Dante and Dylan? Translating the translator (part 2)

pencil_tip "Translating the Translator" continues with a brief master class on translation. Andrew Frisardi describes some of the choices he made in translating a key moment (and key poem) of Dante's "Vita Nova."

What influenced his choices? Many things, it turns out. He wanted to preserve the meaning of the original, capture a feeling of breathlessness and joy ... and follow the example of Bob Dylan.


Read on,  friends.


Here are three versions of the opening lines of “Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore” —the third is yours. [Note: The three excerpts appear at the very end of this post.]   I wonder if you'd discuss a few of the choices that you made in comparison to what the other two poets, J.G. Nichols and Dante Rossetti, respectively, have done in their versions. The most immediate ones, for me, were your decisions not to use the words "ladies" or "intelligence" in the opening line.

I used “women” instead of “lady” or “ladies” to distinguish other women from Beatrice. Only she is Dante’s “lady,” donna in the Italian, which comes from domina in Latin: female lord. Donna, then, was a term of respect, as in Bob Dylan’s “Lay lady lay” (which in any case would sound awful as “Lay woman lay”!).

At the same time, the word donna simply means “woman.” In order to heighten the contrast between Beatrice and the other women in the Vita Nova, I generally reserved the word “lady” for her, “woman” for the others. Dante’s original uses donna for both Beatrice and the others, but I felt that too much of the old-fashioned-sounding “lady” would be, well, too much. After all, he uses the word donna over 200 times in that short book. Neither “woman” nor “lady” in current usage carries both senses of donna, so I divided them up.

Your opening line is so different from the others.

I spent a lot of time trying to get that famous first line of the poem right. “Intelligence” in Rossetti and Nichols translates intelletto, which means intellect, not intelligence. In Dante’s time phrase avere intelletto meant “to understand”—the poem opens with “Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore,” literally “Women who have intellect of love.” In any case, “intelligence in love” is not what Dante is saying. It has nothing to do with being smart in love, which would be trite compared to what he is talking about.

Also, the phrase intelletto d’amore, intellect of love, is a translation of the Latin phrase intellectus amoris, used by medieval theologians to refer to the union of knowledge and love—this union being one of the main themes of Dante’s writing from start to finish. One theme that the stilnovists [Editor’s note: see part 1 of this interview], especially Dante, harp on about is that love and beauty carry real knowledge, not just sentiment. This poem’s opening phrase conveys this meaning in a very compact way.

In the end you decided against using the word “intellect.”

I felt I could not use “intellect” in this line without killing the poetry’s resonance. “Understand the truth of love” brings together the essential elements of Dante’s meaning, while making the phrase completely accessible to any contemporary reader, without having to know the theological background. It’s more lyrical, in short.

Above all in this poem, which is my own personal favorite in the Vita Nova, I aimed to convey, through the poem’s cadence and sound, a sense of the joyous quality of the original. In the lines you quote, there are a lot more enjambments [line breaks in the middle of grammatical units] than there are in Rossetti’s or Nichols’s. I did this to create breathlessness in speaking the lines, as one way to simulate joyful speech.

This poem’s your favorite—and Dante’s, right?

vita nova coverIn that passage in Purgatorio where reference is made to the dolce stil novo or sweet new style, mentioned, Dante is recognized by another, earlier Tuscan poet (one of the poets Dante and the other stilnovists blew away with their virtuosity) precisely as the man who wrote “Women who understand the truth of love.” So we know that Dante himself held this poem very dear, and considered it a milestone in his development.

Fluidity and melodiousness, along with openheartedness or joie de vivre, are the signature characteristics of this poetry. So that is what I aimed for above all in this poem, and in a few others in the Vita Nova that are especially representative of that stage of Dante’s writing.

What translation project are you working on now?

Dante again. This time his philosophical-allegorical treatise the Convivio, which he wrote in 1304-7, about ten years after the Vita Nova, while he was in exile. Convivio simply means “Banquet”; Dante says it’s meant to be a banquet of knowledge for those (such as civic leaders) who are hungry for philosophical knowledge but whose social obligations don’t leave them enough time to seek it out.

Like the Vita Nova, the Convivio is a combination of prose and poetry, although much more prose in this case. And also like the Vita Nova, it is written in the Florentine vernacular, a highly unconventional choice at that time, when philosophy was always written in Latin. Dante probably stopped writing the Convivio, which is unfinished, so he could write the Divine Comedy.


What do you think? Three versions/excerpts from “Vita Nova” by Dante

Ladies who have intelligence of love, It is my lady I would speak about. I cannot hope to make her praise complete, But if I speak it will relieve my mind. I say, when I consider her perfection, Such is the sweetness that Love makes me feel That, if my boldness did not flag and fail, My speech would force all men to fall in love. (J.G. Nichols)

Ladies that have intelligence in love, Of mine own lady I would speak with you; Not that I hope to count her praises through, But telling what I may, to ease my mind. And I declare that when I speak thereof Love sheds such perfect sweetness over me That if my courage fail'd not, certainly To him my listeners must be all resign'd. (D.G. Rossetti)

Women who understand the truth of love, I want to talk with you a while about my lady—not because I could run out of words and ways to praise her, but to set my mind at ease. Her worth is so above the rest, I feel such lightness in my heart, that if speech didn't stammer I'd impart new love to those who are not lovers yet. (A. Frisardi)

Translating the translator (part 1): Talking to Andrew Frisardi

Vanitas (still life): Michael Conrad Hirt, 1630 Now that the buzz around Dan Brown’s novel “Inferno” is settling down, let’s talk about Dante—the real Dante.

Andrew Frisardi is a celebrated translator and poet who calls Orvieto, Italy, his home and whose creative home is Italian literature. His most recent translation work includes the prize-winning Selected Poems of Giuseppe Ungaretti and Dante's Vita Nova. He's also an excellent critic, and I've had the pleasure of editing his book reviews (reading more than editing, actually) on several occasions.

Often, Brown gets kudos for introducing unfamiliar readers to a classical artist through his thrillers. Ok, that's superficially true, but the fact is, anyone truly interested in a deeper understanding of medieval Christendom's greatest poet would do better by considering Frisardi's translation, which critic Adam Kirsch praises as a "rich new edition" in his Barnes and Noble review.

In part 1, recently conducted via email (part 2 is coming later this week), Frisardi discusses his affection and admiration for Dante, as well as his views of the extremely cool circle of young Italian poets, the stilnovists, who changed 13th century poetry with their "sweet new style."


You’re known as an acclaimed translator of Giuseppe Ungaretti’s poetry. How did the decision to translate Dante's Vita Nova come about? 

I’d actually translated most of the Vita Nova a few years before the Ungaretti, long before I was ready to do it. Not that this helped me this time around--in fact, I never even looked at the old version, although I think I still have it somewhere in a box. That translation was awful anyway. But when I came back to the Vita Nova I was returning to an old love.

vita nova coverAn old love?

Yes. A little while after the Ungaretti, I fell for Dante even more than before. My earlier reading of Dante didn’t have the knowledge of Italian I’d gained by living in Orvieto for a number of years. By then I was in a position to notice my semi-literate neighbor using idiomatic expressions that Dante uses in the Divine Comedy—even though she’d never read Dante. Orvieto is in central Italy, as is Florence, so there is plenty of overlap of idiom. All of this really got me interested in the language of Dante, in a much more personal way. And, for three years, I was very enjoyably focused on the Divine Comedy, as part of an ad hoc reading group in town. I’ve been reading him ever since.

 Why does Dante's work continue to attract you, and how does translating Dante differ from translating Ungaretti? I can imagine that it was difficult to shift gears between them.

What drew me to Dante most of all was my own search for a visionary and metaphysical poetry. Dante is a great spiritual poet, maybe the greatest in the Western tradition. His writing goes to the roots of what it is to be human, to the most fundamental questions of who we are, where we come from, and where we are going. Ungaretti doesn’t have anything close to Dante’s range and scope and profundity. Then again, hardly any other writers do.

Ungaretti and Dante are very different poets, from very different periods of Italian history. But poetry is poetry—artful language and thinking/imagery/metaphors that get us out of the mindset of what Yeats called the “bundle of accidents that sits down to breakfast.” I don’t think of their differences so much as that they are both poets who have been important to me at particular phases of my life.

Was it difficult to keep the influence of other translations of Vita Nova from interfering with your work? 

This was easy for me for a few reasons. I didn’t look at any other translations of the poems until my version of a particular poem was more or less set. My process is to read the poem in Italian, go over it with a fine-tooth comb, using commentaries and other secondary sources, and then to do a prose translation. Then I memorize the original poem. Only after this do I begin translating it. Memorizing it enables me to see and hear things in the poem I’d miss otherwise.

Once my translation is all done, I often look at others’ versions at some point, to check against mine, but not always. I’m certain of the accuracy of my translation, so the only test left is the translation’s sound and texture, which I can get from the poem itself. That, and of course feedback from other poet-translators.

At this distance, I think it’s easy to forget that the stilnovists were flesh and blood. But they wrote in response to each other, challenged each other. (If they were alive today, they'd probably be bloggers on WordPress. That's the sense I get from the introduction to your new book.) Were Dante, Cavalcanti, and Company very aware of the larger public beyond their circle?

frisardiThey were a dynamic group, no doubt about it. Guido Cavalcanti was incandescently brilliant, both as a thinker and as a poet, and others such as Cino da Pistoia were very much engaged with the society of their time. Cino was a jurist. Dante was a leading politician in the Florence of his early adulthood, before his exile.

That said, the stilnovists or poets of the so-called “sweet new style” (as Dante calls it in Purgatorio canto 24) were not populists in our sense at all. They were avant-garde poets, but their accessibility quotient was closer to that of the French Symbolists than to the American Beats. They didn’t hesitate to express their vitriol for people they considered willfully ignorant--those who put material riches and prestige before the life of the mind or the soul.

In other words, they had swagger.

Definitely. Boccaccio tells a story in the Decameron of how Guido Cavalcanti was walking through a cemetery in Florence one day, when a group of young Florentine party animals--into being popular and rich, and that’s about it--came riding in on their horses, cornering Guido among the tombstones. They wanted to goad him, and started to ask him in an ironic tone why he always snubbed them.

He gave a brief and enigmatic response: “You can say anything you want to me in your own house.” And with that he leaped over one of the tombstones and started walking away. When he’d gone, they weren’t sure what he meant, until one of them realized he was referring to the graveyard, to their affinity to dead places. He was saying that people as ignorant and dull as they were, in comparison with him and his literary friends, were like dead men.

It definitely sounds like they didn't worry too much about cultivating an audience.

One common statement of the stilnovists is that their refined love poetry is for those who can get it, and those who cannot--well, that is their tough luck, they’re going to have to try harder.

Yes, they were aware of a public but they weren’t concerned with appealing to everyone. On the other hand, they were as famous in their time and place as lyrical poets generally get. Dante’s poem that we discuss [in Part 2 of the interview] was popular enough to be copied down by a scribe in Bologna well before the Vita Nova was published. But the stilnovists saw themselves as innovators in Italian poetry, ahead of their time--as in fact they were.

Related articles on Andrew Frisardi and Dante

The Last Tolkien?

Trampled underfoot: The Saxons are overcome by Arthur and his forces. No, the above title doesn't refer to the bloodline of J.R.R. Tolkien's family -- it has to do with the most recent addition to the collection of Tolkien's writings, "The Fall of Arthur" edited by Christopher Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

It's probably not a good idea to say "last" when it comes to a writer like Tolkien. There are too many fragmentary pieces lying around, and his son Christopher is far too skillful as a weaver and interpreter to deprive his father's hungry audience of more.

But "The Fall of Arthur" is hardly a minor fragment even if it's far from complete. Tolkien the Son provides us with not only the thrilling manuscript of Arthur's final wars against Mordred and Germanic invaders, rendered in alliterative half-lines

As wary as wolves     through the wood stalking to the marches rode there      Mordred's hunters, huge and hungry      hounds beside them the fewte followed      fiercely baying...

but also with several context-setting essays about the poem's relationship to Tolkien's evolving ideas about The Lord of the Rings. This is the kind of rich, fascinating material that will send you to eBay in search of a broadsword and shield (if Game of Thrones hasn't made you already).

225px-The_Fall_of_ArthurChristopher Tolkien is an ideal guide, poring over his father's notes and scribbles  -- Tolkien abandoned the poem in the 1930s -- and showing us his father's earliest ideas for The Silmarillion and how, for instance, that epic's "Lonely Isle" of the elves was first associated with Arthur's Avalon, or "Fortunate Isle."

Several times, in my reading, something odd happened to me. I forgot that Tolkien belonged to the 20th century. His alliterative style, meter, and word choice are thoroughly convincing. And I forgot that his son was an editor and I started treating him like a translator -- like the poet Simon Armitage, who recently gave us a version of the 15th century poem, The Death of King Arthur.

This isn't dry, academic reading, my friends. Not only is the poem convincing, it's frequently moving. There's an especially powerful moment near the fragment's end, as Arthur contemplates the wars ahead of him before he can restore his beloved country:

With woe and weariness    and war sated, kingship owning     crowned and righteous he would pass in peace     pardon granting, the hurt healing    and the whole guiding, to Britain the blessed     bliss recalling. Death lay between     dark before him ere the way were won     or the world conquered.

Such a sentiment could be Tolkien's own yearning for peace in his time. Or ours for that matter.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has done readers an immense service--with the Tolkien Estate and son Christopher--to bring this work to the public. Here you'll find one of those rare chances to closely examine the creative process -- all the selections, all the choices and changes, all the omissions -- of a great storyteller.

What does poetry mean? A talk with Michael Odom

The Poet: by Jean-Bernard Restout When it comes to writing, a friend's comment has guided me whenever I've reviewed a book or thought about my own work. It's not the size of the book that matters but the distance the reader travels in a sentence (I'm sure he borrowed that idea from someone).

I kept thinking about that insight as I read Michael Odom's book of poetry, "Strutting Attracting Snapping." At 27 pages, this slender volume is anything but a quick read -- there's an intricate architecture to each poem that undoubtedly required time to assemble, and requires plenty of time to read and truly understand. You can find Odom's book through a variety of book  outlets, and here's one.

Michael generously agreed to share his thoughts on poetry and his writing process in the following exchange, via email. You can also read more about his book and views at Jilanne Hoffmann's blog, and at Odom's own blog, Mao's Trap.

This entry is a bit longer than the usual ones, but it's entirely worth it. Pour yourself a tall cold one (just don't spill it on the keyboard), relax, and listen to one poet's views of his craft and the role of poetry in our modern world.


How did you start writing poetry, and what’s your definition of it? To you, what does poetry mean?

I remember crafting my own edition of Peter Pan out of tin foil at 6 or 7 and co-opting my older sister’s college literature anthology when I was still in high school. But serious writing began with a year of study in West Yorkshire, England, beside the Brontes and the English Romantics. I was a Philosophy student on a year abroad when I found myself unwilling and/or unable to turn from William Blake back to A.J. Ayer. The turn to Poetry from Philosophy was so violent I almost didn’t finish my B.A. It was indecision between the fields that kept me from the MFA.

What happened after that?

For 20 years after college, I worked in bookstores at all levels, chains and independents, almost always as the Poetry Buyer. Poets and publishers came to me with their works and I hosted their readings. Books were free or discounted. It was easy to keep up.

All of the stores I worked at, except one (Barnes & Noble), are out of business now. It was the reality of bookstores in our time that made the MFA a real need. Even so, it took Ilya Kaminsky to steer me to it (he was Ilya, a law student/customer in San Francisco. Now he’s Professor Kaminsky, internationally famous, award-winning poet).

Most poets coming up through the MFA programs respond to one recent school or another. In the 21st century, when there is nothing more cliché than an avant-garde poet, I never accept a poetic that cannot include Alexander Pope & Basho, Plath & Li Po, Millay, Ausías March & Thom Gunn. If, to read or write like Hejinian, you must refuse everything to be learned from Yeats, your poetic is false. If Shakespeare is a counter-example to your theory, give up.

The poet works language for aesthetic effect. At its best, as with all culture, poetry engages and broadens our minds. At its worst, it narrows. In art, the great goal is the beautiful, not the pretty: the beautiful is attractive in the sense that your 75-year-old spouse dying of colon cancer is attractive. Your suffering spouse will attract your full attention because he or she means too heavily to not engage you in crisis. It is meaning that gives beauty. And the order, distance, & evocation of beauty in a creation make of it a work of art.

Reading the poems in your book requires time, slowness. At least it did for me. Your language demands it. There's density here — the way Dylan Thomas’ language is often dense.  For instance, “Under the tutelage of Orion’s arm/Lording above in the ocean’s leprous cousin...”  It seems to me that images like these don’t come quickly or easily — that it must have taken a long time to piece together the language and the obscurity of the images. 

odom_bookI do count obscurity as a flaw in poems, but a flaw that cannot be remedied by writing more directly. A poet must, like a poetry reader, come to the aesthetic experience of a poem, not the paraphrase, not the philosophy, not the story. In my best poems, I believe I reach that ideal.

The line you cite is one of my favorites both for itself and the role it plays in that poem. As to how I created it, that poem is one that came from the collision of a translated model (it is so far as to be unrecognizable) a collection of words & phrases I wanted to use, a memory & psychological guess.

The image of the night sky -- with its pimples, dimples, rashes, and dropping parts, as the ‘cousin’ of the ocean which at night can seem all but a blank dark sheet, and from that disease, Orion comes as a violent school master – is derived logically from the sensibility of a pubescent boy going wrong matched with the description of the night sky. I’ve heard the reasoning of poets contrasted with the works of logicians. With degrees in Philosophy and Poetry, I can tell you the logic is the same, if more intuited than diagrammed for poets.

As for Dylan Thomas: my son is named after him.

The technological world tries to invade your poems, but you give it a firm backhand and transform it. For instance, I like the subtle sudden shift from technology (cellphones) to the physical body in the line :  “Cell? All of your cells....”   Do you think poetry still matters in our twittering, technology-saturated society?

Technology is like houses, trees, grass, sky, people, etc: it is scenery and props. Twitter is a figurant in the daily drama. The essential, the poetry part of the drama, is still the same and as essential as ever. That said…

Google, Skype, email, etc., give the individual brain infinite memory, infinite capacity: Many libraries worth of reference works and an Earth of contacts are within a few seconds’ reach.

Also, though Twitter is limited, YouTube, Skype, Google, self-publication, blogs…  limited attention spans, so readily distractible, are an opportunity for an art form that begins in an acorn but grows to the size of an oak tree for the enticed.

But it will have to be a pretty interesting acorn. Like Shakespeare needed the stage, so poets may find great use for YouTube. Of course, they will have to be better at it and at least try to engage the muffled curiosity of the browser. The novel, even the short story, may be in trouble. Poetry has an opportunity for a michael-odomrenaissance.

It does?

Yes, but we lack the true gatekeepers, the critics, who once played a sorting role for readers. YouTube has many critics playing that role for videogames with varying degrees of prominence. My son watches them and his buying choices, experience of games, and his best work in school reflect them. Most critics who bother with poems, unfortunately, are poets themselves. Their primary goal, conscious or not, is self-promotion.

We need to transcend the chumminess of poet/publishers, poet/editors, poet/critics. We need poet/poets and the rest can be readers. The internet could create a demand for the sorting kind of critic and, in doing so, share poems far beyond the confines of academia.

The blurb on the back of your book describes these as "love poems." But when I come across lines like "The snail leaves slime here. She leaves lust" and  "The bible never called her sirloin. It called her prime rib" (about Adam's Eve, a great line), I feel like editing that blurb so that it says "poems of violence and desire" instead. For you, in your poetry, what is love?

When our most basic needs are kept behind the will of another, there will be anger, pleading, desperation, resentment, even hatred. When not functional, these pass and, functional or not, return again. Wisdom and intimacy play roles I’ll get to one day but, for now,  the cultural nightmares come when denied need becomes an ideology of oppression, repression, renunciation, or demand.

These are Love poems in that they concern that Homo sapien need that precedes social construction. But I have to admit a kind of Stephen King fascination with desperation. I think the half-worked conundrum of Feminism/ objectification/stalking mixed with Romeo waiting in the bushes outside Juliet’s window is the most existentially traumatic modern transition the West is trying and failing to make.

What poets do you read and admire?

The 20th Century canon is always in my head. When I first got the job at Tower and became enamored of poet’s voices, I bought all the Caedmon tapes and many more. I would take long walks listening to poems and have them in the background when I washed dishes and such. Ezra Pound was on my answering machine declaiming “…this is a darn clever bunch”. To this day, I read first as a listener.

I read a lot of translations and classics. My great passions are usually lyric poets, often canonical (recently Louis MacNeice) or translations (Salvador Espriu).

Of contemporaries, I believe Anne Carson and Alice Notley (The Descent of Alette) are essential. Kaminsky has been a friend and an enormous influence but I suspect his book to top all is being revised yet one more time and we will all die before it comes out. I admire David Ferry and A.E. Stallings but the most fun I’ve had reading poetry lately was in Stephen Scafidi’s books.

You're also a translator. What translation work has been the most meaningful for your life and your poetry?

Linguists translate language. Poets translate Poetry. But poets translate the way burglars study architecture. I’m best at identifying the rich people’s houses and deciphering their locks.

Over the last two years, with the poet on Skype watching like a security camera, I’ve been translating Lluís Roda’s Nadir from Catalan. His influence has lopped the terrible titles off of my poems and affirmed the broadest & greediest approach to language and love.

Early Nabokov: new in bookstores

Nabokov grave, Switzerland Plays are supposed to be performed, not read — that’s the rule, right?

An acquaintance of mine once arched his eyebrows when I told him I was rereading Hamlet. "You’re not supposed to read Shakespeare," he said, rolling his eyes. (Ok, sure, but can you point me in the direction of a good, local production of Hamlet?)

In Vladimir Nabokov’s case, the opposite is probably true.

This month Alfred A. Knopf has published one of his earliest major works, “The Tragedy of Mister Morn,” and it’s a pleasurable experience to read this play (one of few by the sublime writer/butterfly-chaser).  There’s the familiar wordplay that's in his novels, and the jarring metaphors — all kindly rendered in English by translators Thomas Karshan and Anastasia Tolstoy (yes, that Tolstoy).

But I could never imagine it performed--it wasn't--and I could never imagine an actor handling some of these lines.

 Too many mouthfuls. Like the character Tremens, a revolutionary, who offers this meditation:

What is the ecstasy of death? It is a pain, Like lightning. The soul is like a tooth, God Wrenches out the soul — crunch!--and it is over... What comes next? Unthinkable nausea and then-- The void, spirals of madness—and the feeling of being A swirling spermatozoid—and then darkness, Darkness—the velvety abyss of the grave, And in that abyss....

Edmin: Enough! This is worse Than talking about a bad painting.

The language is rich and strange — have you ever thought of God as a dentist before? -- but it just seems like it would be difficult for an actor to pull off. (At least Tremens gets interrupted by Edmin.)

Be quiet, I beg you! It’s quarter to... This is unbearable! The clock-hands move Like hunchbacks; like a widow and an orphan Behind a catafalque....

Still, the publisher calls it a major work, and that feels right. This book is a necessity for your Nabokov collection. Here’s the young writer, homeless and fatherless (after the Bolshevik revolution, after his father's assassination), speaking out  in beguiling fashion at the age of 24 — just 24! -- against tyrants and revolutionaries before he firmly wrapped the greatcoat of fiction around his shoulders.