Circumference Podcast Series #3:
Eliot Weinberger

by: Montana Ray

In this series Montana Ray talks with translators about their process and poetics. Ray will explore and challenge our understanding of the craft and its role in contemporary literature.


In this episode celebrated translator and essayist Eliot Weinberger tells how he came to translate Octavio Paz and Bei Dao and talks about the process of translating their work. He discusses how waves of translation in the US have been spurred by changing political realities, and how those translations have impacted contemporary American poetry. The conversation also includes Weinberger’s thoughts on the deeper role of translation, both as a social function (bringing something new into your own language) and as an act (reaching for the inaccessible, unnamable).

With music by Cha cha, AM444, and 新裤子, plus an essay by Eliot Weinberger and poems and readings by Bei Dao and a poem by Octavio Paz with translations by Weinberger.

Eliot Weinberger’s books of literary essays include Karmic Traces, An Elemental Thing, and Oranges & Peanuts for Sale. His political articles are collected in What I Heard About Iraq– called by the Guardian the one antiwar “classic” of the Iraq war–  and What Happened Here: Bush Chronicles. The author of a study of Chinese poetry translation,19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, he is the current translator of the poetry of Bei Dao, and the editor of The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry and a forthcoming series from the Chinese University Press of Hong Kong. Among his translations of Latin American poetry and prose are the Collected Poems of Octavio Paz, Jorge Luis Borges’ Selected Non-Fictions, Xavier Villaurrutia’s Nostalgia for Death, and Vicente Huidobro’s Altazor. A large collection, The Poems of Octavio Paz, will be published this fall. His work has been translated into thirty languages, and appears often in the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books.

Photo by Nina Subin. 

Additional research by Kelly Roberts.

translation is this lament: you are so far from me—

In celebration of the release of Telephone Journal’s first full-length book, The Sonnets, we’re featuring Uljana Wolf’s translation of William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 61.

From the introduction to The Sonnets, edited by Sharmila Cohen & Paul Legault:

“In this anthology… we have invited 154 poets to each translate one [of Shakespeare's] sonnet from English to English. Of course, we are aware of the many translations of Shakespeare’s works into modern English… We also want to offer a new and contemporary understanding of Shakespeare, but something beyond that of simply breaking through the boundaries of an ever-changing lexicon—our hope was that the contributors would approach the original texts from their multitude of vantage points, that they would board the ship, loot and pillage, break things down, and reconstruct it all in a fashion that would allow us to view multiple dimensions of the original work in a new light, as a new structure.”

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An American in Dante’s Inferno

by: E.C. Belli

Mary Jo Bang speaks with E.C. Belli about the process of carrying this epic journey over into our English.

As if to leave a voice echoing in the hallway of years, as if to say This is now, This is us, Mary Jo Bang presents a volume of Dante’s Inferno that has gnawed at and digested the elements of our present. The filth, the grime, the greed is ours. We recognize it: it bears the marks of our today.

We know what purists will say—and yet Mary Jo Bang has done the most American thing you can possibly do: she has shown up to the fancy dress party in jeans and a white t-shirt screaming, We are allowed here too! This is our space to fill also.

What we have to thank Bang for above all is her willingness to break the sacrosanctity of an epic that has been held, for all these years, at arm’s distance, sheepishly, faithfully, terrorizing for its blue blood.

With an introduction that leads the reader, step by step, through the circles of hell before she experiences, as Bang puts it, her “Mind and body caught midmotion in the unfathomable,” and a translator’s note pearled with insights on Bang’s meticulous process, this Inferno calls to the reading public with generosity, telling to creep out, for a minute, of the large print sorcery, the emotional pornography, and the dystopias, and bask in a sublime classic.

E.C. Belli: Different translators have different methods. How did you approach this text? How did you start? Basically, what were your steps?

Mary Jo Bang: I would begin translating each canto by reading William Warren Vernon’s two-volume Readings on the Inferno of Dante: Based upon the Commentary of Benvenuto da Imola and Other Authorities. That 1906 literal prose translation traces the commentary on the poem, line-by-line, all the way back to Benvenuto, a lecturer at the University of Bologna who was born shortly after Dante died and whose commentary on the Divine Comedy was one of the earliest. I would then read Charles S. Singleton’s prose translation done in 1970, and then John D. Sinclair’s from 1954, examining the small differences between the two. Then I’d often go back to the Vernon to see what choice he’d made at the same moment, and I would re-read the surrounding commentary.

I think what is gained in this new translation is this sense of contemporaneity. The cost of achieving that was that I had to sacrifice, here and there, a strict allegiance to the original.

At some point in the process, I’d begin my own translation and then eventually stop to compare my attempt to other translations, primarily (but not limited to) those done by: Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander, Mark Musa, Allen Mandelbaum, Michael Palma, and Ciaran Carson. If I still had any questions, I’d do a word-by-word dictionary translation for that tercet and the surrounding ones using the Sansoni Italian/English English/Italian dictionary. Sometimes I would do entire pages of word-by-word dictionary translation.

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