Posts Tagged ‘Mary Jo Bang’

“Oy!” said Dante…and no parking on the sidewalks.

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014
Share
Dante_Giotto

“Ahi…”

We visited Robert Pogue Harrison today, and that short tête-à-tête reminded us of the excellent piece he wrote a few months ago, “Dante: The Most Vivid Version” in the New York Review of Books. It was a fascinating essay (read it here), but he had reservations about the Clive James version of the first canto of The Divine Comedy, and compared it unfavorably to Mary Jo Bang‘s translation:

Clive James gives us a much less dramatic version:

At the mid-point of the path through life, I found
Myself lost in a wood so dark, the way
Ahead was blotted out….

James omits the all-important pronoun “our,” and his smooth cadence does not suit the emotion of panic nearly as well as Bang’s staccato version. The only reason James tacks on “I found” to the first line, and then tacks on “the way” to the second, is for the sake of a rhyme (James decided to cast his translation in quatrains, and to rhyme them abab). James’s version continues:

 The keening sound
I still make shows how hard it is to say
How harsh and bitter that place felt to me—

To interpolate a “keening sound” here is ludicrous, for at the start of the poem Dante has just returned from the luminous realm of Christian beatitude, so he would not “still” be wailing or shrieking with grief. The distortion seems a high price to pay for the sake of a rhyme.

Antony Shugaar of Charlottesville, Virginia disagreed. His letter was published some time ago, but we just found it today, here, and share it with you today:

Careful.

Careful.

I’m a professional translator from the Italian, and a longtime aficionado of Dante. I therefore read Robert Pogue Harrison’s piece with great interest. I feel that Professor Harrison may have slighted Clive James’s version on one point. “To interpolate a ‘keening sound’ here is ludicrous,” he writes. And yet, there is a keening sound present in Dante’s Italian, unless my eyes deceive me.

The fourth line of The Divine Comedy begins with the word “Ahi,” which represents a sound and a thought that we have in English only at a barely articulated level. It sounds like “eye,” but with a twist: “iyiyi” is one way I’ve seen it written in English. It is a slightly modified version of the sound an Italian might make after hitting himself on the thumb with a hammer. It is, in short, a keening sound. And as you can see, rendering it in English is no simple matter. Thus, James editorialized.

Longfellow rendered it as: “Ah, me.” Not a keening sound, perhaps, but neither is it the sound you’d expect from someone just back from the “luminous realm of Christian beatitude.” Longfellow’s version sounds like a maiden aunt. Dante’s did not, and in fairness to James, he rendered it, clearly and accurately, by editorializing.

It all goes to show the meaning that you can wring out of a careful reading of Dante.

We googled a bit, and found Shugaar on a number of websites. On this one, he explains his philosophy on translating from the Italian. Here’s an excerpt from Publishing World:

Of course, I understand the idea of preserving certain aspects for philological reasons. There is a translation of Machiavelli’s Discourses that intentionally reads as if it were written by a Martian, because it closely follows the sixteenth-century original, to give a perfect mirroring of certain terms. But it’s a pity, because Machiavelli was also a stylist.

But I believe that a translator should have freedom. Obviously, with freedom comes responsibilities. The responsibility to be absolutely faithful to the author’s intent (and that intent can only be found in the words of the original, so those words must be read closely). If you think the author’s intent was to write something weird, awkward, and foreign-sounding, embrace that. But on the whole, I think that if it sounded idiomatic in the original, you’re failing the author if you produce anything less than that in English.

shugaar

Translator Shugaar

I’m happy to produce a fully annotated version of anything I translate, showing where every element came from. Occasionally I’ll invent a joke or a pun to account for one that couldn’t come across. But that adheres to the law of the conservation of meaning: meaning can neither be lost nor destroyed in a closed translational system.

William Weaver once said that the hardest word in Italian to translate is “Buongiorno.” First of all, we think of it as two words. Second of all, it doesn’t mean “Good day,” except perhaps to an Australian. I often leave words like that in Italian. Unless, of course, the Italian novel is set in New York with American characters. For instance. Or Paris. Or Tokyo.

In Italian settings, you can have odd issues of style, protocol, and engineering. For instance, I remember a short story by Valeria Parrella that talking about someone moving from the road to the sidewalk. But in many places in Italy, the road is made of slabs of stone, and the sidewalk is paved with asphalt. Sort of the reverse of Brooklyn. So you might want to give the reader a tip as to which surface is asphalt, which stone. Or the fact that a sidewalk is where you park your car, now that we’re on the topic (that was a narrative point in a book by Fabio Bartolomei). The best illustration of that point I can think of was a street-cleaning/no-parking sign I saw in Milan many years ago. “Street cleaning next Wednesday, 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. Absolutely NO parking, NOT EVEN ON THE SIDEWALKS.” There you have it.

Man on the move … Dante, Robert Harrison, and The Divine Comedy in the NYRB

Saturday, October 5th, 2013
Share
Dante_Giotto

Da Man.

Links to Robert Pogue Harrison’s essay in the current New York Review of Books are everywhere – why should we be an exception?  All the more so, since we wrote about him a few days ago here, celebrating his most recent honor and title, Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres de la République Française, which has a rather pleasant ring to it. His latest review, “Dante: The Most Vivid Version,” considers Mary Jo Bang‘s translation of the Inferno and Clive James‘s translation of The Divine Comedy, as well as Dan Brown‘s Inferno.

I had the privilege of attending Robert’s class on Dante’s masterpiece a year or so ago, and so it’s no surprise to me that his essay focuses on … motion:

… the big difference between the sinners in Dante’s Hell and the penitents in his Purgatory is that the former are going nowhere, while the latter are moving toward a goal, namely the purgation of their sins and their eventual assumption into Paradise. In Purgatory time matters, and motion has a purpose. In Hell, by contrast, no matter how much the souls may be buffeted by storms, or run on burning sands, or carry heavy burdens, motion leads nowhere. In Dante’s vision Hell is a never-ending waste of time.

The great metaphysical doctrine underlying The Divine Comedy is that time is engendered by motion. Like the medieval scholastic tradition in which he was steeped, Dante subscribed to Plato’s notion that time, in its cosmological determinations, is “a moving image of eternity.” He subscribed furthermore to the Platonic and Aristotelian notion that the truest image of eternity in the material world is the circular motions of the heavens. Thus in Dante’s Paradiso, the heavenly spheres revolve in perfect circles around the “unmoved Mover,” namely God.

In the final analysis there are two kinds of motion in the world for Dante: the predetermined orderly motion of the cosmos, which revolves around the Godhead, and the undetermined motion of the human will, which is free to choose where to direct its desire—either toward the self or toward God. Yet be it self-love or love of God (love of neighbor is a declension of the latter), what moves the heavens is the same force that moves both sinners and saints alike, namely amor.

infernoRobert’s familiar music made for wonderful reading last night, but here’s the surprise.  He rather likes Bang’s translation.  If one one is going to take liberties with the translation – and she does– there should be a payoff, and “the payoff is a highly dynamic phrasing, with imagery and rhythms that intensify the sense of entrapment and disorientation,” he writes. I haven’t followed the reviews for Bang’s translation, let alone read the book, but most of the early critical bouquets were thrown by jazzed-up media types who like their Dante to sound like an addled meth addict.  Robert’s reading is more nuanced and intelligent than those hasty reactions … we have waited over a year for it.

Clive James does ring Robert’s bell on occasion – he singles out this passage towards the end of the essay, from the end of the Paradiso:

…but now, just like a wheel
That spins so evenly it measures time
By space, the deepest wish that I could feel
And all my will, were turning with the love
That moves the sun and all the stars above.

 

“Corduroy-vested academics” and others consider Mary Jo Bang’s Inferno

Sunday, August 19th, 2012
Share
Luca Signorelli's masterpiece in Orvieto Cathedral

.

Stopped mid-motion in the middle
Of what we call a life, I looked up and saw no sky –
Only a dense cage of leaf, tree, and twig. I was lost.

                                                                 –  Canto I, Inferno (trans. Mary Jo Bang)

I’d heard a bit of the  current buzz over Mary Jo Bang‘s new free-verse, free-wheeling translation of Dante‘s Inferno, published by Graywolf Press.  The commentary I’ve read to date seemed bemused, mostly admiring.  However, Vanity Fair‘s Elissa Schappell warns me that “Bang’s Inferno already has some corduroy-vested academics tugging on their beards with indignation and beetle-browed translators jabbing at their eyes with pencils.”  She offers more hepped-up writing than she does insight about the “thrillingly contemporary translation of the first part (the juiciest part) of Alighieri’s 14th century poem…”  Why is the Inferno considered “the juiciest part”?  Anna Akhmatova kept Doré’s engravings of it on the walls of her Fontanka apartment – but then, she was living in Soviet Russia, a place where the Inferno had a special resonance.  I’ve always taken a shine to the hopeful, redemptive, and comparatively underrated Purgatorio.

I also read  Alexander Nazaryan‘s “What Fresh Hell is This?” in the New York Daily News.  He admits that Bang  “does sacrifice some of the musicality of the original,” but defends her choices:  “Bang has sacrificed some of the faithfulness to Dante’s rhyming structure (which sounds too much like sing-song in English, anyway) and has ditched many, though not all, of Dante’s allusions, in order to preserve something more important: Dante’s meaning.”

Ummm… A good translation of Dante’s terza rima shouldn’t sound like “sing-song,” and I don’t see why I should be restricted to a bread-and-water poetry because some modern readers can’t handle meter.  Poetry, after all, is supposed to be “memorable speech,” and not just because of what the words say, but the means used to say them. And don’t the allusions illustrate the meaning?

He continues:

Bang’s hell is our culture, the numbing proliferation of texts, images, meanings, interpretations. For her, the perfervid busyness of our culture leads to a deadening akin to spiritual numbness. Hence the allusions to everything from Woody Allen‘s “Crimes and Misdemeanors” to the Boy Scouts to frozen Jell-O to the Hotel California – these are the fragments that have shored up against our ruins, to borrow from T.S. Eliot, who knew a thing or two about Dante, and death, and fittingly appears several times in these pages.

Isn’t “spiritual numbness” the same as deadening and not just “akin”?  Editor, please!  Also, Eliot knew much more than “a thing or two” about Dante.

Signorelli’s self-portrait. Fra Angelico has the short hair.

Then David Sanders‘s “Poetry News in Review” in Prairie Schooner alerted me to Arlice Davenport‘s thoughtful and provocative review, A Season in Hell,”  in (of all places) The Wichita Eagle. Davenport begins his review in Luca Signorelli‘s (not Luco, as written in the review) Brizio Chapel in the Orvieto Cathedral, with the artist portraying himself at the Apocalypse, “staring back at us, as if to say: Do you understand the meaning of my masterpiece, that I am painting your destiny here, among the damned and the saved?”

Nazaryan’s review begins: “All translation is modernization. Otherwise, we would have only one Homer, one Cervantes. However subtly, the translator is also an interpolator, making a world far away or long ago familiar to contemporary readers.”  This of course ignores the translation of our contemporaries – do Italo Calvino or Eugenio Montale need “modernization”?  Also, he overlooks the need to triangulate among translations to recapture the achievement of the original.  Similarly, Bang writes:  “Translation is a method of bringing the past back into the present . . . and sharing what is common to all.”

“No, that is history,” Davenport responds. “Translation is not about making the old new, but about creating a spirited equivalency of a literary work in another language.” He continues:

A great translation must contain the original, to be sure, but it must also reshape it into a fresh, artistically integral whole that speaks to the reader directly, powerfully, profoundly in his or her own language. It must enact, in foreign words, the closest approximation of the original it can muster. It must be beautiful, compelling, ensouled.

Translation doesn’t need contemporary bells and whistles to pull this off. It doesn’t need pragmatic theories of art. It genuinely aspires to the heavenly exchange of language, even if it must descend to Hell to get there.

Anything less leaves us feeling cheated, still lost in a dark wood, facing our fears, facing death, facing eternal punishment, and praying for a luminous guide to come our way.

Davenport asks:  Is the spiffy new translation a translation at all?  Then he considers other issues:

As with so many knee-jerk postmodernists, Bang’s poetics hinge on the belief that the “distinction between high culture and popular entertainment has all but ceased to exist.” So she’s free to throw in references to John Coltrane, “South Park,” Emily Dickinson, Andy Warhol, John Wayne Gacy, Stephen Colbert and Woody Allen, whenever it suits her purposes. Her Dante dwells in a pluralist’s paradise, even if he is in Hell.

But to say that contemporary culture no longer recognizes the difference between high and low art is not to say that there is no difference. It simply means that our culture has given up making the effort to sustain the difference. It is (again, ironically) a form of sour grapes.

Let’s look a little closer at Bang’s big idea. Doesn’t the fact that she, an award-winning poet, has to dig 700 years into the past to find a poem worth laboring over ultimately indict the vacuity of contemporary poetry?

Doesn’t her need to focus so intensely on Dante simply reinforce the unshakeable distinction between high and low art? Contemporary poets still idolize the author of “The Divine Comedy” because his grand, celestial achievement overreaches the centuries. His aim is sky high and heart deep: Divine Love and human love, reflected in the radiant visage of Virgil, and fulfilled in the heavenly reunion with Beatrice, his beloved.

Art doesn’t get much higher than that.

I worry about how we review poetry nowadays, and how much reviewers know about poetry at all, and what body of knowledge, experience, and understanding they bring to what they write.  Or do they simply go by their gut?

Postscript 8/20:  From the matchless Jeff Sypeck:  “I find it maddening that in 2012, Vanity Fair can’t provide us with a simple link so we know which ‘corduroy-vested academics’ are supposedly ‘tugging on their beards with indignation’ and which ‘beetle-browed translators’ are ‘jabbing at their eyes with pencils.’ It’s summer, and the book’s was out for a only week when the Vanity Fair blog post went live. Few academics, and certainly not the stereotypes who stumbled into Schappell’s article from early 1950s New England, have even read the book yet.”