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Translator's Note: The Crane Dance

by David Harsent


In making my versions of poems by Yannis Ritsos, I have brought significant changes to his work. There is, of course, nothing new about the business of making "a " rather than offering what is sometimes called a strict translation; in fact, I suspect that this is the approach to translation now most often taken. One way of defining this method is to speak not of "translation," but of "re-imagining." It is, in short, a creative act in support of an earlier creative act.

I was well aware of the political resonances in the poem. Ritsos is an unreservedly political poet and was imprisoned, exiled, and ill-treated by both the Metaxas regime and the Colonels' junta. The Fourth Dimension, his long remake of The House of Atreus, was partly informed by the inability to speak openly of contemporary events. Ritsos called his poem "The New Dance," and it was clear that he was making use of the dance performed at Delos by Theseus and the young Athenians as an extended metaphor. Me too, though I've re-routed things to get what my version needed.

The sense of conflict in Ritsos's work is no less telling than the weight of sorrow or the sudden starts of surprise. And his work is indelibly Greek: in landscape, in weather, in the recurring statues and geraniums and balconies, the ever-present sea, the underpinning of myth. Most important for me is that he found a means to link mood to perception in a way that is economical, delicate, and indelible. In fact, economy is crucial. One of his tristichs, for example, goes: "The sun finally reaches the back room window./Someone shouts outside in the street./These things seem different to the loveless." Another: "You passed me a glass of water/Into which you had secretly/Dipped your finger." Still another: "A hallway of doors. A grandfather clock./A woman came out naked, her hair wrapped in a towel./She didn't look at the clock. It wasn't that."

The ability to compress an entire emotionally-rich episode into a few lines is typical of Ritsos's shorter pieces: the obliquity of compression, and the readability of the implied narrative, is a trademark, and it was this that first drew me to these haunting, mysterious, visceral, and (I suspect) pitch-perfect poems.

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This poem originally appeared in the April 2008 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2008

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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