Thursday, May 26, 2005


Translating Yannis Ritsos

I first read Yannis Ritsos sometime around 1975, in the Penguin Book of Socialist Verse edited by Alan Bold -- now long out of print --, which includes one poem of his (an early long one, "Romiosyne," translated by Eleftherios K. Parianos).
These trees cannot be accommodated beneath a lesser sky,
These stones are not content beneath an alien heel,
These faces cannot be accommodated except beneath the sun,
These hearts are not content with anything short of justice....
I immediately wanted more. When I looked, I found little of his work available in English translation at the time -- in the local bookstores, I tracked down a copy of Gestures, a small selection of Ritsos' poems from the 1940's through the 1960's, translated by Nikos Stangos; and 18 Short Songs of the Bitter Motherland, a small beautifully done bilingual edition translated by Amy Mims, with the original Greek presented in photo reproduction of Ritsos' own handwriting, and with illustrations by Ritsos.

One spring day around that time, a day still bright in my memory, I made my way down to a small rock ledge on the high bluffs above the Mississippi River by the University of Minnesota campus (where I was a student), and in a high wind, the sun glinting on the green water far below, I sat with the above-mentioned book Gestures and read Yannis Ritsos.

Ritsos is a poet whose poems encourage the seeking of such moments, his poems filled with sun and wind and water and rock.

And his poems, also, filled with trains carrying soldiers, a dark stain in the mud where a man was shot by police, voices coming from a doorway, sometimes half-whispered, a darkened house where someone has recently disappeared. During the long years of imprisonment Ritsos experienced because of his Communist politics, when he wrote poems in prison he would bury them in the ground to keep them from being found by the prison guards.

Over the next few years other larger selections of Ritsos' work became available in translation, notably The Fourth Dimension translated by Rae Dalven, and Ritsos in Parentheses translated (in a bilingual edition) by Edmund Keeley. While I welcomed the additional availability of Ritsos' poetry in English, I was dissatisfied with the translations in both of the above books, as I had been also with the translations in Gestures.

Many of the translators of Ritsos, especially of the more widely available editions, have tended -- both in their selection and inclusion of individual poems, and in the translations themselves -- to concentrate on the clandestine or obscure qualities of the poems. Much of Ritsos' poetry, particularly the shorter poems written in prison or enforced exile, or during periods of civil war and political insurgence, have a subtle abbreviated quality, reading a little like coded dispatches or brief notes written quickly and passed from hand to hand or slid under a door. It's sometimes difficult for his politics to emerge clearly in such poems -- if one isn't alert to the subtleties and signals contained in them -- and the difficulty is compounded if a translator chooses to translate away from (or is oblivious to) the political implications of a poem or a line or an image.

Eventually, sometime in the early '80's -- and although I knew no Greek -- I decided to see if I could "translate" one or two of Ritsos' poems, basically for my own use, to try to get a better sense of what the poems really said.

So one afternoon I sat in a library, with a couple of modern Greek dictionaries and a tourist handbook of the language to help with the basics of the grammar, and -- using the bilingual Edmund Keeley translation of Ritsos in Parentheses as the text (and with Keeley's translation as a general guide) -- I translated one of the poems:
We Wait

Night falls late in the quarter. Sleep does not receive us.
We wait so that day breaks. We wait
so that the sun strikes like a hammer the sheet-iron of the sheds,
so that it strikes our foreheads, our hearts,
so that it becomes a sound so that the sound is heard -- a sound different,
because the silence is full of gunshots from unknown points.

My translation differs from Keeley's in several places. Keeley says, "We wait for daybreak," "We wait for the sun to strike ... " The difference hinges on a small word in the Greek original, na, a preposition, what one dictionary called a subordinate particle, meaning "so that, in order that." The waiting the poem speaks about is not a passive act, not just a waiting for something to happen; the waiting plays an active part in making daybreak and sunlight possible. (Very often, when I'm working on one of my own poems, if a line or phrase isn't working, I find that changing one of the prepositions -- rather than a verb or a noun -- is what it needs.)

At the end of the poem, Keeley says (as do a couple of other translations I've seen) "unknown places." The Greek word at the end of the poem, simia (or semeia) is something of a mapmaker's word, with a cluster of possible meanings, such as "signs, symbols, directions, points," and related words. Ritsos wrote the poem in the late '40's, around the time of the Civil War in Greece. I believe the speaker in the poem essentially knows where the gunshots are coming from, if not the precise locations. "From unknown points" seemed to me more accurate, in the context of the poem, than "from unknown places," which somewhat retreats into mystification and again makes the speaker more passive than I think Ritsos intended.

Where I translated "sheet-iron of the sheds," Keeley says "tin" and another translator says "tin roofs" (although the Greek original doesn't say "roofs"). I'm on shakier ground here, relying entirely on one of the dictionaries (I can no longer recall which one) for the translation "sheet-iron" for the Greek word lamarines. I decided to trust my ear with this -- Ritsos says "the sun strikes like a hammer," and I just don't hear that kind of force, that kind of striking, if the translation says "tin." (If the sheds were in fact tin, in all likelihood the tin was just a plating or coating over a stronger base metal such as iron or steel.) When I translate the word as "sheet-iron," I hear the sun strike like a hammer.

It took me an afternoon to struggle through and translate the six lines of the poem. I felt a quiet elation, tempered by a muttering doubt, when I finished, but the work of translating did take me closer to the poem Ritsos actually wrote.

The poetry of Yannis Ritsos, his life, his place in the world and in history, is a massive mountain of piled stones, a shout and thunder carrying through the years. During his lifetime he published nearly a hundred books of poems, as well as collections of fiction, essays, drama, translations from several languages, and other work. Late in his life his Collected Poems, published in Greece, comprised four volumes, and his work had been translated into at least 44 languages.

Translations of Ritsos into English can be hard to keep track of; several appeared in small editions from small publishers and were soon out of print; others remain available. The most comprehensive collection is the Selected Poems: 1938-1988 edited and translated by Kimon Friar and Kostas Myrsiades, published in 1989 by BOA Editions. A recent Ritsos translator whose work I've liked is Martin McKinsey (translating sometimes in collaboration with poet Scott King); a selection of McKinsey's Ritsos translations, Late into the Night, has been published by Oberlin College Press, though I haven't seen the book yet.

From time to time a translator, even someone normally a little dry and academic, will see fit to translate one of Ritsos' poems where his politics come through a little more clearly. The lines below are from the poem "The Prototypes," translated by Edmund Keeley, in the collection Repetitions, Testimonies, Parentheses, published in 1991 by Princeton University Press. The poem starts by recalling a scene in the Iliad, in the workshop of the god Hephaestos, where he halts work, lays down his tools, sponges himself off, and goes out to meet Thetis, mother of Achilles. In the Iliad, Hephaestos is accompanied by young women; Ritsos in his poem makes them young men. In ancient Greece, it was a common practice for the "owners" of slaves to deliberately break (or otherwise injure or impair) the feet or legs of "their" slaves, to try to keep them from running away.
Clean like that, orderly, he goes out in the evening, leaning
on the shoulders of golden young men, the work of his hands,
who have strength and thought and voice -- he goes out into the street,
grander than all, the lame god, the worker god.

I first came across the "Penguin Book of Socialist Verse" in a used bookstore in Dublin. It is a great collection, containing poets all to hard to find these days. It s a shame that it is not still in print. It is great to hear someone else found these poems as invigorating as I.

I need the poem of Ritsos ( To Nero ) Or ( To Ydor ) in Greek

I am from Iran , My name is Aria

you may email me at :

Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?