FELICITY TEAGUE: So, Andrew, when did your interest in translation begin? Was it triggered by anything in particular?
ANDREW FRISARDI: I think I first got into poetry translation in the mid-1990s, when I was in the MFA program at Syracuse University in Upstate New York. I may have translated a few poems from Italian before that, but at Syracuse I had more time because I had scholarship money, and I decided to use it in part by doing an independent study of Dante’s Vita Nova. My goal was to translate the VN and write an essay about it, which I did, supervised by the poet-memoirist Mary Karr. Mary didn’t know much about Dante, but she was interested in learning, so we met regularly to talk about it. My Italian was limited at the time, my translation was awful, and the Vita Nova edition I’ve published since then did not refer to it at all, but it was a good exercise and launched me into independent Dante studies. After that, I started translating various modern Italian poets I found in anthologies, which led me to Giuseppe Ungaretti and my book of his selected poems.
What triggered my interest? I’ve thought a lot about how I only translate from Italian. Besides the fact that I know the language well, I could also, with more effort, translate from French or Spanish, say. But for me, Italian carries many personal associations, because my father was Italian, and my mother was American but had lived in Italy and knew Italian fluently. They got married in Rome, and we lived in Rome for a while when I was very small. I grew up with my parents talking (usually arguing) in Italian, and I didn’t understand a word of it. I always say I had to learn Italian well to understand what my parents were arguing about. It seemed the most natural thing in the world, when I found a poem I loved in Italian, to want to see what it might be like in English.
Yes, that makes sense to me! So, your first translation project, so to speak, was Dante’s Vita Nova. Do you recall your reasons for starting with this poet and his libello at the time?
I’d already been drawn to Dante’s poetry for quite a while, though all I knew — and only vaguely at the time, and in translation — was the Divine Comedy. I was curious about what he might have written when he was young, and I wanted to hear what he sounded like in his own words. I think I knew intuitively that I was going to fall in love with his language. Translation is one of the deepest, most intimate forms of reading, so I went for it.
Andrew, I like your description of translation; I relate to it. My degree involved translating the likes of Virgil, Cicero, Pliny, which felt rather intense at times. Beyond requiring a good grasp of Latin, I felt a need for such things as historical context and to some extent understanding of the individual authors themselves to make a success of it all. Does any of this chime with you?
Very much so. Translation especially of authors from another era requires a lot of lateral thinking as well as meticulous scholarship. It is a balancing act, since on one hand the translator is taking the words of an ancient or medieval author and putting them into the language and idioms of the present. But on the other hand, the translator is also translating our own time back to that former time: translation is a two-way street in time.
Now I’d like to focus on Dante, in particular on a translation I’ve enjoyed recently, from your book The Harvest and the Lamp. It’s “You pilgrims walking by, oblivious,” from the Vita Nova. Perhaps you could talk through your translation process here?
I have a bad memory for things like early drafts, but your question prompted me to take a look at my old folder and I see there that the translation came together quite fast. I only went through five drafts, while some poems in the Vita Nova went through twice that or more. One thing about my Dante translations is that I memorized every poem in the original before I translated it. So, I am sure I did that with this one too, though I only remember a few lines of it now. I find that memorizing helps to get more deeply into the sonics of the poem, as well as the meanings. I made a prose crib of the poem only after I had memorized it, and I never translated from the crib but from the poem on the page and in my memory. I translated this particular poem early on in my work on the Vita Nova, in February 2010, and I did feel at the time that I was gaining momentum with the project. I workshopped every poem in that book on the poetry forum Eratosphere, which helped me spot the technical details I’d missed.
That does sound like fast work, Andrew; perhaps your earlier translation of the Vita Nova, albeit unused in your published translation, made for good prep in terms of everything involved in a translation project.
Actually, that earlier translation of the Vita Nova did not have much effect on my later work on it, not that I am aware of anyway. I think it is still in a box of papers in Massachusetts. What did help me was that I already knew the Vita Nova fairly well, at least in terms of its surface meaning and story line.
I recently became familiar with some of your translation of the Vita Nova from the BBC Three program Words and Music, in an episode commemorating 700 years since Dante’s death. Specifically, I remember a sonnet celebrating Beatrice, which I enjoyed a lot. Could we look at the language, maybe?
I think you’re referring to the sonnet Tanto gentile e tanto onesta pare, one of the most famous poems in Italian literature, and very difficult to translate. The version you heard on that show was not mine, actually. I think the editors of that show didn’t like that I took several liberties with the original, since they did use some of my other Vita Nova translations. That opening line literally reads, “So noble and so dignified / honorable appears,” and that is where I made my first radical departure from the literal sense, translating gentile as “open” rather than “noble.” The reason I did that is because the word noble has a different resonance in our context and for the average contemporary sensibility than it did for Dante and his audience. I liked “open” for gentile in certain places in the Vita Nova, since it implies the kindness and generosity that is an essential aspect of nobility as Dante describes it. In that same opening line, I translated onesta as “self-possessed” rather than the literal sense, because in the following lines the people watching Beatrice pass are transfixed by her presence, and self-possession (especially in someone who is open as well) matches that emotion better than the rather stiff-sounding “dignified” or “honorable.” Later on in the poem, I translate the beautiful Italian word soave even more loosely. Soave is an impossible word to translate adequately into English: “gentle,” “sweet,” or “soft” do not convey its resonant and sensual shades of meaning. I opted to give an image that conveys its sensuality with a modifying phrase, “as if spring’s begun,” trying to give the feeling of the word rather than its literal sense.
This sonnet seems simple on the surface but it is anything but. It is actually a highly sophisticated metaphysical love poem, presenting Beatrice’s beauty as a divine manifestation, and the position of every word is a conscious design. Coleridge’s idea of poetry as “the best words in the best order” applies here fully, which is what makes it so hard to translate. As in most of Dante, the doctrinal or intellectual content of the poem is blended with its emotional and aesthetic content. A translation has to try to capture this blend. The first line of the poem ends with the word “appears,” pare, while the second line opens with “my lady” or la donna mia. The word “appears,” occurring at the end of the first line, is like a flash before the manifestation of divinity. So, I had to maintain that position of the word in my translation. In addition, there is a sharp enjambment, or line break in the middle of a phrase, that occurs between this word and the words “my lady,” which begin the second line of the poem like the epiphany of a goddess. It is a poem of radiant manifestation of the invisible — as the repetition in the poem of the words “appears” and “shows” is meant to suggest. And these observations are not a matter of reading too much into Dante’s intentions. Anyone who knows Dante knows that he is the craftiest and most intentional artist imaginable.
The mention in the poem of an incarnation on earth that manifests heaven is an obvious reference to Christ. In what I have translated as “breathes upon the soul,” the original simply says that the loving spirit speaks to the soul. But the word sospira, sigh, forms a wordplay that Dante and other poets were fond of, with spirito, spirit — both suggesting “breath” or spiritus. These verbal echoes, combined with the Christ-like portrayal of Beatrice in this poem and in the prose that introduces it, suggest that Dante at the end of the poem, where he mentions the spirit telling the soul to sigh, has in mind the biblical scene following Christ’s resurrection in which Christ breathes the Holy Spirit — the Spirit of Love — upon his disciples.
For the sake of clarity, I’ll quote my whole translation. I didn’t follow the original rhyme scheme exactly. Dante used what we know as the Italian or Petrarchan sonnet rhyme scheme — ABBAABBA in the octave. He rhymes the sestet CDEEDC, while I have EFGGEF.
So open and so self-possessed appears
my lady when she’s greeting everyone,
that every tongue, in trembling, falters dumb,
and eyes don’t dare to watch her as she nears.
She senses all the praising of her worth,
and passes by, benevolently dressed
in humbleness, appearing manifest
from heaven to show a miracle on earth.
She shows herself so pleasing to the one
who sees her, sweetness passes through the eye
to the heart — as he who’s missed it never knows.
So from her face it then appears there blows
a loving spirit, as if spring’s begun,
which breathes upon the soul and tells it: Sigh.
Thank you, Andrew; that was very interesting. I’m sorry your translation wasn’t used by the BBC. The Beeb is a rather traditional institution, which might account for the editors’ decision to use a more literal translation of the sonnet. But I think it makes sense to depart from the original for the sake of engaging with today’s audience. Have you done this elsewhere in the Vita Nova or in any other Dante translations?
Yes, here and there as the need arose. Another great poem in the Vita Nova, this one a canzone, has the opening line “Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore,” literally: “Women who have understanding (or intelligence) of love.” Some have translated intelletto even more literally, as “intellect,” but the word, as I’m sure you know, comes from the Latin verb for understanding. The key in the line, and in the poem as a whole and throughout Dante, is the marriage of love and knowledge, or beauty and intellect — Dante continually considers the interplay and connections between them in his poetry. I was excited, then, when I came up with the translation “Women who understand the truth of love,” which I feel brings sound and sense together more fully than the clumsy sounding “understanding” or “intellect.” Love is the bearer of truth: there is nothing more Dantean than that statement.
In short, yes, there are very many places where I used nonliteral translations for words or phrases in order to convey the emotional flavor and nuance of Dante’s poetic thought. The Convivio was especially challenging in this way, because Dante uses a lot of technical language from scholastic philosophy in that work.
I imagine there’s a great thrill in achieving a translation that captures the essence of the original author! When you came to the Convivio, did you need to research scholastic philosophy as preparation for the translation work?
I wouldn’t claim to have captured Dante’s essence. A flavor, yes, but I think the essence of the poem ultimately only comes across in its original form. Dante says it himself in the Convivio: “Everyone should know that nothing harmonized by a musical bond can be changed over from its own language into another without breaking all its sweetness and harmony.” In my translations of the three long poems in the Convivio, I aimed to be very accurate with their sense and meaning; since they are doctrinal poems, Dante is expressing precise ideas through their symbolic language. The prose of the Convivio, which is most of it, is a self-commentary on those poems. At the same time, I tried to make them enjoyable to read in English and did imitate the rhyme schemes and meters. As far as research for that project: Yes, I did a large amount of reading for it over the five-year period that it took me to do it. To translate anyone, I believe the translator should inhabit the author’s mind and culture as much as possible. Dante’s mind and culture are quite vast, so I had a lot of reading to do, both in primary texts and in secondary sources. The bibliography is 35 pages long, so that gives an idea of what was involved. I happen to like scholastic philosophy, which was a help.
Yes, that would have been of assistance! I’m interested in philosophy; a few philosophers popped up during my degree. Could we take a look at something from the Convivio?
It is hard to sum up the Convivio because it is a hybrid mix of subject matter and styles. Dante wrote it in his early years of exile from Florence, and never finished it — what we have is only a quarter of what he had planned — probably because he left it in order to write the Divine Comedy. He wrote it in the vernacular Florentine dialect, which was an entirely radical thing to do at that time, because he wanted knowledge to be available to all, even those who did not know Latin. He called it a convivio, or banquet, because he pictured it as a communal meal of knowledge. Most of Book I is a defense of using the vernacular for his book, which he did even more radically in using Florentine for the Comedy, which as an epic poem would have been expected to be in Latin. Books II and III focus on Dante’s new love for philosophy after Beatrice’s death, which is the central event of the Vita Nova. Book IV is a treatise about the true nature of nobility, which Dante insists has nothing to do with wealth or illustrious forebears, but which is a spiritual seed of virtue in the individual. Philosophy, for Dante, which he personifies as a woman he fell in love with after Beatrice died, is ultimately divine: it is a trace of the transcendent Wisdom in the mind of God. The idea of philosophy as a noble woman, he got from Boethius and from the Song of Songs. Here is how he describes his falling in love with her:
My second love began with the merciful face of a woman. This love, then, finding the life within me open to its burning, lit up like a fire from a small flame to a large one; so that not only when I was awake but also when I was sleeping, her light was conducted into my head. And how great the desire was which Love instilled in me to see her can be neither expressed in words nor understood. Oh, how many nights there were when the eyes of other people were at rest, sleeping, while mine gazed steadily into the abode of my love! And just as a fire that has spread also wishes to be seen without, since it is impossible to stay hidden, a wish to talk about love came over me which was completely uncontainable.
Some of the language in the Convivio is impassioned like this, and other times it is syllogistic and logical. Still others it is polemical and fiery. It’s a hybrid, like everything Dante wrote.
That’s very interesting, Andrew. I recall a few nods to Boethius in the Divine Comedy. Perhaps we could turn to that now? While reading your The Harvest and the Lamp, I came across a translation of Paradiso XX.1–30; you’ve mentioned on the ’sphere that you’ve translated short sections of this epic. Has this been quick work, as per the Vita Nova, or has it required more time?
The Paradiso translation oddly did come together pretty quickly as well, not automatically of course, but without needing endless drafts. I stopped at line 30 simply because I ran out of rhymes — the perfect terza rima ended there. My other translations from the Divine Comedy are in more or less unfinished states, some quite rough, including nearly all of Paradiso translated into prose, tercet by tercet, and with detailed commentary on the language and content. I use this for my own reference.
Terza rima looks a bit tricky to me and I understand there’s been mixed success among Dante translators who have used it. When it comes to poetry translation, what are your thoughts about maintaining the original author’s form?
It’s a difficult form to write in for sure, though it is even harder to translate from Dante’s terza rima into English terza rima that does justice to it. There are possibilities of echoing the terza rima by using off-rhyme, as we see in Robert Pinsky’s translation of Inferno, though obviously off-rhyme doesn’t have the impact that pure rhyme has. But too much is lost by trying to work the perfect rhymes, because the Divine Comedy is so conceptually and symbolically dense and Dante’s syntax and metrical variety are inimitable. For me, the most fundamental qualities of Dante’s poetry are energy, fluidity, compression, and precision. The rhyming is obviously fundamental too, but in English the demands of rhyming while following the incredibly dense and profound content of Dante, as well as his meandering syntax, result in stilted verse. On top of that, for anyone who loves poetry, the poetry of the Divine Comedy is as exciting as it gets — a quality that I have found lacking in all strictly terza rima translations of him. People often note Milton’s tour de force of blank verse and his masterful use of enjambment, and the same can be said of Paradiso, which is some of the most daringly experimental poetry ever written, with technical effects that take your breath away.
But the question of maintaining the original form depends partly on the poem we’re discussing. The Divine Comedy is one thing, a sonnet from the Vita Nova is another. There is a vast sonnet tradition in English that the translator of Dante’s sonnets is alluding to in the Englishing of Dante, but there is no major background of terza rima in English. There are some notable examples — Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” and Triumph of Life come to mind (and Shelley was a great Dantist) — but it has not been a thing in English. I do think that many of the rhyme schemes can be maintained in Dante’s sonnets, and did so myself in the Vita Nova, admittedly with mixed results but often quite successfully, I think. In short, I think the translator should follow the form to the extent possible, not from the surface of the poem but from inside of it. Rhymes in a good poem are never just tacked on things but are integral to the poem.
Andrew, that’s interesting about the lack of excitement in those terza rima translations. I think, given the choice, I’d happily eschew structural imitation in favor of retaining the thrills of the original. Perhaps, generally, there are incompatibilities between languages that render an entirely faithful translation very tricky. In The Harvest and the Lamp, as well as your sonnet beginning, “You pilgrims walking by, oblivious,” I like the poems inspired by Dante, namely “Roll Call at Acheron” and “Retired from Hell, Paolo Says It Was Heaven.” Did you come up with these while you were translating? What’s the process here?
The two poems of mine you mention, I wrote while I was translating and annotating the Convivio. “Roll Call” was written not long after my mother died. Death was on my mind a lot. The poem started with my reflecting on the meaning of spiritus, which as mentioned earlier means both breath and spirit. I started playing with that image and the rest followed. The image of souls gathering on the banks of the river Acheron is a famous scene in the Comedy. Besides that and the terza rima, another Dante-influenced detail in that poem is the penultimate stanza, where three different groups of souls are mentioned:
Some balked at the sound, frightened. Some adored
its strange articulations as it came
like feathers, hovering. Some murmured, Lord.
The ones who are frightened of the sound — the breath or wind or spirit, which ultimately is their own selves — are souls of people who ran from themselves, from the truth of themselves, during life. The ones who adore the articulations are poets, people who are entranced by the sound and music of the wind or breath. And the ones who murmur Lord are the religiously devout. This sort of compact and symbolic grouping of people is something Dante does, and I was conscious of following him in this. The poem came pretty easily, which surprised me since I hadn’t written a poem in terza rima before this.
For “Retired from Hell,” I was fascinated with the fact that Paolo in the famous Paolo and Francesca scene in Inferno V never speaks, he only weeps on the sidelines while Francesca talks to Dante. Also, the obsessive erotic energy in that scene is very powerful, something Dante himself clearly felt strongly and struggled with. He identifies with the lovers and their passion that was so strong it overwhelmed everything else in their lives.
Yes, indeed. Andrew, I’m sorry for the loss of your mother. Over the years, I’ve tended to write a lot after losing loved ones. So, a little lenience in translation can go a long way, it seems. As I’ve mentioned, I came to your translation work, and to Dante, from BBC Three’s Words and Music. With the Comedy sections, I particularly enjoyed the gathering of souls on the riverbank, which preceded some of Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead. But I appreciated the Paolo and Francesca scene too, and not just because it was accompanied by Tchaikovsky. It’s a very powerful story, and I like your take on it; my degree also touched on the dialogue formed when a writer’s work is inspired by another writer. Bakhtin, I think. Are there any other writers who have inspired your poetry?
Many writers inhabit my writing, no doubt more than I’m aware of. Early on, I was taken with the so-called Deep Image American poets — Robert Bly, James Wright, and John Haines, for instance. They in turn were drawing on poets such as Wallace Stevens and the Spanish surrealists. Imagery is very important to me, and I liked them for freeing imagery from literalism and naturalism. The English poet Peter Russell, whose interview with me was published recently and which you know about, was important to me for reminding me that I really love repeating metrical patterns and rhyming in poetry. I knew this all along, but I’d chosen to ignore it. I met Peter in Tuscany in November of 2000, a couple of years before he died. Peter was a protégé of Ezra Pound, so wrote a lot of free verse as well, but much of his poetry is metrical and rhymes, and he inspired me in that direction. He was also the one who really turned me on to Dante, simply by the way he talked about Dante’s ideas and his excitement about Dante’s poetry. I never studied Dante in school or university, so Peter, who had lived in Italy for decades, mentored me in that way early in my studies, while several Dante scholars, above all the late Berkeley Dantist Steven Botterill, were generous with their guidance and support later on. There are so many writers I could mention as sources for me, but I’ll just add that the English poet and Blake scholar Kathleen Raine is a core mentor-guide for me. I met her only once, and exchanged a few letters with her before she died in 2003 at the age of 95. Going back to my days in Syracuse, I’ve read everything she published, much of it two or three times, because the sort of scope and depth she brings to poetry is what I like most. She had a metaphysical and mythic, even a vatic, understanding of what poetry at its highest level is capable of. And she never tired of defending poetry in those terms, despite the unpopularity of that view at present.
It must’ve been amazing to be mentored by a poet of such high standing. I shall have to read up on Kathleen Raine, and others you mention here. I do know about your interview with Peter Russell, one of the best things I read last year. So we have him to thank for your interest in Dante! I’d also like to pick up on his reminder of your love of rhythm ’n’ rhyme, specifically why you’d chosen to ignore it. Did that have something to do with notions of what poetry ought to be around the time?
That was because free verse was — and still very much is — the norm in current poetry. One of my earliest loves in contemporary poetry was Denise Levertov, who was a disciple of William Carlos Williams and wrote excellent free verse. She had a great ear and made free verse sing. I still like her poetry and would never knock that approach. But because contemporary poetry is often rather one-sidedly in favor of free verse it took me a long time to discover that my own natural propensity is for metrical poetry. I feel at home in it. I do write free verse sometimes but in general I find my voice for saying what I want to say by discovering and committing to a pattern, rhymed or not. But it took me a long time to realize that. Not long before I moved to Italy and met Peter Russell, I wrote to Dana Gioia with some of my poems and translations. He wrote back and suggested I attend the conference in West Chester, Pennsylvania, that he and others had founded as a place for teaching and talking about Formalist poetics. That too helped set me in the direction I’ve followed since.
Andrew, I’ve heard of the West Chester conference; I think it’s been mentioned on the ’sphere. As I’m pretty keen on metrical poetry, I’m happy it exists and I hope it’ll keep going forever, really. Did any particular teaching and talking set you on the path of rhythm ’n’ rhyme?
Nothing in particular at West Chester. I was most struck by the large number of people interested in meter and such things, and that got me to look into the so-called New Formalism more. I met two poets there whose work I like and with whom I stayed in touch for a while after, Bill Coyle and Catherine Tufariello. That probably affected me more in terms of writing metrical poetry than anything at the conference, since we exchanged poems afterward and that got me thinking more about meter and rhyme in my own poems. The most memorable experience for me at that conference was the translation panel with Timothy Murphy and Alan Sullivan reading from their Beowulf translation, Dick Davis reading from his translations from Persian, and Robert Mezey reading from his Borges translations. That was electric. I also attended a translation seminar with Charles Martin, which stimulated my work, in particular my Ungaretti translation that I was getting into then. So much talent there, and so much passion about poetry.
A large number of people into meter sounds pretty good to me! As it happens, I’ve read a few things about New Formalism, such as an article by A. E. Stallings, and I once started a discussion about it on the ’sphere. Do you think of yourself as a New Formalist at all?
I don’t think New Formalism is a relevant term anymore. When I went to West Chester, in 1999, it was. I have the impression that the term was useful early on, in the 1980s and ’90s, to acknowledge the renewed interest in traditional forms, for some, as well as an expanded sense of what poetry can do, including narrative. I prefer to call it “metrical” poetry rather than “formal,” since formality sounds, well, like mere formality.
That’s interesting, Andrew; perhaps the term doesn’t need to exist anymore, in a way. With “narrative,” do you mean stories in traditional forms?
Yes, stories told in verse. Because modernist free verse tended toward fragmented or highly compressed or elided expression, long modernist poems don’t tell stories well. They have other virtues, but storytelling was consigned to novels and short stories, as well as film. Yet poetry has a long history of storytelling, so some of the New Formalists aimed to bring it back. A couple of fine examples are Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate from the ’80s, and, 20 or so years later, David Mason’s Ludlow. Both are novels in verse. There have been quite a few excellent works in this genre.
I’m trying to write a novel in verse at the moment. It isn’t excellent, though. Do you see a positive future for metrical poetry?
Yes, for sure. I’m biased about this, admittedly, since I adore meter and rhyme and other techniques that are out of fashion, so I hear, at present. Fashion happens in waves, and it is hard for me to imagine that metrical poetry won’t have a resurgence in popularity at some point. Robert Lowell, who started with writing metrical poetry but changed to free verse, wrote somewhere that he couldn’t understand why a poet would be anything other than fascinated with all the tricks of the trade. Meter is endlessly fascinating and variable — as Timothy Steele’s great book All the Fun’s in How You Say a Thing shows so clearly. I believe that poets and readers will be hungry for it in the future if they aren’t now in general. So yes, write that novel in verse, if you’re enjoying doing it. The poet has to please herself first, and hopefully it will resonate for other people too, eventually. Poetry is out of fashion in our culture, period, so what does fashion know?
Felicity Teague is a poet and a professional copywriter and copyeditor. In 2000, she graduated with a First in Greek and Roman Studies from the University of Birmingham.
Featured image: "A. Frisardi" by Frandiscast is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. Image has been cropped.