that made up Bergvall’s poem, I translated those first three lines. It was so much fun that after the first three lines, I wanted to do more. I had the Charles S. Singleton prose translation on my bookshelf so I got that down started working on the next three lines, and then the next three. It suddenly dawned on me that while I had forty-seven examples for the first three lines, now I was relying on just one, Singleton. So, I went to the library and got a dozen translations ranging from Longfellow’s first American translation, published in 1867, to what was then the most recent American translation, Robert and Jean Hollander’s, published in 2000. I decided I would translate the entire first canto.

I worked on the canto over the course of the summer and when I finished, I decided I would continue until I had translated the entire Inferno. I thought it might take me my lifetime. I kept working on the translation from time to time, put it down for a while, then come back to it. I was awarded residency in Italy in 2007 and in the library of the villa where I was staying, there was an unabridged bilingual English-Italian dictionary. Using that dictionary inspired me to be more rigorous with the translation. I set a new goal, which was to see how close I could stay to the original while still moving the language into colloquial English. I went back and revised the early stanzas but, that said, I had grown attached to some of the verbal constructions I’d come up. Some of those didn’t adhere as closely to the Tuscan Italian as they should have. 

When I look back today, I wish I had let go of those. Over these fifteen years, I have become a translator. I wasn’t then and I wasn’t thinking about the real challenges of translation, I was just thinking about how to make somebody want to read this poem. The fact is, when I began reading about the poem, I discovered that Dante chose to write his poem in the vernacular instead of in literary Latin and he also wrote about why he had chosen to do that. Dante said that Latin is too elevated and sublime, that it would overwhelm what was being said. He said the language in which a poem is written needs to have warmth, which is why it should be written in the language with which you speak to your family, your beloved, your friends. He also said that Latin was frozen in time, and that he wanted his poem to change with time.

I began to see how the elevated register of the language of the translations I was using was making the poem sound so formal that it was as if it had been written in literary Latin instead of in the Tuscan dialect. Knowing that Dante didn’t want his poem to sound that stiff gave me both the courage and permission to bring the language down to a lower register. That became my goal. And now I’m trying to do that same thing with Paradiso.

Tiffany Troy: You have already committed to doing that?

Mary Jo Bang: Oh, yes! I’m working on Canto 22. 

Tiffany Troy: Two thirds of the way!

Mary Jo Bang: Yes, I’m working much faster on this book. Purgatorio took me eight years and Inferno took seven but I hope Paradiso will end up only taking three years.

Tiffany Troy: You know Susan Bernofsky, who wrote a blurb for Purgatorio, did an April Fool’s joke about being half done with translating The Magic Mountain?

Mary Jo Bang: I immediately realized it was a joke when I saw her post. Any translator would know it would have been impossible for her to have reached that point so quickly. The Mann book is over a thousand pages long!

Tiffany Troy: Your trajectory into translation covers fifteen years. How did you initially get into the Italian or German or Japanese as well as translation in general?

Mary Jo Bang: I don’t speak Italian. The first language I tried to learn was Spanish, in college. Then, I became interested in French. I had an opportunity to go to France so I bought my first camera, a relatively simple instamatic. When I arrived in France, however, I forgot how to take the film out of the camera once the roll was finished! I kept opening the camera back and taking it out but one day I remembered that exposed film has to always be kept in the dark. I began to go in the hotel bathroom and try to make it as dark as I could, but, obviously, once the photographs were developed, they were not what I had hoped for. 

After the trip, I resolved to learn how to use a camera so I could go back and take photographs that would be closer to what I thought I was seeing in the viewfinder. I was working as a Physician Assistant in gynecology but I signed up for a class in black and white photography and one in beginning French and I went on Saturdays and on my lunch hours. Luckily, there was a community college nearby. Then, I went back to France and took a language immersion program where participants commit to only speaking French. I continued studying French when I lived in London from late-1986 to early-1990. I was doing a BA in fine art photography at the then Polytechnic of Central London (now Westminster University). Any time there was a three-day weekend, I went to France. I also took classes at the alliance francaise. I became fairly fluent in French, which was very exciting.

I returned to the states in 1990 and began working as a photographer. In 1993, I went to Columbia University to do an MFA in poetry. During that time, I took two translation workshops. I had met someone in France whose lover had written five novels before she died. I worked on translating one of her novels for my translation workshops. 

When I was still living in NYC, I become close to an artist from mainland China who suggested I come to China and teach where he was teaching, at Sichuan University. I began taking Chinese lessons three or four times a week. When that relationship ended, I stopped studying Chinese.

In 2000, I left New York and moved to St Louis to teach in the Creative Writing program at Washington University. Once I decided to translate Dante, I thought I would study Italian. But then I realized that if I waited until I was fluent in Italian, I might never get around to translating the poem. So, I started using existing translations and a dictionary. 

At the same time, I was writing a book of poems that were somewhat inspired by a woman who had been a photographer in the Bauhaus movement. When I received a fellowship at the American Academy of Berlin so that I could visit the Bauhaus Archive in Berlin, I began taking German lessons. First, I sat in on a class that met every day for a semester, and then I began studying with a tutor and then I went to Germany. 

During that time, I met a German poet who proposed that I should translate one of his books but I knew my German wasn’t good enough to do that. He assured me that he would help me. By that time, the Internet had so evolved that I could take bits of his poems, just as I do with Purgatorio, three lines at a time, put them into Google translate and get a basic scaffold. Any words that Google fails to translate, I put into Wiktionary. That allows me to see the verb tense as well as possible meanings. I then go to several online dictionaries to refine my search. 

With Dante, my method has become so computer-dependent that I no longer look at as many other translations. I still look at four or five but with Inferno, I would look at ten or twelve. One of the translations I still always consult is by William Warren Vernon. It was first published in the late 1890’s and revised in the early 1900’s. He traces the commentary of each of the three books of the Comedy back to Benvenuto, who lectured on Dante in the second half of the fourteenth century and wrote a commentary on the Comedy.

Vernon allows you to see how the thinking about various passages in the Comedy has evolved over time. You begin to realize that many things in the poem are still not settled. On the other hand, that doesn’t give one license to ignore all of the commentary. I’ve been very fortunate to become friends with a number of Dantists who have generously helped me make sense of passages that seem impenetrable, especially when the commentary is confusing. And they’ve sometimes kept me from going astray.

Tiffany Troy: To me, you are an interventionalist translator. By that, I mean you change many things in your translation.

In one scene, you have the Roman poet Statius say to Virgil, “You can understand / The depth and breadth and height of the love / For you that burns in me when I delude myself as to // Our emptiness, treating shadows like solid things.” This, by the way, is such a great translation. 

Moments like this showcase how Dante is thinking through the nature of love. The drama of Purgatorio, as you said, is less about the tormenting monsters one meets in Inferno but the turmoil that people go through and their yearning to be saved from it.

Mary Jo Bang: I think it is a yearning to be loved. As simplistic as that might sound to us, because that word “love” is so trivialized in our society, the whole idea behind Beatrice and behind God is to feel loved. It’s possible to use that idea as a lens through which you can imagine the psychology of the poet, Dante Alighieri, who had been turned out of his community, which meant everything in those days. Banishment is the opposite of a loving embrace.

We have to keep in mind that in that era, anytime someone from Florence left their city, they were a foreigner. A person was known by their accent. You may remember how in both Purgatorio and Inferno people often say, I can tell by your accent you’re from my city. You would only not feel self-conscious in that one place, so to be banished means you lose not only your property but your sense of belonging. You’re both destitute and alien. 

Dante was very lucky that he owned some small fields that were rented out. They were owned in common with his brother. The law protected the brother and allowed him to keep the land. From those proceeds, the brother could provide for Dante’s wife and children. Otherwise, they would have been destitute. That was part of the punishment. Exile was a way of exercising social control.  Similarly, with the Catholic Church, excommunication was a means of banishing someone from god’s love. It was all intertwined. 

Tiffany Troy: I’m interested in how you reference contemporary experiences, like a TED Talk, and include English names for Italian names. This technique is not unlike translators who utilize a different set of references and cultural frameworks, say from French to English translations. Dante himself incorporates lines from Roman poets. 

Mary Jo Bang: Yes, in that moment you mentioned earlier, the end of Canto XXI where Statius is talking to Virgil, I’ve taken “The depth and breadth and height of the love / For you that burns in me,” from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet 43 in her Sonnets from the Portuguese, dedicated to her husband, the poet Robert Browning: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways / I love thee to the depth and breadth and height / My soul can reach ...”. That seemed appropriate for the sense of deep love that Statius is describing and it’s very close to the original in lines 133–134: la quantitate . . . de l’amor ch’a te mi scalda (the measure . . . of the love that burns/warms/excites me).

When I make the kind of substitutions that you’re asking about, using “TED Talk” in line 130 of Canto XXII, I am giving myself a certain latitude while at the same time observing the limits of the original language. In the original, Dante uses ragioni, the noun form of verb ragionàre, which means to “reason,” but it can also mean to “discuss, argue, talk.” A TED Talk is an example of a contemporary “talk,” which is exactly what the word means. I’m always trying to find today’s exact equivalent. 

As my friend Timothy Donnelly once reminded me, I’m not just “throwing in a toaster oven and the king of pop for the fun of it”! That is what some people think I’m doing because they don’t know the original. Unless you can read the original Italian, or look at several other translations, you don’t realize how close my translation is to the original. The very nature of translation is finding an equivalent word. Translating poetry, however, is not the same as translating the front page of the New York Times, where all you have to do is make sure it conveys the same facts as the original.

A translated poem has to work the way the original poem works, through the use of figurative language and the expressive use of sound. You have weigh word choice against all of those other elements so that the new language has the same resonance and impact on the reader. That is the nature of poetry: language patterning that exploits the ambiguity of words to mean more than one thing. 

Dante understood this. You don’t produce a poem like the Comedy unless you’re exquisitely aware of craft. Dante’s poem was so radical that people began learning the Tuscan dialect so they could read this poem. How often does that happen, where you learn another language so you can read a book? I feel that in order to be true to the original, I have to make the translation as radical as the original was in its own time. Today, poetry has been pushed to the farthest reaches of innovation, so it’s a challenge to “make it new,” to use Pound’s phrase. 

Tiffany Troy: The footnotes in Purgatorio allow you the space to explain how you made various translation choices and to, at least in some instances, explain how Dante approached certain subjects, given that he was writing centuries ago. How do the footnotes work for you? What do you wish for the reader to take from them?

Mary Jo Bang: In the beginning, I wasn’t sure what to do with the notes. Many translations have very scanty notes. They merely indicate who someone was in the past or provide the name of a river. I was sure I needed those facts but then I determined, as I was translating, that I should show my work, like one does in math. I had to show why I had chosen this word over that. 

And yes, Dante often includes, without attributing them, quotes from the Roman poets he admires—we might even call it plagiarism today but it was a common medieval practice. It was a way of establishing linage with the Roman poets and a way of paying homage to them. I realized that if I were to update that aspect of the poem, in terms of allusions, I should include those writers Dante might have included if he were writing at this time. Sylvia Plath, John Milton, Shakespeare, Langston Hughes would all be there, as a through line up to the present. I wanted to allow people to see a glimmer of the present, so they wouldn’t see the poem as something that was simply an artifact of the past but that it is as much about our lives as about those who lived seven hundred years ago. Essentially, the Comedy is about what it is to be a human being. Many mistakenly take the point of view that it’s simply a cautionary tale—if you don’t live right, this will happen after your death. But it is equally about how one should live while on earth. If you change how you live on earth now, not only will you escape these punishments but everyone will be better off. You too will be better off because those sins—wrath, envy, pride—get in the way of what Aristotle called “the good life.” Purgatorio is about how to be a decent human being, and how to maintain the social fabric so that people are not being banished and killed. 

It’s an activist approach. It’s very clear, and becomes even more clear in Paradiso, that Dante hopes his poem will have positive and long-lasting effects.

Tiffany Troy: I feel Dante truly considered the Comedy not only a personal or creative work, but also as a political work, and you’ve made it relevant to readers like me.

Mary Jo Bang: I hope so. There are a few people who appear to feel that I am somehow not showing the proper respect for the original. I feel that, on the contrary, I’m being extremely respectful. I’m trying to bring new readers to the poem because I so love it. I simply don’t see the point of using elevated language that is far above that of the original. Dante talked about wanting everyone, “even women,” to read the poem, and he says that he wanted the language to be able to change over time. I’m being true to that. 

Tiffany Troy: What are you working on today? Do you have any closing thoughts that you want to share with your readers?

Mary Jo Bang: While I’m working on Paradiso, I’m also writing a series of poems inspired by paintings of the Virgin Mary. I don’t know whether that has to do with Dante or not! I’m obviously seeped in Catholicism with Paradiso.

I also have an odd relationship to Mary because we share a name and often people who don’t know me will email me, “Dear Mary.” I feel I can speak for different aspects of her since we were both young mothers and both lost our sons. Plus, the art is often so bizarre that it provides me with interesting stage settings. 

In terms of last thoughts: I hope people will read Paradiso when it’s published. People tend not to be interested in heavenly utopias but the poem is about so much more than the notion of Heaven! Dante’s descriptions of paradise are so inspired, detailed, and inventive that I’m continually in awe. And throughout, as with the other two volumes, he’s talking about life on earth. Our lives. And how we need to be more thoughtful as we live them.  

One of the most interesting moments in Paradiso, I find, is when Dante realizes that, based on one’s life on earth, people will experience heaven differently. Paradiso is all about differences and how all difference is valued. Each soul he encounters is happy with their lot because each understands that they have a role in a divine plan that is based on love. Love, it appears, is being happy with what you are. Which makes sense to me!

For Dante, this is tied to his somewhat complicated religious beliefs but whatever one’s beliefs, we can appreciate that his conception of Heaven is rooted in a celebration of difference and diversity and finding one’s place in it. Even the makeup of the planets reflects the idea of difference, the different matter of each behaves differently. One light is different from another light but together they make a perfect combination.

Tiffany Troy: I really love that and how the Dante character is so human. He complains that he’s way too tired to keep climbing, then Virgil reminds him that if he stays there, he will never be reunited with Beatrice. 

Mary Jo Bang: Yes, those moments are very engaging because we see ourselves in them. That’s the key to the entire trilogy. We see ourselves—our failures and our longings and our successes. 

Tiffany Troy: I look forward to seeing how you will continue to translate the Italian into modern English and how you’ll keep incorporating your knowledge of literature and art into it.