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Poet to Poet: An Interview with Mary Jo Bang

by Mary Jo Bang & Emily Wolahan
Issue 28 Online Exclusive

In our final interview of this series, I spoke to the inimitable Mary Jo Bang about her co-translations of Shuzo Takiguchi. I met Mary Jo on my first day of an MFA in poetry and my world hasn’t been the same since. The warmth and dedication to a poem’s success she shared back then makes it no surprise to me that she’s a sensitive and exciting translator. We spoke last summer about the ins and outs of Japanese, working on a Japanese surrealist after translating an Italian master, and the demands, often satisfying, of entering into another poet’s mind to find the language, find the translation.

Emily Wolahan: I’ve spoken with Yuki Tanaka, with whom you’ve co-translated Shuzo Takiguchi’s poetry, a collaboration I’ve been following since first reading a few about three years ago. I’d like to pose some of the same questions I asked Yuki to you: Can you describe the scope of this project and what drew each you to it? 

Mary Jo Bang: Initially, Yuki showed me translations he had done of a series of seven very short poems by Takiguchi, each titled with the name of a different Surrealist painter. The poems were spare, and whimsical in a recognizably Surrealist way. In “Man Ray,” for instance, there is a leopard ‘made out of light’ ‘standing on its hands.’ I was taken by the strangeness of the poems and made some suggestions for revisions but I also sensed that under the pared-down rhetorical surface of the translations, there was something missing. Since I don’t know Japanese, I couldn’t tell what that ‘something’ was. As Yuki and I began to work together on the much-longer prose poems, I gradually detected a level of word play I had totally missed when working on the short poems. Those leopards I mentioned earlier, I could see now that one or more leopards might be doing ‘hand-stands,’ which is one way of reading ‘standing on one’s hands’ but one leopard also might be standing on the hands of another.  Because ‘its hands’ could equally be ‘one’s/his/her/their’ hands, you could even have leopard-like-acrobats forming a pyramid, standing on each other’s hands! Furthermore, it turns out that the Japanese word for ‘hand-stand’ doesn’t have ‘hand’ in it! In terms of being ‘out of light’ that might mean you were made out of light (constructed of it), but it could also mean that you had run out of a supply of light, leaving you now in the dark, where you might accidentally step on or stand on the hand of another!  


 Takiguchi’s language is even more slippery
because he is so intent on exploiting the ambiguity created
by the
play between the literal and figurative senses of a word.


The language was elusive partly because Japanese in general is very compressed when compared to English or French, but also because, as I learned from Yuki, Japanese doesn’t routinely specify whether a noun is singular or plural and articles are rarely used. Takiguchi’s language is even more slippery because he is so intent on exploiting the ambiguity created by the play between the literal and figurative senses of a word. He is masterful at associatively sending the mind of the reader in multiple directions at once. He doesn’t do this on occasion but continuously. I even wondered at times whether he was also playing with the sound slippage between words in English and in French, as if he were anticipating translation into a second language! One example is when he writes that the ‘nails’ of/on a serial killer’s ‘anatomical chart’ have been ‘pulled out’ —“The manslayer’s beautiful anatomy chart where the lovely nails have all been worked out.” That moment appears to play with the difference in English between fingernails and the kind of nail one hammers in. The fact that nails are ‘lovely” makes you think fingernails! Of course, that homonymic sound play between nail and nail doesn’t exist in Japanese nor in French, however, in French, the word for the kind of nail one hammers is clou, which sounds just like the English ‘clue’ … which also speaks to the fact that a killer’s anatomical chart might be a clue that the killer was a surgeon … which was suspected, in fact, of Jack the Ripper in London in the late 1800’s. Takiguchi also plays in a different poem with the different between the French word manucure (someone who ‘does’ the nails of another) and the English word ‘manicure.’ If you look at the individual syllables, the French man-u-cure shifts in English to become the ‘man-i-cure.’  


This meticulous linguistic play is almost always carried out with humor and with a sense of bravado, but sometimes with poignant gravity, and forever with such wry intelligence that I became in awe of how many different meanings Takiguchi was able to pack into a word. With each new poem we translated, I better understood how to read through all the layers of meaning and saw how a reader has to rapidly dismantle each term—whether a Japanese character, or an English or French word Takiguchi has dropped into the poem—and then put it back together again in a manner where something new is suggested. With each new dismantling/reconstruction, more sense is made, and more pleasure is potentially derived. A single meaning becomes multiple possible meanings. Associatively, the mind is pushed in several directions. This methodology becomes an argument about how language works, and about how the world works, and, I have come to believe, about how Takiguchi wanted his work to be read. I finally grasped that to fully understand his technique, and all the layers of meaning, one would have to translate the entire book, The Poetic Experiments of Shuzo Takiguchi 19271937.


I even wondered at times whether he was also playing
with the sound slippage between words in English
and in French, as if he were anticipating translation
into a second language! 


EW: You’re also well-known for your incredibly interesting translation of Dante:  Inferno: A New Translation. How has the experience of translating a Japanese poet differed from translating Dante?  

MJB: There are several differences between the Dante and the Takiguchi translations. Italian shares a great deal with English, and with French, in which I have some degree of fluency. There are many cognates between the three languages, miseria in Italian (misère in French), translates as ‘misery’ in English; ‘torment’ in English is tormento in Italian (tourment in French). Of course there are also tricky ‘false friends’ that look like English words but mean something quite different. There are also over two hundred translations of the Inferno into English. There are countless books of commentary about the poem, one of which (William Vernon’s) traces the commentary back to Benvenuto (1372), and well-researched books on Dante’s life and times, and other translated works by Dante where he talks about the Divine Comedy and why he made certain decisions—to write in the vernacular, to use rhyme—and how these decisions related to what audience he had in mind and to his hopes for the work’s future.  


 In terms of the collaborative process,
because of the degree of Takiguchi’s complexity,
Yuki and I have to interrogate every possible meaning
of every word, and of the individual radicals
that sometimes make up a Japanese word.


With Takiguchi, I am entirely reliant on Yuki for an understanding of each and every word (and words within words). Takiguchi wrote many essays about art but none have been translated into English. Relatively little has been written in English about his work and what has been, often primarily focuses on his place in Japanese Surrealism (Miryam Sas’s Fault Lines: Cultural Memory and Japanese Surrealism). There are previous translations of some of his poems done by Hiroaki Sato in the 1970s, and published in university press anthologies of Japanese verse, but those translations are quite literal. The playful punning that Takiguchi delights in (mentioned in Sas’s book) isn’t really apparent in those earlier translations. And there are no translations of the long prose poems or the two very long lyric essays included in the collected work that ‘teach’ the reader how to unpack the language to reveal sub rosa meaning. The longer poems and essays contain many explicit literary allusions, and countless buried ones, all of which demonstrate Takiguchi’s view that he is linking his work to writers in the Western cannon, especially to those he appears to believe have also playfully hidden additional layers of meaning that are unavailable to readers who read reductively. Some Western writers he mentions by name include Poe, Tristan Tzara, Gertrude Stein, Rimbaud, Breton, Eluard, but there are countless others he seems to allude to by suggestion. 


In terms of the collaborative process, because of the degree of Takiguchi’s complexity, Yuki and I have to interrogate every possible meaning of every word, and of the individual radicals that sometimes make up a Japanese word. We use multiple online bilingual dictionaries. We look at the etymology of words. I can do independent research on how a particular word in English might have been used at the time Takiguchi was writing but then Yuki and I have to try to place that word in the context of the Japanese culture. This is sometimes complicated by the fact that during the Showa period, when the poems were written, there was a massive influx of Western culture into Japan. The line between what was current in the English-speaking world at the time, and what Takiguchi in Japan might have been aware of, blurs. Takiguchi was a voracious reader and deeply interested in popular culture but, in order not to err, we limit our lexicon to words that were in use when a particular poem was written. We also have to place Takiguchi’s work in the context of Surrealism, because he read widely in Surrealism and translated Breton and Eluard and others into Japanese from the French. We also have to be aware of developments in the field of cinema since he was working as a scriptor for a film company while he was writing these poems. And we have to be alert of allusions to artworks since he quotes Breton writing about de Chirico and mentions Yves Tanguy by name. The fact that Takiguchi includes English and French words in his poems, sometimes titling them in French or in English, demands that we take a transnational approach to allusions and to slang of the period.  


EW: I understand Takiguchi was an art critic, as well as poet. The poems of his that appeared in Asymptote are all ekphrastic and your work, Mary Jo, regularly returns to art. Your book The Eye Like a Strange Balloon is made up entirely of ekphrastic poems and A Doll for Throwing invokes Lucia Moholy’s work and legacy. How does his interest in art manifest itself in his poems?  

 MJB: Takiguchi’s relationship to art is fascinating. The poems published in Asymptote are those titled with the names of Surrealist painters but even in poems that don’t announce their debt to painting, one often finds allusions to artworks. There is a ‘Botticelli boy’ in the poem titled “LINES” (in English and all-caps). In Botticelli’s La Primavera (The Allegory of Spring), the Greek god Mercury is poking at rain clouds with what looks like a wand. In the poem, a reed seems to be ‘changing the inclination’ the ‘evening rain clouds’ that know all about what’s up with the ‘pearl oyster shell’! Looking at this painting against the backdrop of the poem has made me aware that visual art also encodes meanings over and above whatever a title gestures to.

Takiguchi is using art in his poems to add more
layers of meaning to what is already compressed
in the poem’s language.   

This is true in historical and religious painting, as well as portrait, still life, landscape, and abstract painting. I have come to appreciate that every artwork refers to ideas and to the life and times (and mind) of the painter, as well as to its ostensible subject. A painting of St. Francis of Assissi isn’t just a believer’s homage to a saint but gestures to the fact that St. Francis is associated with language. He claimed to be able to talk to the beasts. Hidden languages, like some poetry and like ‘thieves cant,’ is often referred to as ‘the language of birds’ … since clearly birds communicate with one another (insiders) in full view of those outsiders (humans) who can’t understand them. We even describe secrets as what ‘a little birdie told me.’ Takiguchi is using art in his poems to add more layers of meaning to what is already compressed in the poem’s language.   


EW: That question leads me to ask how this translation project has overlapped with your own writing? Do you feel the act of translation feeds your poetry or keeps you from it?  

MJB: While translation steals a tremendous amount of time away from my writing, it also refines my ideas about what language can do. That was true with Dante, and is equally true, if not more so, with Takiguchi. I learn as a poet from interrogating how other writers write in a different language, as well as what they write. This is not simply a matter of capturing a writer’s style. The translator is required to enter the mind of another, as far as that is possible, in order to sense what prompted him or her to use language in that particular way. This requires examining the writer’s word choices, syntax, sound, grammar, cultural and literary allusions, the history of the era in which he or she wrote, the possible ways the writer might have encoded a personal history within the larger historical moment, how the writer gestures to, knowingly or inadvertently, and his or her manifold obsessions. You eventually begin sense how the writer felt about being in the world, and their view of language and sometimes, as in the case of Takiguchi, even how they think of the literature they are creating.  


The translator is required to enter
the mind of another, as far as that is possible,
in order to sense what prompted him or her
to use language in that particular way. 


EW: Are there things inherent in the Japanese language that make translating from it into English particularly challenging? And are there other things that make it especially satisfying?  


MJB: Japanese words are sometimes formed out of multiple characters, some of which might be independently used as words. The word for ‘cactus’ in Japanese is made of two characters—when used alone, the first character means ‘hermit,’ the second, when alone, means hand, palm, or five-fingers. In English, one could use ‘mitt’ for that second radical. So, cactus in Japanese becomes something like ‘a hermit’s her-mit-mitt’! As an image, you could playfully visualize a cactus as a prickly kitchen mitt covered with sharp needles (stay away!). If one personifies this word (as Takiguchi does by titling a poem “The Cactus Brothers”) the reader might imagine that the human ‘cactus’ is prickly and socially withdrawn in the manner of a hermit … or, he might remain part of society but speak in a ‘hermetic’ or ‘tic-like’ way.  


I’m also interested in how to use language in a manner
that will convince a reader to read a translated poem,
or any poem, in a distraction-filled world such as ours.

There is a preponderance of evidence that accrues over the translation of Takiguchi’s poems that supports the notion that he means for us to read the poems as word-puzzles, where both contextual and conceptual hints are continually being handed out to those who catch on and know how to read them. When Yuki and I now return to poems that we translated before we understood this, we can see opportunities we missed and can now use the skills we’ve honed over time to fully realize the poems based on what we see as Takiguchi’s attitude toward language and his lyric goals. Part of the solution (and this is the intensely satisfying part!) is to apply the playful humor and quick pace of linked images that Takiguchi foregrounds in poem after poem. 



EW: In your own life, where you play many different roles, where do you draw the line between “translator” and “poet”?  


MJB: That line has blurred over these past ten years, the six spent translating Dante and the four that Yuki and I have spent so far co-translating Takiguchi. Each of these poets has challenged me to use language in a more thoughtful way. I’ve also been translating German poems by the contemporary novelist/poet Matthias Göritz, and some Baudelaire’s poems. I’m working on Dante’s Purgatorio and am a third of the way through that. I have become deeply interested in the idea of what it means to carry a piece of writing across from one language to another. And not just carry across one layer of meaning, but all the possible layers that are compressed into the individual words that make up a text. I’m also interested in how to use language in a manner that will convince a reader to read a translated poem, or any poem, in a distraction-filled world such as ours. I have long conversations with Yuki and with other translators, and with other poets, about these questions. My brain stays busy contemplating the possibilities and limitations of translation and of poetry and the poet I am now, at any given moment, writes in the presence of this on-going preoccupation.  


Mary Jo Bang is the author of seven books of poems, the most recent of which is The Last Two Seconds (Graywolf Press, 2015). Her 2012 translation of Dante's Inferno, with illustrations by Henrik Drescher, was named a Notable Book by both the Academy of American Poets (2012) and by the American Library Association (2013).
Emily Wolahan's Staff Photo
Emily Wolahan is the author of the poetry collection, Hinge. Her poems have appeared in Oversound, Gulf Coast, Boston Review, and Volt, among other places.