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This poem is taken from PN Review 237, Volume 44 Number 1, September - October 2017.

Thou Art Translated Frederic Raphael
The Brazen Plagiarist: Selected Poems by Kiki Dimoula,
translated by Cecile Inglessis Mergellos and Rika Lesser (Yale University Press)

‘BLESS THEE, BOTTOM! Bless thee! Thou art translated.’ Quince’s words, at once amiable and mocking, can serve as rubric for any number of discussions on the merits, even the possibility, of successful and/or reliable translation from one language to another. Literature itself is often a form of revision, response at least, within a culture. A 33,333-line sample can be found in Nikos Katzantzakis’ sequel to the Odyssey. Ought a cross-lingual translator seek to reproduce, as self-effacingly and precisely as possible, the original writer’s meaning (but beware the meaning of meaning!) or should she seek to rephrase, even re-imagine, the work had it been composed in the language into which it is being rendered? The crux is at least as old as Richard Bentley (1662–1742), who – as reported by Dr Johnson – somewhat congratulated a new version of the Iliad with, ‘It’s a very pretty poem, Mr Pope, but you must not call it Homer’. In his recently published The Lesbian Lyre, however, Jeffrey M. Duban cites Pope’s Iliad as conspicuously true to the Greek, which is more ominous, perhaps, than conclusive.

What would Bentley have said to Christopher Logue who boasted that knowledge of even a vestige of the original would have blighted the freshness of his Homer? Elsewhere, George Steiner saluted Logue’s genius with proclamatory guns, but he is quoted here, in Derridan mode, as saying, ‘To re-create what has been created so as to affirm, to enunciate its primacy, its seniority of essence and existence, to re-create it in ways which add presentness to presence, which ful-fil that which is already complete: this is the purpose of responsible translation.’ Janus has spoken.

The loudest modernist drummer for ‘creative’ translation was, of course, Ezra Pound. His prime example of ‘making it new’ was in presenting Sextus Propertius in twentieth-century trim: for notorious instance, the Latin word minas (‘menaces’ according to Lewis and Short) was impounded and revised as ‘mines’, of the Welsh variety. My Cambridge friend, the late John Patrick Sullivan, a Liverpudlian later translated to professorship at U.C. in Santa Barbara, defended Pound against Robert Graves, who became heatedly old school when it came to ol’ Ez’s rend(er)ing of the classics. Guy Lee, the Latinist who supervised me and Sullivan at Cambridge, took a pragmatic view. In his younger days, he assumed that the happy few at least would enjoy the loose, terse but never casual, way in which he translated Ovid’s Amores because – with the Latin either in mind or on the facing page – they would read the English as a gloss on, never a substitute for, the original. In later translations, of Virgil and Horace, Guy decided to stick as close to the Latin as possible, since he could no longer presume on the cultural versatility of his reader. He then sought to use no more words or syllables than, in particular, Horace whose metre he also matched.

Vladimir Nabokov was always on the side of fidelity. Contrary to his own practice in propria persona, V.N. translated (even his own early novels?) under the old New Yorker slogan ‘No fine writing, please’. Deeming ‘a pony’ the best homage, he boasted that his Englishing of Eugene Onegin was a word-for-word, line-for-line reproduction of Pushkin. It was also buttressed by a formidable apparatus criticus, detailing Pushkin’s debt to French literature. Nabokov’s quondam friend and sponsor Edmund ‘Bunny’ Wilson derided the recherché pedantry which could come of cleaving, supposedly, to the original.

Few storms in the great teacup of literature have raged more tempestuously than the one that swirled around Nabokov’s use of ‘kinkajou’ to translate Pushkin’s allusion to a rare breed of small mammal. What could be more intrusively self-admiring than Volodya’s ‘match’ of a carnivorous cat-sized quadruped of central and southern America, of a breed unknown to any common reader (and almost certainly to Pushkin), with whatever the ‘equivalent’ is in the original? Wilson’s own hubris was advertised by going to the mat with a native speaker, but his case was not without merit. Word-for-wordism can procure verbiage into no speakable lingo. The Englished version of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon by Eduard Fraenkel, a scholar of high quality, was implacably literal in respect of the Greek. Yet who can read a single line out loud without hilarity breaking in? The golden rule in translation is that there is no golden rule.

In an age of cost- and corner-cutting, Yale University Press deserves unalloyed thanks for this fat edition of Kiki Dimoula’s poems with the Greek on one page, faced by the English of Cecile Inglessis Margellos and Rika Lesser on the other. Anyone with a smattering of modern Greek can have educative fun looking back and forth in order to see where, as my old schoolmasters used to say, this or that English word or phrase ‘came from’. In the Remove at Charterhouse, more than seventy years ago, I translated the Latin word lupanar (brothel) as ‘stew’, a term whose louche meaning I did not know when I purloined it from a Victorian ‘pony’ – Bohn’s classical library – while doing my preparation (‘banco’ in Carthusian dialect). Bob Arrowsmith, a.k.a. ‘The Arrow’, eyed me with suspicion, smiled and let the matter pass. The abiding lesson is that, however ‘literal’, translation involves choices, especially when going from a ‘tight’ language to the prolific hybrid vocabulary of English.

Plagiary, brazen or covert, is part of the game in low and high circles. Ancient writers conned and pillaged original texts with no scriptural piety. It was not unusual to affect to be translating, citing or improving earlier authors who never, in fact, existed. In the first century ad, the Roman critic Quintilian ironised about those who invent authorities with confidence because ‘those who never existed cannot be discovered’. The twentieth-century scholar Felix Jacoby dubbed such bogus sources as ‘Schwindelliteratur’. Nabokov’s own Pale Fire fashions erudite pyrotechnics in that tradition.

Who nowadays makes much fuss about the accuracy or otherwise of translations of prose works? In some cases – Tom Holland’s recent version of Herodotus a brazen instance – up-to-dated jargon leads, here and there, to travesty. In verse, one of the most durably notorious aberrations is the ‘objectivist’ 1969 version of Catullus by Louis Zukovsky, who preyed on the rhythm and surface of the Latin with swaggering indifference to accuracy. Catullus himself translated Sappho with quasi-camp precision: the Lesbian’s girl became Catullus’s mistress. What might be a joke verges on outrage when readers lack the resources to gauge the degree of more or less willful distortion.

The young Roman poets whom Cicero categorised as neoteroi – innovators and/or kids – took spiritual inspiration from Alexandria, the Hellenic anti-Rome where sophisticated and arcane allusions were trademarks of poets of the school (literally) of Callimachus, for whom big books – not least the epic Argonautica of his one-time colleague Apollonius Rhodius – were big shit (kaka). Greek poetry has the most deep-rooted family tree, bearing the rarest fruit, of all European verse. There are semi-precious jewels even among the neat anonymous contributors to the Greek Anthology. Greeks go back to go forwards: one line of Kiki Dimoula goes simply ‘ê mnêmê, ê mnênê, ê mnêmê’ – ‘memory, memory, memory’. To remember is the treasury and the blight of the Hellenic Greek.

Seferis, Ritsos and Cavafy – the last Alexandrian before loutish nationalism led to Grexit from his city – are modern instances of poets rendered copiously into other tongues. Marguerite Yourcenar’s versions of Cavafy have a loyalty not always to be found in the poet’s many other translators. Daniel Mendelsohn, presiding Hellenic pundit of the New York Review of Books, is a professor of Greek so feared as to be exempt from cavil: he can translate okto (the Greek for ‘eight’) as ‘seven’ and still be applauded.

Cavafy – Mendelsohn’s chouchou – is not regarded with unmitigated reverence in Greece. One cannot call it his native land; he was neither born there nor lived for long, or happily, within its boundaries. His lean poetry can be translated into accessible English (in the first place by Keeley and Sherrard) not least because, so its Greek detractors say, it is often close to prose. George Seferis, the scion of a Greek family evicted from Smyrna in 1922, cosmopolitan diplomat, is less skeletal. Peter Green – one of the greatest Hellenists of our time and a fluent translator from Greek and Latin (at the age of ninetty-two, he is busy on the Odyssey) considers Seferis to have been corrupted by undue deference to the school of André Breton. Did Seferis’s diplomatic cosmopolitanism have at least something to do with his being awarded the Nobel Prize?

Yannis Ritsos was nothing if not parochial. His output, often in the form of dramatic monologues, gave voice to previously minor mythological characters such as Elektra’s sister Chrysothemis. If he owed anything to any foreign influence it was to a romantic, if not Byronic, Marxism. Ritsos was imprisoned several times by the reactionary regimes to which Greece has been submitted in modern times, often with the connivance, if not at the instigation, of European powers and of the US. Nominated six times for the Nobel Prize, he was politically too incorrect to be given it. Kiki Dimoula, whose life as an employee of the Bank of Greece was hardly revolutionary, was also regarded with suspicion by the Colonels, who suppressed the mildly leftist magazine Kyklos, to which she was a contributor. They also banned Aristophanes. Greeks regularly meet Greeks.

I have taken a Cavafyan route to the specific case of Kiki Dimoula. In his now anthological Ithaka, the Alexandrian encouraged his readers to board Odysseus’s slow boat home, enjoying the detours and profiting from dawdles and disasters along the way. Dimoula has rarely left Athens during a long and, in most regards, unadventurous life. She has suffered grief and dislocation, if only by moving from one flat to another, adjacent to the first, and by bereavement. She has taken Apollo’s enigmatic advice ‘know thyself’ (can one?) without lifting her eyes from the familiar and its closely quizzed unfamiliarity. Her unblinking vision transforms the ephemeral into the miraculous, the elusive and, sometimes, the macabre. Unlike her famous quasi-contemporary trio of male poets, Dimoula rarely alludes to antiquity.

In the third century AD, Philostatrus observed, ‘For the wise man, Greece is everywhere’. For a wise woman, Dimoula proves, ubiquity can co-exist with never leaving home. She has had to wait till old age (she was born in June 1931) for the honours which might have been delivered more promptly to a male. When inducted into the Athenian academy in 2002, she compared herself, in her speech, to a seemingly one-legged stork she had seen, high up, on the road to Alexandroupolis, in Thrace (I saw one atop the sole remaining pillar of the great temple of Artemis at Ephesus). ‘Poetry,’ Dimoula said, ‘is like a nest to hide in… inaccessible to the rapacious curiosity of anyone who wants to see too clearly what’s being hatched inside. The most effective way to safeguard concealment is by subtraction. Art is ever-vigilant, elliptical, balancing on one leg. When we write, we subtract.’ The declaration promises obscurities and ellipses to challenge and baffle the literalist. Dimoula’s admirer Christophoros Liontakis puts a feathered cap on the problem: ‘By glorifying what is apparently insignificant, Dimoula creates a secret poetic theology of ecumenical ramifications.’ What is more difficult to convey from one tongue to another than unspoken implications?

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