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Dante, Translated for 2012

Classical literature lovers, here’s something that might make you take all those Mayan prophecies about 2012 a bit more seriously: a new translation of Dante’s “Inferno” is out, and it’s stuffed with references to modern-day pop culture phenomena like Eric Cartman and Superman.

But don’t head for the underground bunker just yet. The translation is the work of American poet Mary Jo Bang, and it’s not so much a crass modernization of Dante’s masterpiece as it is a modern re-imagining. Think “O Brother Where Art Thou?” as opposed to the 1996 remake of “Romeo and Juliet.”

In an interview with the Minneapolis Post, Professor Bang explains why she decided to bring Dante into 2012:

“Each pop-culture reference is evidence of my effort to find an exact equivalent, something that might read to a contemporary audience the way the original read to a medieval audience.”

That makes sense. Also, consider how many allusions to the scandals and politics of Florence and other Italian city-states (the “pop culture” of the day) Dante sprinkled throughout his “Inferno.” The strength of Dante’s talent made the poem timeless, but it was written to appeal to his contemporaries. In that light, rather than merely pandering to modern audiences unwilling to learn more about 14th century Florence, well-chosen pop culture references could make the translation hew more closely to the spirit of the original poem.

For an example of how these contemporary allusions can enrich the text, see this review in the New York Daily News, which explains just how Eric Cartman ended up in Dante’s vision of hell:

“The original reference in Italian is to a character named Ciacco, or “hog,” one who is suffering for the sin of gluttony. Bang explains that “Eric Theodore Cartman is a greedy, selfish character,” one who in fact refers to himself as “a little piggy.”

Well…it’s hard to argue with that!

If you’re in the market for something light to read on the beach as summer breathes its last, you can order “Inferno: A New Translation” from Indiebound.org.