TWO VOICES: Mary Jo Bang and Graham Foust

Posted on October 22, 2012 by Scott Esposito

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Translator and poet Graham Foust began this event by reading from his translations of Ernst Meister, a 20th century German philosopher (co-translated with Samuel Frederick). Meister’s poetry was renounced as too experimental by the Third Reich, leading to a two-decade silence, only broken after the Second World War, with the spare poems in the slim In Time’s Rift not being published until 1976. Meister’s poems, Foust notes in the introduction to the book are like Emily Dickinson’s in that they “at once entice and irritate the mouth and the mind.” And, indeed, as Foust demonstrated to the audience, the job of translating them required much sensitivity and attention to detail.

To have been a thought
in time's rift,
until the horror of eternity
overthrew it.

What follows
isn't sleep,
but skeleton.

But those who understand
know this.

Translator and poet Mary Jo Bang then took the stage to discuss the genesis of her new translation of The Inferno: she read a poem that consisted of 47 previous translations of three lines from Dante. She began to think about how she would translate the lines, which led her to ponder the idea of what a full translation of Dante would look like.

She talked about the difficulties of maintaining the Italian word order and rhyme scheme, as well as her desire to put Dante's great work into spoken English. This led her to "make it contemporary in every way," creating a new translation that partakes in the most contemporary references possible: South Park, "truthiness," and more.

Bang began her reading with the famous meeting scene between Dante and the poet Virgil. She then concludes by reading from Dante's account of how he left limbo to encounter Virgil.