Reginald's recent translation post has me thinking about translation again... as did my week-long marathon of getting in an application for an NEA translation grant (hope springs eternal!) And I had been meaning to write as well on some Greek women poets ever since Rigoberto's post on Aurora de Albornoz many weeks back.
Some poets do seem to gain or lose reputations in English based on how well they translate or how well they are served by translators. And it does seem to me that it is the contemporary Greek women poets whose work often "translates" better than their male contemporaries. Why?

Some of the poets I am thinking of are Kiki Dimoula, Jenny Mastoraki, Natasha Hadjidaki, and especially Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke. Two major anthologies came out a couple of years back on modern and contemporary Greek poetry (A Century of Greek Poetry, and Modern Greek Poetry, an Anthology). I had the chance to review both of them. One of the things that struck me was how much more immediate these women writers (on the whole) seemed than their male contemporaries. Finally it occurred to me that this was because these writers seemed more grounded in the concrete, in the body, and in the physical pleasures of language (as Dimoula's linguistic playfulness and puns--though these are probably more a hindrance than a help to the translator), and slightly less given to the abstract and generic surrealism characteristic of many of their male counterparts. (For an exception, see The Lions' Gate by Titos Patrikios, translated by Christopher Bakken & Roula Konsolaki.)
In Greek, the language of philosophy, abstractions have a whole other presence than in English. They have a grandeur and beauty and heft of their own. Abstractions sound good in Greek--one need hardly walk in fear of them. But translate them into English, and they evaporate into a lot of thin Latinate sounds and blow away like smoke (that acrid, particulate Anglo-Saxon monosyllable).
But the physical does translate--or transubstantiate. And these women write of a world populated with things and bodies.
Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke is emphatically a poet of the body and the physical--she writes as though she could not be otherwise. Born in 1939 in Athens, she was partially crippled by an infection as an infant ("Instead of a star, I was born under a scar," she announces in one poem), and has spent her life coming to terms with the physical world. Even of the soul, she writes of its smell, its taste. Yet she celebrates that world and her physical apprehension of it. I am looking forward to a new volume of her work in English due out (I think?) from Greywolf press any day now.
Katerina makes her living as a professional translator. She has translated Pushkin, Brodsky and Seamus Heaney into Greek. (She is fluent in Russian, and has an idiomatic grasp of English that can put even native speakers to shame.) Nevertheless it was an act of daring for her to attempt translating her own poems from Greek, her native tongue, into English. The only evidence of linguistic strain is the deliberately unweildy title of that book, Translating into Love Life's End, from Shoestring Press in the UK.
I think this enterprise succeeded because she approached her own poems with the eye of a professional translator--with a boldness ultimately based on fidelity to the original, as if the poem had been written by another. (One could, after all, simply "re-write" one's own poems.) Some of the world play in the Greek she is unable to carry across into English (in the Greek here, to "translate" is to "trans-tongue", and "to leaf through" is also a pun on "kissing"), but wherever possible she adheres to the metaphorical texture. Here is the title poem:
Translating Into Love Life's End
Since I cannot touch you
with my tongue
I translate my passion.
I cannot communicate
so I transubstantiate;
I cannot undress you
so I dress you with the fantasy
of a foreign tongue.
Under your wings
I cannot nestle
so I fly around you
turning the pages of your dictionary.
I want to know how you strip
how you open up
so I look for your habits
in between your lines
for your favourite fruit
your favourite smells
girls you leaf through.
I'll never see you punctuation marks
naked, I work hard on your adjectives
so that I can recite them in the susurrations
of another religion.
But my story has aged
my volume adorns no shelf
and I imagine you now
with a rare gold leather binding
in a foreign library.
Because I should never
have indulged in the luxury of nostalgia
and written this poem
I am reading the gray sky now
in a sun-drenched translation.

Originally Published: January 10th, 2008

A. E. (Alicia) Stallings studied classics in Athens, Georgia and has lived since 1999 in Athens, Greece. She has published three books of poetry, Archaic Smile (1999), which won the Richard Wilbur Award; Hapax (2000); and Olives (2012). Her new verse translation of Lucretius (in rhyming fourteeners!), The Nature of Things,...

  1. January 10, 2008
     Tom Jardine

    For many years I have noted differences, from the grand pontificating statement to the questioning wonder. As the artist ages the creativity becomes more a letting of the feminine out to be free, away from dogmatic piffle. As men age, they become more loving and understanding, but women are often that way all along.
    I know very little about translating, but I agree with the premise, women being easier to translate -- aren't women more sensual -- or is that the right word?
    All my life I have had no men friends. They seem so silly, and if I start talking with them they start one upmanship into worthless intellectual battles, and I can still be drawn into a battle. My friends have been women. Women have taught me life, not men. Women seem so much more expansive, and men seem so limiting. Each expressed in their poetry as well.
    All my favorite living poets are women. Frankly, many men poets don't seem sensitive.
    This must somehow relate to translating poets.

  2. January 11, 2008
     Alicia (AE)

    Tom, thanks for commenting.
    I don't mean to suggest that all women are "easier" to translate, or that all women poets are more physical, but that it does seem to be the case for a certain generation of Greek writers that the women come across better in English. Maybe it is just a generation of exceptionally strong women writers, of Greek women coming into their own. They seem on the whole to be less absorbed in abstractions or a (by now) mannered Aegean surrealism or style (sun, sea, stone, mystical epiphany). It's the sort of sweeping statement I might make on a blog but not in an essay, as Steve points out, since I myself can think of so many exceptions as to defeat my own argument! It's more of a hunch. A peg, perhaps, for talking a little about Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke.

  3. January 11, 2008
     Tom Jardine

    I understand about the all, and the exceptions, but there are patterns, and there is something to what you are saying. No one likes sweeping generalizations, and there is one right in this sentence!
    It amazes me how many poems seem to purposely avoid describing anything, and instead must abstract it out to death. I read so many poems that seem to intentionally say nothing--is this so in other languages? Too many poems are sounding just like poems.
    Wish I could read other languages but, of course, I don't do so good with this here English.
    Keep up the good work. Very interesting.

  4. January 17, 2008
     Christopher Bakken

    Very provocative notions here! And thanks for mentioning the Patrikios book: he is very much a poet of the physical world, a poet of eros more than abstraction.
    You've just unearthed a lot of questions about recent and contemporary Greek poetry:
    Who do the wonderful female poets of Greece (figures like Dimoula and Anghelaki-Rooke) look to as their immediate forebears? Aren't they in some ways inventing the terms of womens' poetry for themselves? I wonder if that in any way connects to the concretness and physicality of their work.
    I contrast that with the tradition of women's poetry in our country, where someone like May Swenson can trace her lineage back through Elizabeth Bishop , through H.D., toward Dickinson. Of course questions of "tradition" are admittedly very complicated when we're talking about Greece, since the swath of history and culture involved is just so massive. I suppose there's always Sappho back there, but what an incomplete and distant foundation she would be....
    It interests me that the post-war male poets inherit the elliptical and abstract tendencies of the American Modernists (the Seferis and Eliot connection being the most obvious example of that...) so powerfully, while perhaps Greek women poets don't.
    Does feminism, which comes rather late in Greece (well, I suppose it would be possible to argue that it hasn't even arrived yet), figure into the equation?
    Not that you set out to answer all those questions in your blog, koukla, but thanks for such a provocative series of paragraphs...and for printing Katerina's strong poem here.