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In Conversation With: Dante, Dan Brown, and the Paradox of Familiarity

State Library of Queensland

State Library of Queensland

In Conversation With is our new series where we reflect and respond to pieces in national media. This week, we’re looking at Joan Acocella’s essay “What the Hell?” consideration of Dante, Dan Brown, and the issues of translation for The New Yorker.

It’s lovely having our patron saint Dorothy in the news.

This week, Joan Acocella wrote in the New Yorker about the continued popularity of Dante’s Divine Comedy. She mentions many translations and the difficulties that their translators face, ranging from Dorothy L. Sayers’ rhyming terza rima to Mary Jo Bang’s recent “contemporary” adaptation. Though applauding Bang for her interest in making Dante relevant to younger audiences, Acocella criticizes the translation. She writes, “On the surface, this appears to be a laudable purpose, but whenever you hear those words ‘true to contemporary life,’ run for cover.”

Believe me, I’m in the bomb shelter.

I too applaud Bang’s interest in making Dante appealing to “nineteen-year-olds,” or rather, my Wikified, iPadded, Reddit-reading peers who are credited with leading social media revolutions without having the slightest idea about whether Aquinas was a pioneer or an offshoot of Dasani. By the look of it, we do not click “like” on the Divine Comedy Facebook page. Who has time for purgatory while wading through the carnage of postmodernism 2.0?

However, there is a fallacy in equating “appeal,” “relevancy,” “connection,” with cultural familiarity, a fallacy that Acocella does not quite identify. Michael Deacon acknowledges this in the Telegraph parody piece when he imagines the next homage from Dan Brown’s pen: The Mozart Acrostic. The Michelangelo Wordsearch. The Newton Sudoku.

It is a mistake to think that teenagers need references to The Daily Show or four-letter words to appreciate Dante. That is window-dressing, advertising, shallow appropriation; lipstick on the Palinian bulldog. When we do this, we are not translating them so much as we are trying to reform them in our own likeness. We want to make the books familiar so strangers will love them.

I have not read Bang’s translation and so cannot speak to whether this is her mistake or not. But in general, this is the attitude that many educators, parents, religious leaders, and perhaps even – that if we only repackaged the Greats, our children would appreciate them; if we re-themed them or added new illustrations, then the kids would get it.

Yet cultural familiarity is not the appeal of classical texts. We do not read them to be comfortable; we read them to be known. We read them because despite the the discomfort that derives from cultural discrepancy, we are moved by them.

My first introduction to Dante was as a ninth-grader sitting on the couch, growing distracted by the beauty of the language, especially in Purgatorio (and yes, it was the Dorothy Sayers translation.) I didn’t know that words could do that. Dante made my day; Dante made my week. Dante eventually made me a Medieval & Renaissance Studies major. It was the beauty of the language – even in the Sayers translation – and the intertwined heartbreak of the story, the anguish of soul, the complexity of motive, that the angsty teenager understands at some fundamental level. It was some transcendent literary experience that could not be summarized.

I was able to read and appreciate The Divine Comedy because I had excellent reading skills, a teacher I loved who highlighted the important themes of the poem, educated parents who could buy me the books and help me if I didn’t understand something, and time to read, which is no common occurrence in even the best American high schools.

We need Sayers’ tools of learning. We need kids to love reading and understand what beauty looks like in language. We need kids to understand the work of real translation: of seeing what is different, and difficult, about fourteenth-century Italian poetry, and of seeing beyond that difficulty into something worth having. We need our students to have time to read. We need our teenagers to belong to communities that can help them with difficult books. We need educational opportunities for parents who didn’t receive a great education the first time around.

Dante is brilliant and beautiful because he had a gift, and because we are still painfully interested in stories of redemption, of loss, of journeys through our own pasts and the histories of our forebears. And, though I hate to say it, sometimes Stephen Colbert does not fit the bill. – G.C. Linnell

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This entry was posted on May 24, 2013 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , .
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