“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.
Of the “three grades of evil . . . in the queer world of verbal transmigration,” Nabokov places vernacularism at the lowest circle of Hell. “The third, and worst, degree of turpitude is reached when a masterpiece is planished and patted into such a shape, vilely beautified in such a fashion as to conform to the notions and prejudices of a given public.” In another place, he says that “A schoolboy’s boner mocks the ancient masterpiece less” than work that attempts to create a more “readable” version than the original. Since this column explores, and indeed celebrates versions that are wildly discrepant from the original, we should perhaps forget Nabokov’s contempt, and embrace the vernacularist translator—even espousing the No Fear Shakespeare series and its ilk as a harbinger of fearless literary experimentation to come, in its promise to translate the works of Shakespeare into “the kind of English people actually speak today.”
Emily Dickinson’s poetry is perhaps the closest thing canonical American literature has to a “sacred language.” In Robert Duncan’s lectures on Dickinson, we could say that he posits her as the ultimate untranslatable poet, even within her own language. In her poems she “bring[s] us to the line where everything is so fraught with meaning that we can’t find the meaning.”