In Conspiracy with Dante: Maria Massucco Interviews Translator Mary Jo Bang

To mark the occasion of the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death, Stanford Professor Robert Pogue Harrison and graduate student Donatella D’Aguanno orchestrated a panel that brought poet and translator Mary Jo Bang together in conversation with Emeritus Professor Marjorie Perloff. I saw the occasion as an opportunity to ask this most creative and skilled wordsmith a few questions about her process, her relationship to Dante, and her place in a long line of Dante translators. During the event, I was awestruck by the glimpse Bang allowed us of her painstaking process. Her renderings of Dante read easily and weave unexpected references in with humorous turns of phrase. But behind this ease is a compact layering of sound choice and image alignment in which Bang puts into motion the idea that intentions for the macrolevel are best achieved through unrelenting attention to the most miniscule of the microelements that make up a text.

Still, I would be amiss to paint a picture of Mary Jo Bang as no more than a careful puzzle-solver. She is, after all, the author of eight books of poems—including Elegy, which received the National Book Critics Circle Award—in addition to her translation of Dante’s Inferno, illustrated by Henrik Drescher, and Purgatorio. She has received a Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Berlin Prize Fellowship, and she currently teaches creative writing as a Professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis. 2022 will see the publication of her translation of Colonies of Paradise, poems by Matthias Göritz with TriQuarterly Books, and her ninth book of poems, A Film in Which I Play Everyone, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2023.

At a certain point during the event, Bang outlined the reasoning behind a Shakespeare reference in her translation, and Professor Perloff shook her head and insisted, “Yes, but how did you think of that?” The magical contingency of poetic imagination and the way Bang marshals it, through dedication to detail, into the service of translation’s task is what I admire most about her work. I am thankful she agreed to respond to my questions, which were largely inspired by the Stanford event of 9 November 2021.

Maria Florence Massucco

Maria Florence Massucco: Could you tell us the story of your encounter with Dante? How did you come to embark on the adventure of this translation project?

Mary Jo Bang. Photo by Matt Valentine

Mary Jo Bang: When we were graduate students in 1995, a friend and I read Inferno, and then Purgatorio, together. We both loved everything about the poem. We began to read Paradiso but, sadly, gave up too soon! (I now know that there is also much to love in that canticle.) Ten years later, I came across a found poem by Caroline Bergvall that was written in the year 2000 and titled “Via (48 Dante Variations).” Her poem was comprised of the first three original lines of the Inferno, followed by the first three lines of the forty-seven translations that were on the shelves of the British Library that year. Bergvall had appended the last name of the translator and the year of publication to each tercet.

Reading Bergvall’s arrangement, a form of repetition-with-revision, is sonically mesmerizing. It’s also fascinating to see that over several hundred years, no two translations are exactly alike, suggesting that there is no “right,” or even “best,” way to carry one language across into another. I was also struck by how elevated the translated language was and how it remained elevated over all of those years, making the poem seem frozen in time. It felt as if the poem had been written in the static literary Latin that Dante had adamantly chosen not to write in.

I wondered what Dante’s first three lines might sound like if I were to translate them into contemporary English? I substituted the phonic echoes of contemporary verse—assonance, alliteration, internal rhyme—for Dante’s terza rima and the continual phonic echoes inherent in Italian. After the first, I decided to do the next three lines, using the Charles E. Singleton translation on my shelf as a guide. I quickly realized that with the first tercet, I’d used Bergvall’s forty-seven different translations as Virgils, but now I was only using one. So, I went to the library at Washington University in St. Louis where I teach and brought back twelve translations, ranging from Longfellow’s 1867 version to Robert and Jean Hollander’s, published in 2000.

Initially, I was being very playful with the language but as I continued working on the translation over the next year or two, I came to a point where I wanted the translation to more closely adhere to the original. I began to understand that that is the challenge of translation. I went back and revised the early cantos and went forward with a new commitment to rigor. After seven years, the Inferno was finished. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to go on and translate Purgatorio but one day, I decided to translate a few lines, just to see whether it would be as engaging as Inferno had been, and there I was again, deep in the challenge of translating the poem into today’s language. I’m now working on Paradiso.

Maria Florence Massucco

MFM: How has translation for you been defined by a relationship with an author – in other words, are you a dantista in the translation form? Or has this ongoing experience kindled in you (or ruined for you!) an interest for poetic translation in general?

MJB: I have become very interested in poetic translation. After Inferno was published, a graduate student in the English Department, Yuki Tanaka, asked me to look at his translations of poems by Shuzo Takiguchi, a Japanese Surrealist poet. After working together on a number of short poems, Yuki proposed that we work as co-translators and translate the entire book, The Poetic Experiments of Shuzo Takiguchi 1927–1937. We worked on that book together during the time I was translating Purgatorio and we’ve just finished it. A German poet/novelist, Matthias Göritz, then asked whether I would translate his first book of poems in German, Loops. That book, re-titled Colonies of Paradise in English, will be published by TriQuarterly Books, an imprint of Northwestern University Press, in fall of 2022.

MFM: What kind of audience do you have in mind with your project? What do you understand to be Dante’s audience?

MJB: In terms of the audience for my translation, I’ve been guided by Dante’s argument for writing in the vernacular, instead of in literary Latin. He said that he wanted anyone who could read to be able to read his Comedy; he said Latin requires special training while we learn the vernacular as children simply by hearing it spoken. He also said that Latin was frozen in time and that poetry should be written in a language that changes over time. And he said that poetry needs to be written in a language that is instilled with warmth, which is the language with which we speak to our family, friends, and beloveds; Latin, he said, was too noble, it was so sublime it would overwhelm whatever was being said.

I’m following Dante in writing for everyone who can read. I’m especially writing for readers who may have wrongly assumed that the Comedy is simply a quaint literary artifact of a distant era that couldn’t possibly speak about our own urgent concerns. I’m also writing for those who have read other translations and found that the elevated register interfered with the empathic bond required to perceive the emotions that underly the drama of the text—and the humor, because Dante’s poem has a lot of wry humor.

MFM: Having had the chance to listen to you talk through your translation process, I was deeply impressed by the work that goes into each stanza for you: not a stone goes unturned and not a syllable uninvestigated. How would you characterize this process from the inside?

MJB: My process is very labor intensive. Part of that is personality, neurotic perfectionist tendencies, but that gets compounded by my lack of fluency in Italian. I never trust myself, even when I now recognize a word. I feel compelled to interrogate every word in order to understand all of the possible meanings embedded in it and to measure the affective weight of each possible meaning in the context in which the word is being used. Poetry, by its nature, compresses meaning by exploiting the natural ambiguity of words to mean more than one thing. I don’t want to miss any of the meanings that are in the original. I want to gesture to all of those, while making certain the subtle remains subordinate to the obvious.

I also love collaborating on translations. I couldn’t have translated the Takiguchi on my own since I don’t know any Japanese. Yuki Tanaka is a native speaker of Japanese, but still, while he could approach Takiguchi’s poems from the point of view of someone who was Japanese and completely immersed in that language and culture, Takiguchi was also a Surrealist who was deeply interested in European and American culture. I was able to bring what I knew about Surrealism and French and American culture, and together, we were able to pick up threads that helped guide us through intricately constructed, image-driven prose poems that were filled with wordplay and were often ten or more pages long. The range of cultural references he in the poems is striking, including, to name just a few, Plato, Hegel, Kant, Botticelli, raisin bread, a French Greek Morpheus (Morphee), quotes by Tristan Tzara and Gertrude Stein, Niagara Falls, Cleopatra’s daughter, biblical King David (via a halibut who has David’s bearded profile), and the Surrealist writers Paul Éluard, André Breton, and Louis Aragon; and the visual artists Giorgio di Chirico, Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst, Pablo Picasso, René Magritte, Joan Miró, Man Ray, and Salvador Dalí.

And I couldn’t have translated the Matthias Göritz poems from German without Matthias’s input. I would show him each draft and he would point out idioms I had missed, or moments where there was wordplay in the original. Sometimes that sense of play couldn’t be reproduced in English in the exact same location as in the original poem. In those cases, I would create play elsewhere in the poem, to try to maintain the blend of seriousness and subtle humor, the same complicated psychology. 

MFM: Many commentators have noted the sheer number translations of Dante’s work. How do you see yourself with respect to this tradition or impulse? Do you think the magnetism of the Comedy has to do with the kind of learning that translation entails?

MJB: I was surprised to recently learn that while there are well over 200 translations of Inferno into English, there are only 79 translations of the entire Comedy! That doesn’t seem a terribly large number. I think to translate the whole of the Comedy, one must be a bit obsessed with it, and I’m not sure that it’s ever possible to deconstruct all of the variables that factor into an obsession. You may be onto something, however, when you ask about the learning that happens through the translation. I can see for myself how that works. As in many things, the more you learn about a subject, the more you know how little you know, and that fuels the desire to know more. This is actually one of the major themes of the Comedy, which gets dealt with explicitly in Paradiso. In Dante’s schema, God’s gift to us is knowledge, which is love, and our love of knowledge equals our knowledge of God and that feeds our love of God. The more we know, the more we love God. The more we love God, the more we know.

MFM: What is the role of the ungraspable poetic imagination in your work?

MJB: We can’t have access to Dante’s imagination, not only because he’s now long-dead, but also because each of us is unknowable. Our consciousness is ours alone. The poet, however, creates a text that gestures in myriad ways to their interiority. They create a speaker who gives voice to various aspects of that interiority in any given moment. After the fact, readers can compile that evidence and have some vague idea of someone’s preoccupations, values, and attitudes. Perhaps because we are social animals, that seems to interest us, those glimpses into the consciousness of others. We feel an empathic bond when the text appears to echo our own concerns. All of that is achieved through language: marks on a page, or increasingly, on a computer screen. When I write over Dante, which is one way of thinking about translation, I can’t completely suppress my own consciousness so there will be, in word choice, in syntax, in every component that makes up the text, evidence of my own lived and felt life. It’s unavoidable. I like to think we are compatible, Dante and I, as co-authors, co-conspirators even, as we together carry the poem over into today’s English. In Canto XXX of Purgatorio, my eyes welled with tears, alongside his, when he looked back to speak to Virgil and realized he was gone. That’s how skillful Dante is at creating the empathic bond between the text and the reader. Perhaps the ungraspable poetic imagination is the ability to feel and then find words for those feelings that will trigger a like-feeling in the reader. It’s a very odd way to connect with others but poems have been around for a long time and this poem in particular is a marvel of daring in terms of expressing a vast range of feelings. The story, a young man in psychic crisis regains equilibrium with the help of an older guide, is one with which we are familiar, but this story is so brilliantly imaginative and so psychologically complex that it keeps drawing new readers.

MFM: You’ve said that over the course of your work with Dante’s Divine Comedy, you’ve learned to be a translator. What does that role mean, in your understanding? What do you believe to be moments of “translation failure” or their opposite, and how do you find compromises to that end?

MJB: I began by playing with language, finding English equivalents for the Italian, mimicking the readable meaning: “In the middle of the way of our life, I found myself in a dark wood because the right path was lost.” I kept thinking how when Dante says he was in the dark because the path was lost, what he is really saying is he was lost. If you’ve ever been lost, literally or figuratively, it’s terrifying. I felt the speaker would have to come out and say, “I was lost” in order to create that sense today. I also felt the forest needed to be more than a simple “dark wood.” My first canto of Inferno is:

Stopped midmotion in the middle

Of what we call our life, I looked up and saw no sky—

Only a dense cage of leaf, tree, and twig. I was lost.

When I say I’ve become a translator, I think today I would find a way to stay closer to the original. I would better observe the parameters of the forest and having lost the path. My translation of Purgatorio is closer to the original than Inferno was, Paradiso will be even closer. I’ve studied how Dante makes subjectivity adhere to language and language to plotline, character, and voice. He is a very strategic writer. I study his methodology by deconstructing the poem and interrogating each and every word and then trying to come up with an equivalent that does the same kind of work that Dante’s vernacular did in its own time.

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