by A. E. Stallings
from Parnassus, Volume 33 Numbers 1&2
Athens is not the most obviously poetic of cities. Sure, the Parthenon, stripped of its garish paint as well as its marbles, stands in timeless glamour over the city, but twentieth-century influxes of population from the countryside resulted in the decimation of its handsome neoclassical buildings to make way for graceless concrete apartment blocks, plunked down willy-nilly with no sense of town planning. In the center, little green space was set aside—cemeteries and ancient sites perform the function of parks. The financial crisis of recent years has brought periodic garbage strikes and turned every available wall into a canvas for graffiti and street artists. The statues of famous poets, warriors, philosophers, and statesmen now look out over frequent protest marches and occasional street battles, their blank marble eyes assailed by clouds of tear gas. Athens is a Balkan backwater at the omphalos of the world, a confrontation of edgy youthful energy and lethargic pensioner despair, a series of paradoxes, a city of losses and erasures. And Kiki Dimoula is her poet.
* * *
On a chilly evening this past January, the Megaron Musikis (a grand concert hall) opens its doors at 5:30 to begin handing out tickets for a free event to take place at 7:00. At 5:15 there is already an anxious queue, consisting almost exclusively of Athenian women of a certain age. Dressed in black, fresh from the hairdresser, and clutching dark, shiny pocketbooks, these women are ready to do battle, but the ushers assure them that there are enough tickets for everyone. For the next hour and a half they flow in, a complement of men and younger women joining them, so that by the time the event starts, the fifteen-hundred-seat hall is nearly two-thirds full. The event? A rare poetry reading by the reclusive, eighty-two-year-old Kiki Dimoula, to celebrate the publication of a selection of her poems in English. The stage is bedecked with roses in two gigantic vases. Suddenly there’s a burst of applause. A tiny but sturdy old woman in black, her cropped white hair carefully coiffed, walks stiffly in, acknowledges the ovation with a shy wave, and takes her seat in the front row. The audience is informed that the event, which is to include readings of Dimoula’s poems by actresses in English and Greek as well as tributes by composers and singers, will last an hour and a half. (“This will be the longest Dimoula has gone without a cigarette,” quips the emcee, and the audience laughs affectionately at their poet’s famous vice.) In fact, it winds up lasting closer to three, without an intermission. Everyone holds out for the last few minutes, when Dimoula toddles across the vast stage to the podium—ushers swooping in to lower the microphone—utters some cryptic remarks about translation, and reads a handful of short poems.
As with many of the older audience members, Dimoula’s circumscribed life has played out against a backdrop of violence, upheaval, deprivation, and repression: the Nazi occupation of Greece, the famine of the freezing winter of 1942–43, the Greek Civil War, the military junta of 1967–74. She was born in 1931 in Athens, propitiously enough at 42 Pythia Street, where her family lived. Her mother seldom left the house. “We lived with her two bachelor brothers,” Dimoula is quoted as saying, “remarkable but neurotic creatures who reduced her to a spectacular slavery. One of them, a lawyer, could not stay home alone, so she shut herself in with him.” Dimoula, née Vassiliki Radou, met her future husband (the esteemed poet Athos Dimoulas) while she was still in high school—he was her math tutor, his mother was her Greek teacher, and they lived just down the road from her at 26 Pythia Street. When she married, she went from her family house to her husband’s, and lived with her mother-in-law for the rest of the woman’s life. (Imagine going home every day to your strictest high-school Latin teacher, your faulty conjugations, as it were, forever subject to her correction.) When she did finally move away from Pythia Street, it was around the corner to Phaethon Street, into a house vacated by her daughter Elsi. Her work life was similarly limited: Until 1974, she held a desk job at the Bank of Greece, where her father and two uncles had been employed. (“And these were times most unfavorable to women,” she recalls. “The blue pinafore with the white collar we had to wear was the least of our troubles. The worst was that our bosses terrorized us. They would spy on us from every corner to make sure we were working.”)
On one level, Dimoula’s poetry reflects the humdrum, rather claustrophobic circumstances of her life. Her unpretentious, flatly unpoetical voice is grounded in the quotidian and the domestic. The floors of her poems are scattered with the detritus of motherhood: Playmobil toys, Superman costumes, Barbie dolls. Her settings include all-night pharmacies, farmers’ markets, a daily bus ride to a soul-withering job. A wreath of cemetery flowers is made of plastic; leftovers linger in Tupperware; pizzas are delivered on motorbikes. She is urban rather than pastoral: The birds in her poems sing in the iron trees of television antennae, neighbors hear each other through thin walls. Titles of her poems include “Mother of the Floor Below,” “Shake Well Before Using,” “Exercises for Weight Loss in No Time at All,” and “Repair Loans.” And the title of one of her books is, tellingly, We’ve Moved Next Door.
On another level, however, her poetry is the opposite of limited. Her wide-ranging imagination and the originality of her style are startling. The abstract is concrete, the physical, metaphysical. The liberties she takes with language have been termed by the poet Tasos Roussos a “surrealism of grammar and syntax.” One of the overarching metaphors of her poetry is Greek grammar itself (her titles include “The Plural” and “The Disjunctive Or”). She shuffles parts of speech, mimics conjugations and declensions (modern Greek has lost the infinitive, but that doesn’t stop Dimoula from using one), cross-dresses grammatical genders, and exploits the full formality of the plural and the familiarity of the singular. She also delights in puns, and she mints coinages faster than a government up to its eyeballs in hock. But perhaps the most idiosyncratic and essential quality of her verse is its collage of linguistic registers. Dimoula constantly shifts between, on the one hand, a jaunty contemporary vernacular peppered with slang and advertising jingles, and, on the other, katharevousa, the pseudo-archaic “purified” tongue that was, as late as the 1970s, the language of Greek bureaucracy, formal education, and newspapers. She also avails herself of Ancient Greek phrases, and of Koine and liturgical quotations. For her, all strata of the language coexist, just as classical ruins, neoclassical buildings, and ugly apartment blocks from the 1970s jostle for breathing space in modern Athens. Dimoula has described her art as one of erasure and subtraction, and there is something of the palimpsest in the way that words from different periods suddenly peep through the contemporary surface of her poems.
Much of this is, needless to say, nearly impossible to convey in English, and Dimoula’s reputation for difficulty has daunted translators. To the best of my knowledge, up till now there has only been one volume of her work in English, David Connolly’s difficult-to-get-hold-of Lethe’s Adolescence, published by Nostos Books in 1996, along with a chapbook-length selection of her work by the ideally qualified Olga Broumas, a native speaker of Greek who is also an award-winning poet in English, available online at The Drunken Boat. Neither of these publications, however, presents the original Greek.
It is thus a cause for celebration that Yale has brought out The Brazen Plagiarist, a selection of seventy-nine of Dimoula’s poems, drawn from a career spanning over sixty years and over a dozen collections. The book is beautifully laid out, with the Greek en face, and includes a trio of introductions (one by Dimoula and one by each of the two co-translators) and a scholarly apparatus of notes, bibliography, and an excellent and enlightening biographical chronology. What the book dispenses with is the standard “celebrity introduction”: the imprimatur of some prominent American poet who, if not altogether knowledgeable about the subject at hand, can situate the work within a recognizable anglophone context. Even so, it is a book that anyone interested in contemporary poetry should acquire.
It is clearly a labor of love, if not obsession. Yale has published it under the Margellos World Republic of Letters imprint, and its chief translator is the eponymous Cecile Inglessis Margellos, who, with her husband, funds the imprint. A polyglot critic and translator, Margellos is a native speaker of Greek but not of English. Her collaborator is the American poet Rika Lesser, a celebrated translator of German and Swedish with, as she confesses in her introduction, no Greek whatsoever.
More on that later.
Between a native Greek-speaker wobbly in English and a Greekless American, gaps will inevitably open up; getting the fragile cargo of translation across the abyss is difficult enough without trying to pass it blindfolded from spoon to spoon. That said, Margellos and Lesser are often successful, and they have made commendable efforts to convey the most difficult aspects of Dimoula’s poetry, such as its puns.
Let’s begin with “Transformation of Remains—Theophany,” a poem from Dimoula’s 2001 collection Sound of Distancings. If Dimoula’s ultimate theme is loss, her mature subject—prompted by the death of her husband in 1985—is widowhood. And it is, stubbornly, a Greek widowhood, with all the cultural particulars. In Athens, with burial space at a premium, bodies are often exhumed after three years and placed in an ossuary. This eventuality lies behind “Transformation of Remains—Theophany.” Here is the end of the Margellos-Lesser version:
Indestructible, they assured me,
the metal box inside of which
a new, more radical disorderly darkness
receives your synopsis.
Indestructible, too, your necktie
caught on the ironic pickax beak.
The robust sevenfold knot was sealing
the circle around which the neck ran.
Death’s great wrath, vexed, returned the tie to me
because it proved resistant, made of synthetic silk,
I’m appalled. Me, rayon? Dressing you up in cheap
artificial silkworm, for this most formal
of all my losing-yous?
Even this relatively straightforward passage is marked by the occasional register-shift (the “great” in “great wrath” for instance, has a liturgical poise) and Dimoula’s concrete abstractions (“losing-yous”), but it also conveys the appeal of her voice, as in “I’m appalled. Me, rayon?” In Greek, “I’m appalled” is “Phrítto,” which allows for a theatrical rolling of the r and a spitting of t’s. The almost-comic bourgeois shallowness of this realization does nothing to undermine the real horror or the pathos, and sets us up to be devastated by the longing of the close.
Another poem that features Dimoula’s domestic surrealism and black humor is “Easter in the Oven.” Here, in its entirety, is the Margellos-Lesser version:
Bleating persistently, the goat went hoarse.
I opened the oven in a rage, what’s all this fuss?
The guests can hear you.
Your oven’s not even hot, it bleated,
so something of your raw cruelty
will be forced to fast on this festive day.
I put my hand inside. Indeed.
Everything frozen: the forehead the legs the neck
the grass the pasture the crags<
Have we not all had the experience, perhaps while preparing a Thanksgiving turkey, of suddenly realizing that the dinner is not just undercooked but unthawed? But who among us would have thought to make it into a profound (and yet funny) meditation on victims, suffering, guilt, and the Passion? (It might be worth noting that “Easter” in Greek is “Pascha.” So the goat in the oven is scapegoat-cum-paschal lamb.)
Here, for comparison, is David Connolly’s translation of the same poem:
The goat kept on bleating hoarsely.
I angrily opened the oven what’s all the noise I asked
The guests can hear you.
Your oven’s not hot, it bleated
Do something otherwise your cruelty<
Will go hungry and at festive time too.
I put my hand inside. It was true.
The head the leg the neck
The grass the pasture the crags
The slaughter were all cold.
Both translations have their appeal. I prefer Connolly’s opening, which is closer to the Greek, and the colloquial feel of “It was true.” Margellos and Lesser introduce a bit of un-Dimoulian alliteration with “will be forced to fast on this festive day.” (Dimoula tends to pluck the petals off lilies rather than gild them.) But by keeping Dimoula’s word order at the end and closing on “slaughter,” they achieve a more chilling effect. And where Connolly chooses not to attempt the pun on “omótita,” which means both “rawness” and “cruelty,” Margellos and Lesser decide simply to spell it out: “raw cruelty” is a solution that, however pedestrian, seems warranted, and future translators will be hard put to go back to plain “rawness.”
In her introduction, Margellos admits that she and Lesser struggled to solve these lexical knots. Presumably one of the dangers of such a collaboration is that the translators will move towards consensus and away from (so to speak) the wildness of language on the hoof. In the case of Dimoula, they can end up denaturing her strangenesss. Even though Margellos is aware of and up front about the tendency of non-native speakers to be conservative in translation, and of the necessity to resist the urge to “correct lexical incongruities, put one-legged grammar back on its two feet, smooth out semantic asperities,” she seems mistrustful of English’s ability to bend without breaking. She is concerned, for instance, that English cannot handle a title such as “Chronicle of the Fruits and the Unfruitfuls,” since “unfruitfuls” is “an uncountable adjective transformed into a countable noun; we could not but singularize it, and it became ‘Unfruitful.’” Tell that to Eliot Ness and the Untouchables.
I imagine sometimes it was Lesser who, responsible for making the English pass muster with native speakers, shied away from the odd-sounding. Take “blemmátini,” a Dimoulian coinage in “Oblivion’s Adolescence.” “Blémma” means “gaze,” and the suffix means “made of,” as in such standard words as “dermátinos” (“leathern”). Thus the coinage means “made of gaze.” The Margellos-Lesser solution: “eyesight thread.” (“With eyesight thread I stitch in place / the silver buttons of Distance,” the sentence runs.) In her introduction, Margellos remarks, “Our ‘eyesight’ translates Dimoula’s neologistic adjective blemmátini: ‘gazy’ or ‘made of gaze.’ Keeping the adjectival form in English was no easy task (we had also considered ‘sightliney’ at some point).” But why tell us that “blemmátini” means “gazy” and then deliver something so flat as “eyesight thread”? What’s wrong with “gazy thread?” Or why not “With sightline I stitch in place / the silver buttons of Distance”? Alas.
Elsewhere in her introduction, Margellos zeroes in on a phrase from “Oblivion’s Adolescence,” namely “areimánios ploútos,” which she and Lesser decided to translate as “chain-smoking wealth.” She expresses surprise that earlier translators had rendered the phrase as, variously, “bellicose wealth,” “opulent wealth,” and “panache’s wealth” (though she herself evidently misses the wordplay on “panache” and “ash”). “To me,” Margellos asserts, “these were misinterpretations indicative of the difficulty (for a non-native speaker of Greek, especially) in following the arcane evolution of a word’s meaning from ancient to contemporary, colloquial Greek.”
This requires some spelling out. “Areimánios,” which derives from “Ares,” originally meant “war-mongering” and later came to mean something like “with a macho swagger.” But it also appears in the expression “kapnízei areimaníos,” an idiom similar to our “smoke like a fiend” or “chain-smoke.” Here’s the phrase as it appears in the Margellos-Lesser translation of “Oblivion’s Adolescence”:
What would the stars be
without the help of Distance?
Earthly flatware, candlestick ashtrays
in which chain-smoking Wealth could tip his ash
While there’s a bit of visual redundancy, as well as aural pile-up, with “ashtrays,” “chain-smoking,” and “ash,” Margellos was astute in picking up on the idiomatic connotation of “areimánios” (missed, as she points out, by other translators). But is there not also some hint here of the belligerent, the martial, the aftermath of things reduced to ashes? Poets are suckers for etymology. Wealth chain-smokes, but maybe he is something of a Daddy Warbucks.
Margellos’ reverence for Dimoula, her Dimoulatry, can make for a fetishizing of word-for-word fidelity. “English phrasing,” she writes, “often struggles to mirror the density of the Greek.” She then cites, as an example, the first stanza of “The Finder’s Reward,” pointing out that the translation she produced with Lesser, “laconic as it strives to be, contains nine more words than the source text”:
Thumbing through, you hesitated now and then
in your reading, as if something had got to you,
unread, the pages were secretly laughing.
It’s true that English is generally wordier than Greek; lacking inflection, it relies on prepositions and other helping words to establish relationships between parts of speech. But unless one is dealing with metrical poetry, I’m not sure this matters much. You might just as well argue that Greek is comparatively polysyllabic (to use a good polysyllabic Greek word): Whereas this translation has thirty-four syllables, Dimoula’s original has forty-one.
The translators’ attempts to make English denser sometimes muddy it. Consider, for instance, the opening of “As If You’d Chosen”:
Today’s Friday I’ll go to the market square
to stroll through the decapitated gardens
to see the aroma of oregano
enslaved in small bunches.
I was briefly stopped in my tracks by “Today’s Friday,” wondering whether it meant “The Friday belonging to today” (not unthinkable in a Dimoula poem) or “Today is Friday.” And where in Athens is a “market square”? It turns out the poet is referring to the laïki, the farmers’ market that comes to each neighborhood of Athens on a set day of the week. Compare the unfussy version of these lines by Connolly:
It’s Friday today I’m going to the market
to take a walk in the decapitated gardens
to see the oregano’s fragrance
a slave in bundles.
In the Margellos-Lesser rendering, “stroll” is a nice touch, but I don’t care for the way they’ve changed the metaphor of “a slave” to the more prosaic “enslaved.” As for Connolly, I like how he brings into clear focus, by means of a little word-reordering, the synaesthetic “seeing” of the oregano’s fragrance, which Margellos and Lesser leave vague and blurry.
One might argue, with regard to The Brazen Plagiarist, that its inclusion of the original Greek poems en face grant the translators greater license: The original is always there for comparison, declaring at the border of languages that the translation has nothing to hide. Since Margellos and Lesser tend towards literal accuracy, their rare moments of riskiness can seem to come joltingly out of the blue. Occasionally I felt that one or the other translator had taken the bit in her mouth and run with it. A case in point is the conclusion of “My Last Body.” An almost-literal rendering of the Greek ending might run, “Come free / my last body up here, / its serf pulse / free it / from the cruelest / blood-thirstiest / most paranoid master who ever befell me / Mr. Get-up-Sit-down / Get-up-Sit-down / Get-up-Sit-down.” I admit that I added “Mr.,” but I think the Greek idiom “Get-up-Sit-down” is still pretty intelligible as signifying a kind of arbitrary tyranny. Margellos and Lesser end the poem as follows:
its slave heartbeat
from the bloodiest
paranoid master I ever had, the
Go up and do the attic
go down and do the cellar
you can do them both together . . .
I can’t decide whether this is wacky or brilliant—maybe both. As readers with young kids will have recognized, the last three lines are from “The Work Song” in Disney’s Cinderella, which is sung by mice. The translators’ decision to insert the lyrics here has the advantage of being bold, and they make for the sort of abrupt register-shift of which Dimoula might approve, but they arguably introduce more problems than they solve. I would have been fascinated to read about this choice in the translators’ introductions, or in an endnote.
There are certainly cases where the translators’ efforts to render untranslatable wordplay are heroic. They ingeniously use rhyme where the Greek puns on irreproducible near-homophones, such as “bending” and “ending” for “gérno” and “gernó,” meaning “I incline” and “I age.” (In Greek, the mere shift of an accent makes for a completely different word.) In other places, they just miss the bull’s-eye, as with “The Rare Gift.” The poem begins:
Don’t leave babies alone to cry.
Immediately take them into your arms. Or else
the sense of abandonment
their childhood trauma unnaturally comes of age,
grows teeth hair crooked nails knives.
For adults, the aged so to speak
—whatever isn’t spring is already aged—
the ancient ways still prevail.
Never into your arms. Let them cry their hearts out . . .
The poem is quintessentially Dimoulian in the way it dramatizes a large and murky philosophical question being triggered by something specific, mundane, and domestic (ever-changing and conflicting advice to mothers in women’s magazines). And it ends on a very Dimoulian couplet, packed with juxtapositions of the serious and the comic, of modern vernacular and ancient allusion: “Forget it. When they ask to be taken into your arms / Reply, come and get them, baby, come and get them.” In the original, the last line runs “molòn labè moró mou, molòn labè na apantáte.” This is dark and wickedly funny. If you should happen to check the notes at the back of The Brazen Plagiarist (it would be helpful if the text prompted us to do so, perhaps by means of an asterisk), you would find the following:
Come and get them: In Greek, μολων λαβέ (molòn labé). According to Plutarch, these are the words that Leonidas, King of Sparta, addressed to the Persians who ordered him to surrender at the Battle of Thermopylae.
By “in Greek,” the translators mean Ancient Greek, or perhaps Dorian. Yet “molòn labé” is such a common tag in modern Greek as to be no more obscure than, say, “Et tu, Brute?” in English; in fact, when the lurid movie 300 came to Greece, “MOΛΩN ΛΑBE,” in dripping, blood-red letters, was all that had to be added to the poster to explicate the title. (Owing to the movie’s popularity, the slogan now adorns many a T-shirt in souvenir shops.) To mingle the ancient tag with the jaunty, ironic, rock-song “baby” is part of the humor, and part of the darkness. At the end of the previous line, however, the translators just miss the mark. In the original, Dimoula uses the noun “angkaliá,” or “arms”—not arms merely as limbs, but the crook, the hollow of the arms that enfolds in an embrace. (A child who wants to be picked up or hugged or taken into a lap asks for “angkaliá.”) With “taken into your arms,” the translators are not just being accurate but playing off the standard Loeb translation of Plutarch, which runs, “When Xerxes wrote again, ‘Hand over your arms,’ he wrote in reply, ‘Come and take them.’” The double meaning of “arms” in English represents a rare gift for a translator: a reinforcing pun not available in the original. Unfortunately, Margellos and Lesser manage to bury the pun in the course of elaborating it. Compare this relatively literal version, which is simpler and closer to the original: “When they ask you for your arms / Reply ‘Come and take them,’ baby, ‘Come and take them.’’’
Of course, this is the sort of thing that might easily be tweaked in a future edition. If there were to be such an edition, I would also strongly recommend that the translators expand their notes, which, though helpful as far as they go (particularly on cultural and religious matters), are sporadic, inconsistent, and wildly incomplete for such an allusive poet. With regard to “Two Short Poems for a Riddle and a Street,” for instance, it might be useful to know that Stadiou Street is a main boulevard in central Athens. As for the complex poem “Incident,” the translators only gloss a single allusion, to Medea and the Golden Fleece. But this is just one of a host of nods to tragedies historical, theatrical, and religious in the poem, many of them less obvious. There is the ancient phrase“Ή ταν ή επί τας” (“With it or on it”), which is what Spartan women were supposed to say to their warrior men when they handed them their shield to go into battle—i.e., “Come back victorious or fallen.” (Dimoula, who has roots in Messini, has a thing for Sparta and the Spartans—they appear even in a poem about Snow White.) Antigone is alluded to with “by night god-pleasing words secretly buried / their brother, exposed / to dishonor’s vultures / —as if death buried, ceases / to be a dishonor.” The shift to New Testament Greek for the washing of hands immediately suggests Pontius Pilate. There then follows a gestur towards Iphigenia: “Words, long cured in their own salt / are striking again— / these awful words refuse to blow / and in their stillness inspire us to sacrifice.”
Another way to convey information external to the poem is by means of an epigraph. When Dimoula titles a poem of betrayal (with chilling undertones of the military junta) “OYK OIΔA,” she is clearly quoting the New Testament. In Margellos and Lesser’s translation, “I Do Not Know,” the allusion stays buried, hinted at only slightly by the King Jamesian “once,” “twice,” and “thrice.” (Nor do they provide any notes on the poem.) By contrast, Olga Broumas tips us off rather elegantly by filling out the quotation, “I do not know [the man],” and pinning “Matthew, 73” (though it should be, I think, Matthew 26:74) under the title.
With her specialized qualifications, Broumas is less prone than Margellos and Lesser to homogenizing Dimoula’s language into what I will call Standard American Translation Dialect. For instance, in the same poem, “I Do Not Know,” Margellos and Lesser render Dimoula’s “gronthokopiméno” (used twice in the poem, first as an adjective and then as a gerund, “gronthokopóntas,” or “fist-bashing”) as the colorless “beat-up” and then as “beaten.” Broumas, meanwhile, uses “fist-beaten” to effect a sinister foreshadowing:
You will sit
at a fist-beaten table
before a fat dossier
of suspects’ pictures.
Later in the poem, Broumas has:
and when the Prosecutors finally
irritated and with savage
punches smash your face . . .
Broumas’ “Prosecutors,” by the way, while an improvement over the expository “police” who do the beating in the Margellos-Lesser version, still lacks the strangeness and power of the original, in which it isn’t “Prosecutors” who do the punching but “Dióxi,” Prosecution her(!)self.
When it comes to translating Dimoula’s longer, more discursive poems, with all their echoes, allusions, and changes of register, the strains put upon English are all but unbearable—you can hear the struts creaking. For example, “The Chronicle of the Fruit and the Unfruitful” is one of the most ambitious and difficult poems in The Brazen Plagiarist, and the one that relies most heavily on erudition and esoteric wordplay. (It is so fraught for any translator that one questions the wisdom of tackling it in a Selected Poems at all; even its title seems to allude to both the parable of the wise and foolish virgins and the fourteenth-century verse history Chronicle of the Morea.) It starts with a description of the famous orange groves around modern Sparta—if one visits during the harvest season, the roads are soaked with juice from oranges that have fallen out of trucks—and proceeds to the nearby ruins of the city of Mystras. Situated on the flank of Mt. Taygetus, dramatically overlooking the plains of Sparta, Mystras was the Byzantine capital of the Peloponnese (then known as the Morea) and at one point rivaled Byzantium itself as a cultural center. It was also the home of the Paliologos dynasty, and the seat of Constantine Paliologos before he was crowned the last emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire. (He died during the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.) It is against this atmospheric backdrop that Dimoula sets her meditation on ripening and aging.
Challenging in its historical density, especially for Westerners, for whom “Byzantine” is a byword for the arcane and convoluted, “The Chronicle of the Fruit and the Unfruitful” is also a poem in which the scales of language are constantly twitching with multivalence. The translators have therefore had to make hard choices, and they sometimes wind up smoothing over the rough-hewn texture of the original:
a gasping of History.
An apotheosis of stones.
and the ruins of remembering.
“Ruins of remembering” has a pleasing sonority, but pleasing sonority is an un-Dimoulian quality. The original phrase, “kai ereípia tou anatrécho,” might be literally rendered as “and the ruins of ‘I run back.’” In Greek, this is both grammatically curious and many-meaninged—it seems to hint at running back up the steps of Mystras, but “anatrécho” can also mean “to recollect” or, more usually, “to run down,” in the sense of a researcher running down a source. No English word can do all these things at once, of course, and, again, “ruins of remembering” is a fine-sounding phrase, but it smoothes over the interesting difficulty of the original.
For any translator, the final lines of “The Chronicle of the Fruit and the Unfruitful” are challenging on numerous levels. Margellos and Lesser render them as follows:
I pretended not to see the Palaiologos
nor was I upset
when I noticed your throne coveted by a spider.
And I lit a candle to the Divine Logos
of every fall.
In their note, the translators inform us that the Palaiologoi were “the last ruling dynasty of the Byzantine Empire.” In the poem itself, they choose to employ the singular “Palaiologos” and to singularize but not to translate “Logos” (“Word” as in “Word of God”), which invites us to connect the two, as we would in the Greek (the dynastic name suggests “old word”). That last “fall” (capitalized in the original) hints, of course, at both the Fall of Man and, more strongly, the fall of empires, the Fall of Byzantium in particular, not to mention the fall of ripened fruit, the fall from the prime of life. Additionally, the Greek word, “Ptósis,” can have the meaning of “grammatical case,” a pun suggested by its proximity to “Lógous” (“words”)—decline as declension. I keep playing with these lines, trying to find a way to get more meanings through. “I lit a candle to the Holy Words / in every case of their decline”? Or “of every Decline and Fall”? Of course, “Logos” signifies not just “word” and “speech,” but “reason” and “logic.” (In Modern Greek, “logikes times”—“logical prices”—properly means “reasonable prices.”) “I lit a candle to the Divine Reasons / of every Fall”? I too throw up my hands.
I cannot help returning to the introductions. All three have odd tonal moments. Dimoula (translated here by whom?—the book doesn’t say) wonders how she will “enter Yale”: how she will matriculate her poems into English, as it were. Margellos tries to squeeze a General Introduction, Publisher’s Note, and Translator’s Apology into one hybrid essay, vacillating between jargon-studded academic writing (“heterogeneous ontological categories”) and warm personal testimonial to her devotion to Dimoula. Explaining how she came to pair up with Lesser, she writes, “Dimoula’s poetry demanded qualities hard to find in a single translator,” and she suggests that such a translator would need to be Nabokov-like, completely bilingual and possessed of “a transcendent belief in and an incandescent passion for translation, and a zealot’s faith in Dimoula’s poetic genius.”
As for Lesser, her introduction takes the form of an off-putting essay called “The Somatics of Semantics: The Body of the Work.” Quoting from one of her own interviews, Lesser candidly confesses that she once described herself as “part of a dying breed of American Poet-Translators Who Translate Only from Languages They Know Intimately (or Extremely Well).” (I would go even further: American verse translators all too often manifest a sort of Dunning-Kruger effect, such that the less they know of the original, the less concerned they are about not knowing it.) What led Lesser to defect to the Dark Side is unclear (aside from the fact that a Yale editor suggested it), and is left a mystery. That she would open “The Somatics of Semantics” with a sentence like “What does it mean to ‘know’ a language?” (with “know” in scare quotes, no less) is eyebrow-raising. This from a woman who has made it her life’s work to master other languages. She surely “knows” better.
Lesser admits that when she began to translate Dimoula she didn’t even know the Greek alphabet, except for the letters she recalled from “chemistry and calculus.” She developed the habit of typing Dimoula’s poems into Google Translate to get a sense of their “word boundaries,” and she listened to recordings of them over and over to gain a feeling for Dimoula’s voice, its “dark smoky background music.” She has studied piano and voice. She mentions being a trained Feldenkrais practitioner and somehow presents this as a translator’s qualification. As for her “imperfect knowledge” (italics mine) of Dimoula’s work, she grants herselfWittgensteinian permission to “pass over [it] in silence.” She then ends on an incongruously self-congratulatory note (at least that’s how it comes across), asking, “Who now is the marionette and who pulls the strings?” and quoting these lines from Dimoula: “I didn’t subtract a single one / of the thousand beauties you possessed / nor one speck of your precious ugliness / World.”
This is maddening. The pleasures of Dimoula have far more to do with the mind than the ear. (Critics have remarked on her “camouflaged romanticism ‘that wears the mask of anti-romantic prosiness.’”) It isn’t that Dimoula doesn’t sometimes play with sound connections, but she avoids the Poetic with a capital P. You cannot “hear” a pun or an irony or an allusion or a register-shift in a language you do not understand the way you might be able to pick up rhythm, alliteration, assonance, or rhyme. (Incidentally, the one end-rhyming poem in The Brazen Plagiarist, the very early “Melancholia,” is rendered in free verse.)
Lesser does have interesting things to say about translation in general: I like, for instance, the way she describes (with a nod to negative capability) the translator’s brain as “holding various lingual possibilities simultaneously, spherically, and weighing them, undecided.” More of that, please.
Lesser’s failures of tone put me in mind of Auden’s introduction to Rae Dalven’s translation of Cavafy. Auden engagingly confronts problems that Lesser shirks and shies from, and he is disarmingly modest:
I do not know a word of Modern Greek, so that my only access to Cavafy’s poetry has been through English and French translations. This perplexes and a little disturbs me. Like everybody else, I think, who writes poetry, I have always believed the essential difference between prose and poetry to be that prose can be translated into another tongue but poetry cannot. But if it is possible to be poetically influenced by work which one can read only in translation, this belief must be qualified.
Auden concludes that it is Cavafy’s “unique tone of voice” that comes through. “When one is reading a translation, all one gets is the sensibility, and either one likes it or one does not. I happen to like Cavafy’s very much indeed.”
Putting aside my niggling reservations about method and attitude, I must say that I think readers of The Brazen Plagiarist will come away liking Dimoula’s sensiblility “very much indeed.” Let me close with Margellos and Lesser’s rendering of the title poem:
Of the unremitting civil war
between existing and ceasing to
between speaking and ceasing to
the only winner is
that famous war correspondent
A brazen unholy plagiarist
both speaking and ceasing to exist
expertly forged as
in the paper’s closemouthed ear.
“Writing,” that brazen plagiarist, is, as Margellos points out in her introduction, a feminine noun, here personified as a woman war correspondent. (Speaking of gender and personification, I see no reason not to change “it copies” to “she copies.”) To a Greek audience, Dimoula’s mention of “civil war” inevitably calls up shadows from the recent past. To make “writing” the winner of a civil war is shocking; after all, we think of truth as “the first casualty of war.” It’s a hand grenade of a poem, subversive at every turn.
* * *
At this critical juncture, Dimoula finds herself an unlikely spokeswoman for her country and her city, perhaps because poetry offers something of an antidote to austerity. “Poetry,” she has remarked, “gives a loan, and indeed an interest-free loan, to every case of bankrupt courage. I really don’t know what percentage of society needs this vital loan. But I meet plenty of people who are moved by poetry and grateful to it for changing their life.” Certainly the Athenian widows at the Megaron, as much an ancient chorus as an audience, were grateful for Dimoula’s. They recognize her as one of their own—a middle-class, urban widow like themselves, keeping up appearances on a dwindling pension. But they love her as much for what they don’t understand as for what they recognize—her vatic pronouncements on translation and poetry, and on the uncertain future, were met with an attentive hush. Appropriately for a poet born on Pythia Street, Kiki Dimoula has become a modern sibyl, sought out by a bewildered people for her difficult utterances and riddling truths.
* * *
About the Author
A. E. Stallings is an American poet who studied classics in Athens, Georgia, and has lived since 1999 in Athens, Greece. She has published three collections: Archaic Smile, Hapax, and, most recently, Olives. Her verse translation of Lucretius, The Nature of Things, was published by Penguin Classics. She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim and MacArthur foundations.