Robert Pinsky is an American poet, essayist, literary critic, and translator. From 1997 – 2000, he served as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. Pinsky is the author of nineteen books, most of which are collections of his own poetry. His published work also includes critically acclaimed translations, including a collection of poems by Czeslaw Milosz and Dante Alighieri.His honors include an American Academy of Arts and Letters award, both the William Carlos Williams Award and the Shelley Memorial prize from the Poetry Society of America, the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry, and a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship. He is currently poetry editor of the weekly Internet magazine Slate. Pinsky has taught at both Wellesley College and the University of California, Berkeley, and currently teaches in the graduate writing program at Boston University. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Topic: Dante and the Problem of Translation
Robert Pinsky: The Inferno...that translation was a hypnotic kind of writing. It was so much fun as well as agony to try to solve an English equivalent of the structure and there is the exhiliration of knowing that I might miss something. I had something going from me that no one had ever done. Most of the translations that I know indeed all of the translations I know the ones I admire the ones I thought that were not so good we are kind of slow. Dante moves along, The Commedia is very rapid in Italian. The church arena is like a super charger lets you move from an opus film to a narrative to a conversation to philosophy, to a lyric very quickly and by translating his sentences rather his lines and by using rhymes that were rhymes for English like rhyming for, war, and car not for, door whore and with familiar rhymes making it hammer, summer and glimmer not hammer and glamour and slammer. Very involved. I had the technical means and working on that translation I possibly was thinking about Dante’s profound insights and the greatness of the poem in some part of my mind, but consciously and mostly I was thinking about the equipment of --- if you put a hinge hear and pull over the thread there, this part will come up and there can be a little rubber bumper there. It was like building a ship in a bottle or having a wonderful knitting pattern or sewing pattern or designing a guard where you are the calculating the shade, where the wall will be and the heights of the different things. It was the best puzzle. It was the best challenge of technique I had ever encountered plus it was exactly like writing. Only I didn’t have to think about what to say next.
Question: How can you convey meaning?
Robert Pinsky: Translate as I have said before is a misnomer, you can’t translate from Italian to English or Japanese or to Swedish. Translate means transliterate means to carry it across. You can’t carry a meaning across. The word in Italian is the word in Italian. An English word is a different word. Pan is not bread. We are pointing the same to the same reality. The words are different. They are rhyme with different things they come with different roots. The better word is the old word. People would use and Englishing ---- I did an Englishing of the Inferno and when you English it you try to be as faithful as possible to the literal meaning and you try to devise an equivalent for the form.
Question: Who did the best Englishing of Dante?
Robert Pinsky: The most beautiful translation of the Commedia is by Longfellow who is a great master of sound and who was by profession a professor of Italian. He had lectured on Dante so often that probably in the course of his lectures and reading, he had translated a lot of the poem without even intending too. He translates it into blank first. It’s very useful as a trot those scholarships go with some cruxes differently from the way Longfellow does. It’s beautiful. You eat any 10 or 12 or 15, 20 lines of it, it’s gorgeous. It’s hard to read a lot of it particularly for an American reader, its Miltonic blank verse that he uses, so the word order that enables him to follow the Italian word order quite well line for line, but it does not flow in an idiomatic way for an modern American reader. So it’s very beautiful, it’s a good thing to read to remind yourself of the beauty of the poem and I admire it and respect it very much.
Recorded On: 3/25/08
Robert Pinsky: I think skepticism toward things like titles, good reviews, what the world calls distinctions, recognitions, can become mechanical, but it’s a good armor too.