The term “Gothic” is marvelously, if disconcertingly, fluid, designating at times both barbarian horde and proto-nationalist regime, pagan chieftain and Christian theocrat, aesthetic atrocity and high art; thus to speak of the “translational Gothic” is to speak of both the wild mutations possible through “infidel” translation and the wild translations implicit in the survival of the term Gothic itself. John Ruskin describes the Gothic as “the rough mineral … submitted to [the analysis] of the chemist, entangled with many other foreign substances, itself perhaps in no place pure, or ever to be obtained or seen in purity for more than an instant.” He nevertheless thinks that this instant — knit into the mess of centuries — is definable, much like Walter Benjamin’s faith in a translation that only momentarily, fleetingly touches upon the meaning of the original — or the meaning of “originality,” for that matter.
In the last column, I speculated that Mary Jo Bang’s translation of the Inferno was initially seduced by but ultimately rejected the more corrosive qualities of Flarf. However, in the baroque-brut line of Henrik Drescher’s accompanying illustrations, there seems to be a corrective, drawing us into visceral mess of hell’s innards, albeit with high artisanal flare. These illustratings seem to outdo (or undo) Gustave Doré's engravings from his popular Dante volumes of the 19th century, in that they are at once more terrifying and more cuddly — open to being in an loose relation with the text they accompany. In contrast, Doré's engravings are so aesthetically overpowering that, existing in volumes that were kept around the house more as a marker of status than for reading, the illustrator’s name is more commonly associated with this Divine Comedy than that of its proper translator (Henry Francis Cary, who for the longest time, because of a C with an overgrown serif, I thought was merely “Gary” — like some anonymous Cher or Prince of a forgotten poetry scene).
“Hell is other people,” and that’s perhaps why Dante chose to write in the vernacular. Mary Jo Bang posits Dante’s choice of demotic Italian over more academic Latin as crucial to her more “pop” approach to the Inferno, as if Dante, in descending the circles of Hell, were literally playing out a necessary descent from the purities of high-culture into the noisy substrata of the low. But for a misreading of Benjamin, in which Bang posits his translational ethics as invested in “sharing what is common to all,” her approach partakes in Benjamin’s notion that, in the zombie “afterlife” of a text, one can only reanimate it through translation in ways that are impermanent and historical.