Mar 1, 2013
12 Min read time
What does it mean to translate in a way that is faithful to an original? What, for that matter, makes a book original, or even belong to an author? Critics argue these questions fiercely, and two recent translations by major women poets throw fuel on this fire: Anne Carson’s Antigonick and Mary Jo Bang’s Inferno. They not only resituate Sophocles and Dante in the language of the present, but also recast them visually (Carson collaborated with illustrator Bianca Stone and Bang with Henrik Drescher). Both translations continue the elegiac projects begun by Carson in Nox, written for her brother, and Bang in Elegy, written for her son. But Carson and Bang are also both in the business of subversively recreating a canonical text by a long-dead male author.
These are sumptuous artists’ books that immediately lure the reader into their worlds. Despite its fine paper and binding, however, Antigonick has a rough, artisanal feel thanks to the type, hand-lettered by Carson.
The provisional quality implied by the visible traces of Carson’s hand balances against the ancient story she is rewriting. Stone’s ink and watercolor images are overlaid on transparent vellum—an armchair and a banquet table mix with mountainous dreamscapes and human figures. The overlays slow down the time of reading and often interrupt the text, creating a kind of amplified enjambment. For example, Antigone says to her sister Ismene, “Can a person be so completely conscious of being unconscious that she is guilty of her own repression, is that”—and before we arrive at “what I’m guilty of,” an image of a bourgeois domestic interior is interposed, with a chair, floral carpet, radiator, and window with plants. Such suspensions are part of the book’s architecture, so that the rhythm between text and images is often surprising and their relationship mysterious. The reader must move the images away to get to the text, but because of the transparent paper on which they are printed, the images remain visible once the page has been turned.
Bang’s Inferno, printed on artbook-quality paper, features a more traditional mode of illustration, with Drescher’s black-and-white cartoons on facing pages, and smaller icons and graphic elements occasionally accompanying the text. Drescher captions some images with lines from Bang’s text, or a phrase floats in a margin, such as “glutton garden,” lettered over a voracious plant with a human head and many eyes. Pop culture characters and historical figures mix in his drawings, as they do in Bang’s updated allusions: South Park meets Mao. Some of the illustrations are marvelously gothic; some, puerile.
Carson and Bang reconfigure Sophocles and Dante with dynamic, limber language that cavorts freely in eminently readable, twenty-first-century versions. “What’s up,” Kreon, King of Thebes, asks the seer Teiresias in Carson’s rendition. “We / all / think / you’re / a / grand / girl,” Ismene tells Antigone. Bang describes Charon’s appearance at the River Acheron in Canto III of Inferno: “Then, out of nowhere, there was an old man / With white hair, coming toward us in a boat, / Growling, ‘Give it up, you scum-uncles. / You’ll never see the sky again.’” Throughout, we encounter the thrum of vivacious colloquialisms and slang.
This technique is very much in keeping with Dante’s own innovations. He not only diverged from the standard literary Latin of his time by choosing to write in Tuscan dialect, but he also ranged from the sordid to the exalted in his register and vocabulary. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “I find him full of the nobil volgare eloquenza; that he knows ‘God damn,’ and can be rowdy if he please, and he does please.”
Bang’s version draws on a multilingualism similar to Dante’s, so that self-translation takes place within the translated text: “Say I say okay, and descend, what then? / Je suis fou. I am crazy, you are not. / You must know this: what it is to doubt.” Similarly, Carson’s translation combines her characteristic plain-speak with compounded terms à la Paul Celan: birdgrief; dustlibation; donedeal; autohistorical, autobeguiled (aren’t we all?). She creates a dark humor in Eurydike’s monologue:
This is Eurydike’s monologue it’s her only speech in the play. You may not know who she is that’s OK. Like poor Mrs. Ramsay who died in a bracket of To the Lighthouse she’s the wife of the man whose moods tensify the world of this story. . . . When the messenger comes I set him straight I tell him nobody’s missing we’re all here we’re all fine. Why do messengers always exaggerate Exit Eurydike bleeding from all orifices
Bang, for her part, does not opt to take up Dante’s terza rima, instead writing in “the dominant music of contemporary poetry,” which she defines as a reliance on alliteration, internal rhyme, and assonance. (Robert Pinsky, in contrast, chose consonance in his 1994 version of Inferno, which is written in an adapted terza rima.) Bang also makes frequent use of rhetorical and morphemic doublings, which create rhythm: “Stopped mid-motion 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. // It’s difficult to describe a forest: / Savage, arduous, extreme in its extremity. I think / And the facts come back, then the fear comes back” (emphasis added). This is a memorable rendering in tightly composed music.
Carson’s new translation is marked by her signature forms of punctuation, silence, and white space, as were An Oresteia and her translations of Sappho. The silence, or the conspicuous absence of the dead loved one, is embodied in the character of Nick, “a mute part (always on stage, he measures things),” whose name is integral to Antigonick, if we read it as a bilingual pun. We don’t learn what he is measuring, but it may well be the measures of verse and music, as well as the great existential matters (life, time). Antigone was not saved in the nick of time; a nick is a cut, a slice, a theft, and a prison. It’s a figure for the cutting and splicing (of texts, in conversation with older texts; of time, as it is lost and mourned) that Carson and Bang are undertaking.
The critique of a translation as unfaithful to the original is dully predictable.
Bang’s translation roves through especially allusive lexical fields. Her references to contemporary culture have already attracted comment (and some ire) from reviewers. The palimpsest of citations includes poets (Baudelaire, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, and T.S. Eliot) as well as Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Stephen Colbert, McMansions, and Velcro. The pleasure that the contemporary reader finds in hearing these echoes, or lines that chime with Elizabeth Bishop (“how hard the art of exile is to master,” Bang writes) or Stevens (“Early in the year when one has a mind of winter”), may correlate with the pleasure of recognition that readers of an earlier age experienced in coming across the many references to Virgil’s Aeneid in Dante. Not to worry if you miss an allusion here or there; Bang provides her sources throughout, with digressive humor. In Canto IV, the line “a veritable cocktail party of eminent men”—which includes Homer, Ovid, Horace, and Lucan—is accompanied by a footnote about what was reportedly the first cocktail party, held in St. Louis in 1917. The scrupulousness with which Bang documents her sources reaches a culmination of hilarity when a footnote on Virgil is itself footnoted in tiny font. At every turn, the translation foregrounds the relationship of living writers to the web of writers who preceded them, just as Dante’s Inferno does.
This allusiveness, humor, and use of colloquialism spur influential translation theorist George Steiner to high dudgeon in his recent Times Literary Supplement essay on Antigonick. He criticizes Carson’s translation for “slighting” the “demanding intricacy” of Sophocles’ text, claiming that its references to Hegel and Virginia Woolf are “facile diversions.” He concludes that, in particular, it is the polyphony of voices in the Greek that “translation or mimesis must confront.” The equation of translation with mimesis doesn’t hold, though. Contemporary translation theory embraces an ethics of difference rather than the domestication of the foreign text. Lawrence Venuti, Suzanne Jill Levine, and Mary Ann Caws, among others, have argued this case.
There is also a whiff of class-based dismay in Steiner’s objection. It seems that, for him, Carson has desacralized Sophocles and brought his work down to the level of the plebs: “the subtle complexity, the lyric poise of Sophocles’ tragic idiom are sacrificed to populist witticisms.” This is, of course, the point of Carson’s and Bang’s translations, as it has been for generations of translators of Dante and Sophocles: to recast the language in a new age. Carson and Bang are both quite clear that this is their aim, and they do so with playfulness—but also with the goal of rendering these works within their own idioms. This is the key to the freshness of their translations and clearly what irks Steiner. Carson and Bang have appropriated Sophocles and Dante; they have made their texts Carsonian and Bangian. Although these new texts are in conversation with the originals, they are fiercely their own. This rankles, because while their translations certainly display reverence toward a beloved text (Steiner instructs that translation “should embody an act of thanks to the original”), they also take ownership of it.
The critique of a translation as unfaithful to the original is dully predictable. It is such well-trodden ground that it would not bear further commentary but for the element of gender. The subversive quality of Carson’s and Bang’s books becomes clear when we consider the history of translation. The secondary nature of translation—both as an activity and in terms of the translated text itself—has long been gendered as derivative and female. In John Florio’s 1603 preface to his translation of Montaigne’s essays, he calls the book a “defective edition” “since all translations are reputed femalls, delivered at second hand; and I in this serve but as Vulcan, to hatchet this Minerva from that Jupiters bigge braine.” The metaphors that Steiner uses to describe translation in his After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation (1975) imply sexual domination, as he describes the “appropriative translation” that “penetrates” and “captures” the original text. These metaphors have been thoroughly analyzed, notably by Lori Chamberlain, who has shown that the opposition between productive and reproductive work means that originality and creativity are understood, in the West, in terms of paternity and authority. She identifies what she calls the “politics of originality and its logic of violence” in the theories of Steiner and others. Carson and Bang are subversive, then, in that rather than striving to be “faithful” translators, they “transloot” (Levine’s term). They have written not as literary midwives, but have birthed new texts that belong to Dante and Sophocles, and yet, are quite their own.
Carson’s and Bang’s books might best be called “transcreations,” as the Brazilian writer Haroldo De Campos puts it. A transcreation (transcriação) is at once a critical reading and transformation or re-creation of the original. In a 2008 interview, De Campos likens this renovation to musical interpretation:
Art translation holds the same tension in relation to the original as the musical interpreter does in relation to the composer. In this sense I can invoke the liberty that jazz singers and instrumentalists have, for example, to give ‘their’ version of classics such as Gershwin or Cole Porter. There is a great difference between hearing ‘Summertime’ sung by Billie Holiday or Janis Joplin, each with a personal and unique reading of the song, . . . It is, above all else, a question of hearing.
This is where Carson and Bang are headed with their translations: each writer has a distinctive voice and each has placed her hallmark upon these books.
These new translations are not only in dialogue with the originals, but also with the entourage of translations amassed over time, which the originals carry with them, in our collective imagination. There have been so many translations of Dante, or appropriations of Dante, that the translations themselves have been appropriated. In Fig (2005), Caroline Bergvall includes a poem composed solely of 47 different translations of the opening tercet of Inferno, arranged in alphabetical order. Bang mentions in her introduction that it was Bergvall’s poem that inspired her to take up Inferno. Translation, she writes,
is both homage and theft—the first, a worshipful respect; the second, an oedipal bravado that says everything in the past, no matter who first made it, can be used as scraps, out of which a new suit can be sewn, now with wide lapels, now with narrow. Translation keeps a work of literature alive by simultaneously dismantling and reclaiming it. For the translator, there is an intense—and paradoxical—intellectual pleasure that comes from making a text that has already been made by someone else. It is a strange collaborative camaraderie.
Inferno itself is about poetic debt, among other things. Dante addresses Virgil in Canto I:
First of all authors and master of me,
I borrowed from you and to you I owe a debt
For the music that’s brought me success.
Bang’s and Carson’s books may be seen as clasped in the arms of their predecessors, just as Virgil embraces Dante, whisking him away from imminent danger in Canto XXIII (Bang’s translation):
In less than a second my teacher had scooped me up
Like a mother who wakes to the wail
Of a siren and, seeing flames,
Grabs the kid and runs outside:
Worried more for her little one than for herself,
She doesn’t even pause to put on a robe.
Dante’s noise (rumore) becomes a “siren,” his son (il figlio), “the kid,” and Virgil’s nightgown (camicia), a “robe,” as Bang updates Dante’s depiction of the Latin poet as a selfless mother. Rather than Steiner’s image of the relationship between writers as one of captor to captive, Dante gives us Virgil cast as a heroic woman, bearing the younger writer to safety, even at potential expense to herself and her modesty. In Dante’s gender-bending but ultimately maternal version, the primogenitor protects the next. But regardless of which direction the metaphors cut, it’s notable that discussions of relations between texts continue to invoke gendered metaphors.
Both Antigonick and this new Inferno are morality tales reconfigured for the twenty-first century. They are books about disobeying rules, which is what Carson and Bang have done. What Osip Mandelstam wrote about Dante is equally true of Sophocles: “It is inconceivable to read Dante’s cantos without directing them towards contemporaneity. They were created for that purpose. They are missiles for capturing the future. They demand commentary in the futurum.”
March 01, 2013
12 Min read time