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 once and future mystery: recent in bookstores

'Twill never be forgot: Robert Goulet and Julie Andrews in "Camelot." A few years ago, Adam Ardrey published a couple of books about the history behind the King Arthur legend, and he titled them "Finding Merlin" and "Finding Arthur." Both are speculative histories that peel away the myths and try to identify the flesh-and-blood figures of early Britain who inspired the Arthurian legend. When "Finding Camlann" (W.W. Norton & Company) appeared, I thought it was another installment by the Scot, aiming for a trilogy gift-set just in time for the holidays. It isn't.

Instead, "Finding Camlann" is an enjoyable literary detective novel by Sean Pidgeon that had me thinking of Byatt's "Possession" and Kostova's "The Historian." Both of those books are partly about trails of clues left in ancient manuscripts, and Pidgeon's first novel clearly belongs with them in your library.  For his novel's two researchers, Donald and Julia, the hunt for the real Arthur's kingdom is facilitated by "The Song of Lailoken"--a Welsh poem that tells the story of the king's final, fatal battle.

There's nothing better than a mystery connected with literary tradition. Dan Brown might grab the headlines for his new Dante-themed thriller,  but Pidgeon's book deserves a look this summer. Not only do books like his help us to appreciate stories thoroughly embalmed by our high school English classes, they remind us that the past contains so much that's worth our time.

SPEAKING OF ARTHUR: by the way, the mailman delivered the best kind of mail yesterday: a copy of "The Fall of Arthur" by J.R.R. Tolkien and published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. This will probably be the last (is it really?) "new" Tolkien item to appear in the years since the ringmaster's death in 1973. Edited and curated by Tolkien's son, Christopher, the book was delivered into my hot little hands just in time for the three-day holiday: Nothing better than some alliterative Anglo-Saxon verse poolside!

I'll have a full report next week. Until then, my friends, a happy Memorial Day to you and yours.

Reviews of Dan Brown's latest ... ugh

Il Miglior Fabbro in a pensive mood (perhaps thinking about books and book reviewers): portrait by Agnolo Bronzino

Another Dan Brown novel, another pack of smug reviews.

Here’s my confession:  I’m already sick of the reviews of Brown’s "Inferno," and the book only pubbed a day ago. Reviewers say that Brown doesn’t do anything new in his latest, but here’s the thing: neither do they.

The criticisms are predictable; the angles are all the same. "How can he write such drivel?” they say, wringing their hands. At this point, after four books, attacking Brown's prose style or story line is unimaginative and tiresome -- like shooting fish in the proverbial barrel.

If they can do better than Brown, then they should give it a try. Please. That’s what’s changed for me, my friends. As I've worked with historical material and puzzles in a book of my own,  I’ve come to appreciate Brown even if I wouldn’t make the same narrative choices.

Every reviewer, in fact, should try to write a novel or a story before offering to review one. That doesn't mean that you'll become an instant cheerleader. But at least you'll have a broader perspective ... and maybe you'll avoid carpal tunnel syndrome from all that hand-wringing. Writing  is an extraordinarily humbling, powerful journey.


Good: New York Times (keeps perspective on the story, and the thriller genre):

Decent: The Globe and Mail (it starts off like all the rest, and then changes) New York Daily News:

Eye-rollers The Standard: Clives James in USA Today:

Praise (with an extreme back of the hand) The Telegraph:

Completely lame: The Guardian (imitating Brown’s writing)

Mea culpa: I’m no innocent bystander. I was once guilty of this sort of holier-than-thou reviewing too,0,5481048.story (blech)

Profile in courage

Dan Brown Inferno coverDante Alighieri is a fascinating figure, and hopefully I'll be able to tell you what really fascinates me about that poor, exiled figure at some point in the near future when my work on a book about him is done. Keep your fingers crossed for me, beloved friends. In the meantime, I feel like I should at least present the cover image of Dan Brown's forthcoming book "Inferno," which is being published by Random House in May, for your viewing pleasure. The publisher sent out images of the cover yesterday. This will be the fourth action novel featuring renowned symbologist Robert Langdon.

I have to admit, it's a little disappointing to see Dante's profile, that familiar, angular chin and nose, clouded over by a bunch of thriller imagery, but thankfully it still shows through -- like a mountain peak through a bank of fog.

That red band running down the cover and merging with the red of Dante's cap and robes -- is that like the Rose Line of "The Da Vinci Code" or is it just a little design element?  Brown's book jackets are always packed with symbolism, so I'd guess that there's more to it. We will see in May.

'I'm still looking for the answers': An interview with Ross King

Ross King, author of "Leonardo and 'The Last Supper' "; Credit: Judith Ghilks Why Italy? Why Leonardo? Why Michelangelo? Yes, these are simple questions, but they're the best ones to present to novelist and historical biographer Ross King, whose latest book is "Leonardo and 'The Last Supper' " (Walker & Company).

I borrowed a page (and some inspiration) from another book blog, The Arched Doorway -- and a nice interview of Karen Dales -- and decided to ask Ross  to discuss the motivations behind his writing (he's far too polite to ever refuse; note his friendly expression to the left).

Our discussion also moved in the direction of thriller writer Dan Brown, but this  conversation took place well before the announcement this week that Brown's forthcoming new Robert Langdon novel is situated in Italy, a country that Ross continually revisits in his nonfiction work.

You've written about Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, Machiavelli, now Leonardo --- Where does your fascination with the Italian past come from?

Ross King: I’m interested in those moments in history when there’s a very definite shift -- a revolution even -- in the way people design, paint and think. Fifteenth-century Florence was probably the best example we have of these intellectual and artistic tipping points.

I’m interested in how it was that a city of only 30,000 people managed to produce, in the space of a century, geniuses such as Brunelleschi, Donatello, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Machiavelli. I’m still looking for the answers!

Your earlier books included novels, but your most recent books are works of nonfiction -- do you consider nonfiction to be your home, now, or would you consider a return to fiction if the right subject presented itself?

RK: I would definitely love to do another novel. Unbelievable as it seems to me, it’s been fifteen years since I wrote my last novel, “Ex-Libris.” I do have a few ideas, so it’s a matter of finding the time to develop them. I’ve learned a lot about writing in the last fifteen years, so I’m hopeful that I could do a reasonably good job!

How do you feel about books like "The Da Vinci Code" which suggest hidden conspiracies and messages in Leonardo's work? 

LeonardoRK: I don’t agree with many of the popular interpretations of Leonardo’s work. They say more about our own obsessions than those of Leonardo and his contemporaries. But on the other hand I don’t object to anything that makes people look more closely at works of art, or anything that brings artists to public consciousness. Funnily enough, “The Da Vinci Code” was in part responsible for my book on Leonardo.

It was? So Dan Brown deserves some credit for leading you to the subject of your newest book?

RK: Yes, in a way he does. Back in the heyday of Dan Brown, I used to get asked to give lectures on the “real” Leonardo and the truth, or otherwise, of “The Da Vinci Code.” The novel forced me to look very closely at the paintings and also to study the documentary evidence and historical record. It was while doing my research for these lectures that I realized how the full story of how Leonardo painted “The Last Supper” would be a fascinating subject for a book. So I suppose I ultimately do have Dan Brown to thank for that!

Your new book sheds so much light on the creation of a world masterpiece, and I wonder if thriller writers like Brown have actually helped you in another way: to reach an even wider audience. I'd bet that more people know about Leonardo now, thanks to Brown, and that must be helpful to writers with a more scholarly, serious interest.  What do you think?

RK: Yes, it may well be that “The Da Vinci Code” has helped writers tackling the historical Leonardo - such as Charles Nicholl or myself - reach a wider audience. So for that, too, I can make no complaint.