Mary Jo Bang at Mission Creek

I was working at the Iowa Review when I first read a section from Mary Jo Bang’s new translation of Dante’s Inferno. Like many who’ve read the work since, I was bowled over. The translation is not simply a modern adaption of an old classic a la O, the basketball-themed filmic version of Othello, or an Anime retelling of Faust. No. Bang’s Inferno still reads very much like the tour of hell I remember from high school. And yet the story feels much closer, so much more alive and fresh. John Wayne Gacy is there. So are South Park and Star Trek.

In an interview over at BOMB magazine last year, Bang explained the translation process as a balancing act. She wanted to modernize the original without being too “cute”: “I kept negotiating between accuracy and the desire to make the poem read as if it was part of the present moment instead of an artifact of another era.”

I’d say she succeeded.

Bang will be in Iowa City this week as part of the Mission Creek Festival, reading alongside the poet Eleni Sikelianos at Prairie Lights Books. Mission Creek began several years ago as a music festival but has morphed into a literary and culinary arts celebration as well. I’d add to that list the translation arts, as translators are notably visible in this year’s line-up. Essayist John D’Agata read from his translation of a Plutarch during a Tuesday night event dubbed a “Rock ’n’ Roll” reading. That Plutarch translations might also be rock ’n’ roll numbers is heartening indeed. During Friday’s lit crawl, the translation-friendly publisher Action Books is sponsoring a reading featuring poet and translator Johannes Göransson, and that following Saturday the book fair will include a number of publishers who support translation, from Granta Books to Iowa City’s own Autumn Hill Books.

Image: Courtesy of Graywolf Press