In the Empty Theatre: An Interview with Mary Jo Bang & a Portfolio of New Translations — curated by Nancy Naomi Carlson

The Poet Mary Jo Bang as photographed by Matt Valentine

Mary Jo Bang is the author of eight books of poems—including A Doll for Throwing, Louise in Love, The Last Two Seconds, and Elegy, which received the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her translation of Dante’s Inferno, illustrated by Henrik Drescher, was published by Graywolf Press in 2012. Her translation of Purgatorio is forthcoming in 2021. She has co-translated, with Yuki Tanaka, The Poetic Experiments of Shuzo Takiguchi 1927–1937. Her translations of poems by Matthias Göritz’s have appeared in the Believer, Conjunctions, Poetry Magazine and elsewhere. The title poem of his manuscript, “Colonies of Paradise,” was awarded a 2018 Gulf Coast Prize in Translation by Ilya Kaminsky. She has received a Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Berlin Prize Fellowship. She teaches creative writing at Washington University in St. Louis.

Nancy Naomi Carlson: I have been a great admirer of your poetry for over two decades, and am especially intrigued with how you found your way to literary translation. Can you tell us what brought you to translation? How did you learn how to translate?

Mary Jo Bang: Each translation project began differently, although, in retrospect, I can see how each new project rested on the one that came before it. I began translating Dante’s Inferno after I read a poem by Caroline Bergvall, “Via: 48 Dante Variations,” in her book Fig (Salt, 2005), where she had arranged—alphabetically by the first word—the famous first three lines of 47 translations of  Dante’s Inferno that she found on the shelves in the British Library. She had added, at the end of each tercet, the last name of the translator and year of publication. That poem inspired me to see how I might translate those first three lines and, after doing that, I ended up spending years translating the entire poem, which Graywolf Press published in 2012, with illustrations by Henrik Drescher. 

Because I had published that translation, Yuki Tanaka came to me in 2012 with some poems by Shuzo Takiguchi that he wanted to translate. Over time, we decided to work together to translate Takiguchi’s book, The Poetic Experiments 1927–1937. Having translated Dante, and having worked with Yuki on the Takiguchi poems for years, I could see a way to translate Matthias Göritz’s poems when that occasion presented itself. I suppose what I’m saying is that I learned by doing. 

I did, however, take two translation workshops when I was an MFA student at Columbia in the early 90’s, one with William Weaver, who translated most of Umberto Eco, much of Italo Calvino, and many other Italian writers, including Primo Levi. That class opened my eyes to translation in a way that has remained with me ever since. The first day of class, Weaver brought in the first two pages of three translations of Don Quixote, each done in a different era. It was a lesson in how language changes over time, and how translation changes along with language. The three examples were so radically different, they might have been three books authored by three different people—but of course they weren’t, it was one book, Part I of Don Quixote, written by Miguel de Cervantes, and published in 1605. At the same time that I was taking the translation class, I was auditing a course in the English Department at Columbia on the history of the English language with Professor David Yerkes. That class, similarly, was providing me with a new perspective about the fluidity of language. Today, words come in and fall out of usage so quickly we can almost see it happening. This is undoubtedly due to the fact that we are continually bombarded by text—through advertisement, newspapers, magazines, books, and more recently, via social media. That wasn’t always the case. Not everyone could read and even those who did read, read more selectively. The speed at which language now changes is unprecedented, but it was always changing, only more slowly. The understanding that language isn’t static has informed all of my translations.

NNC: How does “translation theory” impact your translation work?

MJB: In terms of theory, I think what has always made the most sense to me is Walter Benjamin’s claim that translation is informed by the life of a text as it goes through various translations. That notion is best encapsulated by his famous statement in his essay, “The Task of the Translator”: “[A] translation issues from the original—not so much from its life as from its afterlife. For a translation comes later than the original, and since the important works of world literature never find their chosen translators at the time of their origin, their translation marks their stage of continued life.... [A] translation, instead of imitating the sense of the original, must lovingly and in detail incorporate the original’s way of meaning, thus making both the original and the translation recognizable as fragments of a greater language ...” In other words, a translation should have the qualities of the original and one doesn’t achieve that by choosing a word based on a dictionary definition in one language and equating that word with what might be found in a dictionary in a second language. Language has a subjectivity that resides in sound and in usage. And usage changes over time. Context is everything and, in translation, context has to dictate word choice, especially in poetry. A poem is a delicate apparatus that performs multiple functions. How a poem ‘works,’ can’t be totally deconstructed and yet, that is exactly the translator’s task, to find language and pattern it in a way that will echo the effects of the original. Ignacio Infante, a colleague of mine who teaches in the Comp Lit department at Washington University in St. Louis, has written a lot recently about the need to take into account transnational, interlingual, and transhistorical features of the work by writers whose work derives from multiple cultures. And today, so much of writing crosses borders and samples work written in different places that it feels essential to consider all the pillars on which a work rests. 

NNC: I see you’ve co-translated a book of translation. Can you please describe the process you and your co-translator followed? 

MJB: In January 2012, when Yuki Tanaka was a Ph.D. student at Washington University in St. Louis, working on a degree in British Modernism, he asked to do an independent study with me in order to work on translations of poems by Shuzo Takiguchi and another Japanese Modernist poet, Yoshida Issui. When that semester was over, because we were both very engaged by the work of these poets, he proposed that we work together outside of a student-teacher relationship to translate the entirety of Shuzo Takiguchi’s book, The Poetic Experiments 1927–1937. When I said yes, I had no idea that that some of the poems were so long! One of the prose poems is nineteen pages in the original! Nor did I understand, because we’d only worked on small lineated poems, how complicated the poems were on the level of language. In the event, the translation has taken us eight years. 

Yuki would begin by making a somewhat literal translation of the Japanese, while smoothing out the language by adding pronouns and articles, which aren’t present in the Japanese. I would then question the various word choices and the grammatical construction—initially in an attempt to simply understand what was being said. Takiguchi was a Surrealist, so much of his work is image-driven and metaphorically fantastic. The poems are also fast-paced and extremely complicated on the level of syntax, so it was a challenge to decipher the meaning. Once we were able to nail down the basic terms and structure, there was the question of how the poem was working. I began to see there was a pattern of wordplay where multiple meanings were embedded in words or phrases—all of those meanings had to be unpacked before we could fathom how to translate the following sentences or sentence fragments. It became clear over time that Takiguchi was skipping between the literal and figurative meanings of words, while also incorporating English, French, or Latin, in the poems. It was as if every word contained a hint about how to choose the next word. We would come up with multiple ways of saying something, and choose the one that seemed closest to the original. Then we would come back after we had translated the next five, ten, or fifteen lines, or even the next poem, and see whether what we had first devised still held. Often, we could see how, no, we had been way off! Or, we had been close but with further insight, based on the additional translated lines, we could now imagine other possibilities. This went on for years. Endlessly doing and redoing. Eventually, Yuki moved to Austin, Texas, to do an MFA at the Michener Center. Then we would work in person on breaks and holidays, and through email exchanges, or via Skype, during the academic year. Over time, we became intimately familiar with Takiguchi’s sense of humor, with the overall register of the poems, with the jokes that were much more than simply jokes—they were arguments for how language works, how poetry works, and what it is to be human. If all that sounds complicated, it was!

NNC: At one point does a “translation of X” veer so far from the literal meaning that it becomes an “after X”?

MJB: I think the degree of “literalness” is often in the eye of the beholder. I’m sure there are those translations that might seem like adaptations but I find it useful to go back to Dryden’s three categories of translation: metaphrase, a word for word, line by line, literal rendering; paraphrase, or “translation with latitude,” where the words need not be followed and the sense of what was said in the original can be “amplified” but not “altered”; and imitation, which is probably what we would think of as an adaptation and about which Dryden says: 

“I take imitation of an author, in their sense, to be an endeavour of a later poet to write like one who has written before him, on the same subject; that is, not to translate his words, or to be confined to his sense, but only to set him as a pattern, and to write as he supposes that author would have done, had he lived in our age, and in our country (Dryden 1680).

The lines between those categories, however, are quite porous. I think of translation as finding equivalence. When I translated Inferno, for example, where a boat comes across the Styx “faster than an arrow,” I looked for a substitute word for “arrow” and came up with Ultimate Aero. Language works by association, and most contemporary Americans have limited experience with arrows. The mere mention of an arrow might take the mind to outdated Western movies and stereotypical images of cowboys and ill-conceived images of Native Americans. The fact is that “faster than an arrow” is simply a simile that in time has become an idiom for speed. In America, in the 1950’s, that idiom switched to “faster than a speeding bullet,” a phrase from the introduction to the radio show (eventually a television show) Superman, the “man of steel”! As an idiom, “faster than a speeding bullet” became, in time, a cliché. And clichés are a bit humorous. The Ultimate Aero was, in our lifetime, once the fastest production car in the world. For me, that was an “arrow” that felt more in tune with our contemporary sense of speed, linked to the high-pitched whine of televised racetracks and the slickness of glossy magazines ads. And the substitution of the homophonic “Aero” for “arrow,” has a little humor in it, perhaps the same degree of humor as a cliché. 

NNC: How do you balance your translated and non-translated work? How do they interrelate? How does your writing process differ when you’re translating vs writing your non-translated work? Is one more difficult than the other?

MJB: In each of the three translations I’ve done, I’ve wanted to capture the way the mind of the poet works. How we think is demonstrated in how we speak. I study the way the poet uses language by reading over and over and over and testing various ways of speaking that replicate that way of thinking, as I have come to perceive it. Each of the three poets I’ve translated has a way of patterning language that is theirs alone. Dante doesn’t sound like Takiguchi, or like Göritz, and Göritz doesn’t sound like Dante, or like Takiguchi, and Takiguchi sounds only like himself. I try to hear the poet’s voice and then imagine what that voice might sound like in today’s English, which is the only English I know. You could say that Japanese will never sound like English and I will agree. To hear the poems in Japanese, you would have to hear them read in Japanese by a Japanese speaker. Even then, the speaker won’t sound exactly like Takiguchi. If you don’t know Japanese, and want to have an idea of what the poems would sound like if Takiguchi had written them in English, or translated them into English after writing them in Japanese, you could listen to what Yuki Tanaka and I have created: Takiguchi’s poems as he might have imagined them in translation. The fact is, in a note to Hiroaki Sato, Takiguchi says he actually did once try to translate one of his poems into English but he never finished and the manuscript got lost. 

I do the same thing when I write my own poems, I try to sound like my thinking self. I try to construct an apparatus—Auden once called a poem a contraption, and I think that’s a perfect way to conceive of it—that replicates my mind as thought reveals itself to me: that “being” in which my mind exists, sometimes in harmony, other times, in disharmony. The impulse to write is a bit different from the impulse to translate but what they share is the cultivated pleasure of patterning language and of infusing that pattern with various subjectivities. And both occupations allow the self to wear a mask and put on a costume and come out on stage and speak. When I costume myself as Dante, I speak as Dante spoke; he left a transcript and that dictates what I say. When I speak as myself, however, I am simultaneously writing the transcript as I speak. I can wear any number of masks, all sorts of costumes, some of which might be the very clothes I am wearing at that moment, but sometimes, for the sake of the poem, I might put on a Mickey Mouse suit, or a Cher headdress. Both writing and translating for me is play, but a very serious form of play. In my most recent book of poems, A Doll for Throwing, I would sometimes put on the costume of Lucia Moholy, a Bauhaus photographer, or any number of other women who were associated with the Bauhaus, the dancer Karla Grosch, for example, one of the few women to teach at the Bauhaus. Because we look similar—women, a mouth, a nose, two eyes—I would blend the personas, borrowing details from my life and mixing those details with others from their lives. I did the same thing when I wrote Louise in Love. There, I borrowed details from Louise Brooks and mixed them with mine. 

NNC: What translation projects are you currently working on?

MJB: Currently, I’m finishing translating Purgatorio and working on those notes. Yuki and I just finished translating the Takiguchi book and, although we have now placed most of those poems, whenever I go to send out any of the remaining poems for consideration, I find a word here or there that feels unsettled. When that happens, because Yuki is now teaching in Japan, we have back and forth email marathons where we try to work out a better solution. Sometimes we Skype. And at the end of this past summer, Yuki came from Japan for five weeks and we worked side by side again. I think until that book is set in print, it won’t feel finished. The poems are so indebted to wordplay and sound slippage between multiple languages, new solutions will keep occurring to us. 

I’m also just finishing translating the book of Matthias Göritz’s poems, Colonies of Paradise, some of which you are featuring in Tupelo Quarterly. Because I have very limited knowledge of German, in order to translate those poems, I’ve used many of the same online sites I’ve used in the past with the Dante translation: Google Translate, Reverso, WordReference, and for the German,, an online bilingual German dictionary. Google Translate is a very imperfect translation resource but, depending on the language, it can sometimes provide a starting point. Inevitably, one has to “fill in the blanks,” as it were, for words it leaves untranslated. This can be done by using other resources:, for example, which will also provide a brief etymology of the word and the tenses for verbs. GT was of very limited value with Takiguchi’s work but fairly useful with Göritz’s work, and with Dante’s, it was often useful after I made certain spelling changes to make the medieval Tuscan Italian conform to modern Italian. Of course, idioms and slang will elude GT. I also interrogate every word individually after GT does its work by using dictionaries and thesauruses. With Dante, I also have seven hundred years of commentary and multiple existing translations into English to assist me. Unlike with Dante or Takiguchi, Göritz is very much alive, and fluent in English, so I can ask for his feedback as I negotiate the differences between the two languages. That said, since he’s a translator himself, he’s never dictatorial but ultimately leaves the decisions to me. 

NNC: Please introduce our readers to Matthias Göritz and the selected translations that follow.

Matthias Göritz, born 1969 in Hamburg, studied philosophy and literary studies at university. He is currently a Professor of Practice in the Comp Lit department at Washington University in St. Louis. He’s the author of three volumes of poetry (LOOPS, 2001; POOLS, 2006; and TOOLS, 2012), two novellas and three novels—including Der kurze Traum des Jakob Voss (The Short Dream of Jakob Voss), 2005, winner of the Hamburg Literature Prize, Radio Bavaria Prize, and the Mara Cassens Prize. His most recent novel is Parker (C.H. Beck, 2018), which the publisher advertises as “exciting and inscrutable stories of perfidious intrigue, power and love, and of the irresistible lure and price of success.”  

The poems below are from the collection titled LOOPS. Because the word “loops” in German is a loanword from English, there’s linguistic play in the German title that wouldn’t occur in English. For that reason, I’ve retitled the collection, Colonies of Paradise, after one of the poems. There is an irony in the combination of “colony” and “Paradise” that I think captures that same sense as LOOPS, the endless attempt to find perfection in places that no longer belong to you. Görtiz, in these poems, is very much a poet of place—both in the large sense—Paris, Chicago, Hamburg, and Moscow—and in the local sense—the butcher shop, bus station, swimming pool, the suburban hill from which one looks down and sees glass houses. For his speakers, marginality is a way of life; travel only magnifies the sense of remove. Wherever they go, the wary observant children they once were, are still looking out. Those ghost-children aren’t the only presences; as with Dickinson, the speaker’s inner life merges with objects and landscapes: “The traffic in my head / and the street traffic / tie themselves together” (“The River Running Under the River”). Part of the brilliant economy of these poems is that even while they’re teetering on the edge of the surreal—as when Giant Redeye Cicadas eye up the speaker in a Chicago bar (“Everything Has Been Captured”)—they feel undeniably true. Leaving home also allows a degree of freedom that can’t be found at home, investing many of the poems with an air of exuberant defiance: “I do what I want. / At night I go alone / through the shadows of the streets” (“Primal Crow”). 

Göritz’s poems are strangely intimate, and psychologically astute, so I felt it was essential that the reader not be distracted by the fact that the poem was written in another language. To that end, I tried to create the sense of a speaker who has a consistent voice throughout the poems and who speaks this new language, English, as if he were born to it—i.e., with the same fluency, and equal knowledge of craft, as what the original speaker manifested in German. I tried to match, word for word, this poet’s sly humor, keen insight, and artistry, as I carried over both the contemporary German, and the embedded polyphonic echoes of English, Russian, and French, into contemporary American English. These translations are the result of those efforts.

NNC: Thank you so much, Mary Jo, for letting our readers know more about your poetry and translation worlds, and how they impact one another. Your descriptions of your translation process (e.g., references you use) and collaborations are especially compelling. Below is a selection of your translations from Colonies of Paradise, by Matthias Göritz.


A Portfolio of New Translations by Mary Jo Bang


A Portfolio of Translations by Mary Jo Bang