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Translators' Note: Mantinadologoi

BY NICK PAPANDREOU AND A.E. STALLINGS

 

The folk-poet who improvises mantinades is called a rhymadoros or mantinadologos. He is called upon to perform at occasions such as weddings, baptisms, funerals, and inaugurations, often singing and accompanied by the lyre. The Cretan version of poetry slams are called mantinadomachies, or mantinada-battles, and in this guise the coupleteer is called a mantinadomachos. The youth in Crete often SMS the newest couplet on their cellphone to their peers.

Mantinades are in the fifteen-syllable line standard for folk poetry in Greek. This iambic "fifteener" is the meter of The Erotokritos, a ten thousand line romance in Medieval Cretan still performed today, the founding document of demotic poetry for modern poets such as George Seferis and Yannis Ritsos. It is also the rhythm that drives Greek rap music (fifteeners on speed), as well as protest slogans (fifteeners on steroids).

In our versions, we sometimes use fourteeners in place of fifteeners, since English tends to prefer ending "da-Dum" to "da-Dum-da." While keeping the flare of perfect rhymes, we take other liberties: we are more interested in mirroring the wit, wordplay, and vernacular verve of the original than reproducing word-for-word metaphrases. These liberties are, we feel, in the impromptu spirit of the originals, which are rarely repeated the same way twice.

A typical example of a rhyming coupleteer is Andreas Papyrakis, in his sixties, black waxed mustache, black riding boots, illiterate but with a deep knowledge of musical traditions, a lyre player and always of good cheer. He says good couplets come to him only when there is a strong "opposition" in the house. If he bumps into another coupleteer or speaks to one on the telephone, there is a rapid exchange of rhyming volleys before they get to their first hello.

Often the rhymadore repeats the first line to build suspense and then releases the second like an axe, earning applause if it is truly complex or surprising: implying the whole from the detail, breaking up and rejoining the universe in two lines. For the rhymester, the couplet is an obsession, a livelihood, a talent, a war, a proof of life.—NP & AES

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This poem originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2009

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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