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

Vanitas (still life): Michael Conrad Hirt, 1630
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

6 thoughts on “Translating the translator (part 1): Talking to Andrew Frisardi

  1. Nice first half, Nick. I have this recurring fantasy of stopping time long enough to read everything I want (the Vita Nova would be one of them)—kind of like my son’s fantasy of being able to shoot spider webbing out of his wrists. My idea of superpowers clearly diverges from his.

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