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Lost in translation

By Kylee Dawson
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Wednesday, July 21, 2004
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Interpretations of Dante's 'Inferno'

With the expansion of Christianity over the centuries, plenty of artists have taken a stab at conceptualizing hell for the masses through various forms of art.

Michael Mazur is one artist who has taken several stabs at the subject with a very contemporary approach by creating 41 etchings of Dante's "Inferno".

"They're all original," Mazur said of his etchings. "They're not reproductions; they're fine art prints. The whole installation is like a book."

The etchings, along with text panels of Dante Alighieri's 14th century classic poem "The Inferno", will go on display at the UA Museum of Art on

Saturday, July 24 until Oct. 3. The selections of poetry will be in Italian with English translations.

"Each etching represents at least one Canto (a unit of long poetry)," said Mazur.

Mazur's fascination with Dante's "Inferno" began in 1957 when he first read the poem while studying abroad in Italy.

"There are a lot of descriptions from the underworld," he said. "Mostly demons and fire and, you know, poor souls running around. Dante particularizes each Pena ('punish nest')."


In April 1992, Mazur's fascination was revitalized when he heard poet laureate Robert Pinksy read his translation of Canto XXVIII at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Mass.

When Mazur urged Pinksy to translate the entire book for his publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Mazur agreed to work with him on the project by illustrating the book.

Countless hours of translating and dozens of etchings later, arguably the most refined translation of Dante's "Inferno" to date was published in 1994.

"Because Robert and I had worked on this together so much, there was a lot of discussion of the way things should be seen and many of the images are actually homegrown in the sense that they were scenes from my own environment, although you wouldn't know it," Mazur said.

An example can be seen in the tower in Canto VIII, which Mazur based on the Pilgrim monument in Provincetown.

Pinksy translated the poem from Italian into an English version of "terza rima," the difficult rhyme scheme in which Dante wrote "The Divine Comedy."

Mazur reads Italian, so naturally he believes Dante's "Inferno" is best read in its original language.

"The Italian is the detailed version," he said. "You can never translate it. There is no such thing as pure translation."

Language also played an essential role in Mazur's creative process while creating the etchings.

"While we were working on it, Robert would fax me these translations and I would go over them and I'd choose certain particulars from his translations," he said.

"I had my own attitude about it and he had his, but he had the job of translating everything and I got to pick and choose what segments I wanted to use."

However, Mazur believes Pinky's translation was done in such a sophisticated way that people can actually understand what is going on in the book even though, as always, much is lost in translation.

"Language is important, but when you translate a language with imagery, it's almost like the same kind of thing as photography, so your imagery has parallel play," Mazur said.

"You have to be very sophisticated about what that means in terms of tone. So consequently, it is the tone that's going to be discussed most of all because many times people feel that this is very loaded subject matter. I mean, there are actually people who've made it funny. A British artist made it very topical using the Marx Brothers."

Despite this, Mazur emphasizes the fact that Dante's Inferno is "actually a poem about sadness and loss."

According to Mazur, people of the Catholic Church did not have a clear visual understanding of purgatory or hell before Dante wrote the Inferno.


It was also Dante who brought up the idea that once you sin in life, you are, in a way, already in hell.

"Even Satan, who falls from heaven, was one of the archangels," Mazur said. "So, consequently, his falling to the Earth itself is a metaphor for man's fall from honor and hope and all of these things."

Clearly, Mazur not only loves the book, but also the detailed history of the inspiration that drove Dante to write his "Inferno".

Mazur himself, however, does not rely on inspiration to be creative.

"Inspiration comes rarely. It's hard work," Mazur said.

"Basically, if you don't do the hard work, if you don't go to the studio everyday, if you don't sit down at the piano, if you don't write, you're not going to get anywhere."

Waiting to come up with an idea in order to become inspired is also an unnecessary aspect of creativity for Mazur.

"By and large, ideas don't make art," he said. "Art makes art. Consequently, if you're not working and waiting [instead], you're probably waiting on tables. And if you're waiting on tables and not absolutely frantic to get to your studio after your day is over, you'll probably keep on waiting."

That said, if you can't wait for the exhibit, check out, where you can see all of Michael Mazur's etchings of Dante's "Inferno".

Also, be on the lookout for other UA Museum of Art events, including the marathon public reading of the "Inferno" on Tuesday, Sept. 14, at 2:30 p.m.

There will also be is an ArtBuzz discussion of "The Origins of Hell" with UA history professor Alan Bernstein on Thursday, Sept. 23 at 2 p.m. Mazur's etchings will be on display from July 24 through October 3 at the UA Museum of Art.

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