Akash Kumar: "Dante was my first love, and it’s still what a lot of my scholarship focuses on"

Professor Kumar holding a book and reading aloud
May 2, 2024

Professor Akash Kumar is a scholar of medieval Italian literature. He specifically focuses on the history of science and philosophy, Mediterranean Studies, and digital humanities. Professor Kumar is also a founding member of the Cosmopolitan Italies Collective; a member of the executive committee of the Critical Race, Diasporas, and Migrations Caucus of the American Association of Italian Studies; and has served as a member of the editorial board of Digital Dante. I was excited to get to speak with Professor Kumar about his passion for Dante, his interest in digital humanities and translation, and his efforts to decolonize the teaching of Dante. 

Firstly, would you be able to tell us more about why you chose to pursue an academic career in Italian Studies? What does your current research focus on? 

I first read Dante as a thirteen year old, and there was something about The Divine Comedy that just spoke to me, and made me fall in love with its poetry. I didn’t totally know what I was going to go to college to study, but I knew that I really wanted to read Dante in the original Italian, and so I started studying Italian as an undergraduate at NYU. I had family pressure to do things other than go to grad school for Italian Studies – you know, med school, law school – but I spent my junior year abroad in Florence, and that decided it for me, that I really wanted to become a scholar of Italian. Dante was my first love, and it’s still what a lot of my scholarship focuses on. 

I’m finishing up a book right now that’s called Dante’s Elements. It looks at the importing of scientific language into early Italian poetry in the century before Dante, and leading into how Dante writes The Divine Comedy. This idea of poetry and science coming together, and poetry taking the language of science from the Latin tradition and bringing it into the masses, creates the terms that allow Dante to do something really special in writing the Comedy

So, that’s one research project. I do other things that are oriented more toward thinking about the global medieval, and the postcolonial ways of reading someone like Dante. That’s also been a big research area that I’ve been publishing in lately. And then finally, I’m interested in digital humanities. I’ve been on the editorial board of the website, “Digital Dante” for a long time, and I’ve been thinking about how to engage digitally, both on the research front as well as presenting what we do to a much larger public. 

Would you be able to tell us a little bit more about digital Dante? I’d also be interested in hearing more about the digital humanities in general, and how you’ve seen the humanities adapting to the digital era. 

Digital Dante was this mind-blowingly ahead of its time project that was first conceived in the mid-1990’s. It was this really intrepid graduate student at Columbia University who came up with this idea of digitizing the text of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and creating resources around the text. She was at the Teachers College of Columbia, and so she was really interested in developing a site to facilitate teaching the text, in particular for high school students. A lot of people had to collaborate on it to make it happen when it was first developed. It was there as a point of reference, and it had hung around for a long time. Then 2013 came around, and that’s when I was finishing up my PhD at Columbia. All of the sudden, it was discovered that the server that the old website – Digital Dante – was housed on, was about to be retired. It was kind of a ‘use it or lose it’ moment. The community of medieval Italian scholars, led by my dissertation advisor, Teodolinda Barolini, decided we should really do something with it instead. We underwent a project to totally rehabilitate and redesign it, and figure out what we wanted to do with it in the beginning of the 21st century as opposed to the end of the 20th. That happened – we created all sorts of different resources: there’s a full canto-by-canto commentary of every bit of the Divine Comedy, there’s audio-recording, there are images, there’s artistic renderings – ways of just making the text come to life in new fashions for a new generation. 

That’s a big part of what I think digital humanities can offer: ways of engaging with things that are static – text on a page – in a much more dynamic form. It’s asking us to think about it with all of our senses – all of our ways of engaging with the world around us. 

The other part of it is that we can also create tools that actually drive our research. That, too, is a really big way that we can blend the humanities, the sciences, and data science, all together. One of the parts of Digital Dante is called “Intertextual Dante” and it’s all of Dante’s text of the Divine Comedy, and then every single text by the Roman poet Ovid. It’s a way of visualizing and mapping the intertextual relation between those two poets. If you click on one bit of Dante, it’ll scroll to the corresponding bit of Ovid, and you can think about the texts together and how you can frame that relationship. It’s way faster than if you had to thumb through a physical copy of The Comedy, and then, “Let me grab my Metamorphoses,” and do all that – this is a way to totally shift that relationship, and also see connections that you didn’t necessarily know were there. That can drive your research in a totally different direction. 

And then, you were talking a little bit about Dante in the postcolonial context. I was just wondering if you can speak more about this idea of decolonizing Dante? 

Absolutely; this is something that I’ve been really engaging with over the past couple of years. For me, as an Indian-American born and raised in Hawaii, I absolutely see myself in certain parts of the academy, and don’t see myself in other parts of the academy. That goes for what I study as well. Part of it is: How do we connect as global subjects in the 21st century to things that aren’t necessarily part of that, or are traditionally defined as much more narrow cultural product that’s only limited to the few. But when we read Dante, there are moments that can emerge that speak to a cosmopolitan vision – that speak to a global understanding of things. One of the big and meaningful examples of that for me is in Paradiso 19, when Dante talks about the injustice of excluding people from Christian salvation who are born outside of European borders, and the specific example that he gives is a man being born on the banks of the Indus river. He is good in all that he does, and doesn’t have a chance to learn about Christ. Dante asks this very poignant, searing question: Where’s the justice in excluding such an individual; how can we possibly condemn them? My father was born about 10 miles away from the Indus river, so that’s something that has always connected for me, and it’s a way for us to just totally open up our reading of Dante, to decolonize our reading of Dante. We can and we must take him out of the purview of being read only in the white Christian context. 

Something I’ve been really interested in is translation. As a professor in a language department, can you tell me a bit about your process in translation? For instance, how do you balance literal meaning with creativity in your translations? 

I’m very interested in translation as well. I always go through a process of choosing which translation I’m going to teach from when I teach a Dante class, and it’s always sort of like, “Do I change things up? Do I go back and forth?” I also have collaborated on the first complete English translation of the poetry of Giacomo da Lentini, who we think invented the sonnet in medieval Sicily in the 13th century. I’m currently collaborating on the first complete English translation of the lyric poetry of Giovanni Boccaccio. Boccaccio is more well-known as the writer of the Decameron. We’re in the age of COVID, and Boccaccio wrote the Decameron in the wake of the plague, and that speaks to us a lot right now. But as a result of that, I’ve been thinking a lot more about translation. I’m the one writing the scholarly introductions in both of these cases, and the translator is an emeritus professor of Italian, but also something of a poet himself, and so we’ve had this long exchange in both of these projects. He wants it to sound good – to sound like poetry – and that’s important;he wants it to have its own meter and rhythm and sense, and then he sends it my way and I’m saying, “Well, it’s not quite this; it’s not as accurate a rendering as it could be.” And so it’s a balancing act. Sometimes the words that we choose are not just to completely convey the meaning in question – they’re also chosen for how they sound, how they feel, and how they look on the page. All of that is part of the process of translation. When I teach Dante in Italian, I’m going to be able to do it a little bit differently than when I do so in English translation. Sometimes, in my classes taught in English, I’m going to say, “Alright, I’m going to point you back to the Italian text here, because the word that’s being used by the translator – it’s not that the whole translation is flawed because of it – but let me tell you a little bit about this word, because it has a certain force to it, and it asks us to think about the text very differently.” It’s always a challenge, but it’s also a challenge that presents such vibrant possibilities of new interpretation and meaning as a result of that. I think I will end up translating things eventually – it’s going to happen. It sort of keeps calling, and there are things that I work on that have never been translated before, and so I think there’s a need. Dante gets translated a lot – you’ll have new translations of Dante coming out periodically, but the century of poetry before Dante? Some of it has been translated, some of it hasn’t been translated – there are lots of opportunities lost for a more global readership when that doesn’t happen. 

Which classes do you teach for undergrads? What do you think students, even who don’t study a subject in the arts and humanities, can gain from taking classes in the Italian Studies Department? 

Typically I teach courses on Dante and Boccaccio. I’ve only been here for a couple of years, so I’m still sort of getting my feet under me and developing my undergraduate teaching. But there’s always going to be a Dante course available – I mean, Dante’s still really popular. You put the name Dante in, and classes fill up, and I’m grateful for that. I teach an upper-division course on Dante’s Inferno, usually in the Fall. I’ll be teaching it this coming Fall. And I’ve designed a couple of new courses since I got here. One of them is called “Island Time,” and it’s based around a reading of Dante’s Purgatory – the second part of the Divine Comedy – which is an island. So we read all of Purgatory, and then we read other things that were oriented around islands. We did Shakespeare’s Tempest, we did Derek Walcott’s Omeros, we did other Caribbean and Hawaiian poetry, and we thought about this idea of the space of the island, poetry of the island, and how to put those things together in global dialogue with Dante’s Purgatory

The other new class I developed was on Boccaccio’s Decameron. I got here and discovered that there wasn’t a course on Boccaccio on the books, and there hadn’t been one taught in some 30 years. So, I thought, “We need to fix that.” The Decameron is as timely as they come. As I already mentioned,it was written in the wake of the bubonic plague in 1348, in which more than half of the population of Florence died and in the next decade, Bocaccio was writing this collection of short stories and the frame of it is these seven women and three men who are escaping the plague-ridden city and isolating themselves in the country-side, and telling each other stories to pass the time. It’s as relatable in our COVID times as can possibly be. I also try to emphasize global connections in that course – we did selections of the Indian frame-tale narrative the Panchatantra, we did a bit of the Arabian Nights, and we are going to do a novel by the Indian writer Salman Rushdie and end with storytelling in the age of COVID. 

So those are some of the undergrad courses that I teach. What do I think any student can get out of Italian studies courses? One: something like the Decameron just speaks to our time – to the collective trauma that we endured over these past years, and I feel like these are texts that truly capture that. They also do things in terms of gender dynamics, social dynamics, and class consciousness that I think could and should speak to anyone who is a human being in this moment in time. At the end of the day, I also think that there’s a lot in any discipline that you’re going to be able to see reflected in these texts, too. If you are in the sciences, you’ll find quite a lot to connect to in the Comedy. There’s a reason that my book, Dante’s Elements, is looking to bridge the gap between the sciences and the humanities: I believe that gap is an artificially invented one. Back in the 14th century, it didn’t exist. Dante was called a poet and a philosopher; by philosopher they meant not just philosopher, but also scientist. I think that there’s so much one can gain by looking back at medieval and Renaissance literature, and seeing how it was all connected once. It’s still all connected, and we need to make that as clear as can possibly be. 

What book would you recommend to everyone reading this interview? 

Oh gosh. So I should say Dante’s Divine Comedy, right? That is the one I’m obligated to say for professional reasons [laughs]. But I actually think that, for these next couple of years maybe as we continue to emerge from a pandemic, it’s Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron.