Translating poetry is a creative enterprise and, for many, a labour of love. How, then, are we to assess the translated poem? No doubt there is no easy answer to that question, but at least bilingual editions such as this one open up different possibilities. Those with some knowledge of the original language can enjoy witnessing the process of transmutation, while those who can’t read the original can still get a feel for the shape and length of the lines and, in this case, even be seduced by the strange and mysterious qualities of a different alphabet. The traditional arrangement of original on the left, translation on the right, makes for a lovely image of the concept of translation itself. The two poems are evidently not the same; they are discrete entities, but they are intimately connected. Even if we can only read one of the two, the presence of the other haunts our reading, reminding us of the very richness of poetry and the interpretations it opens up.
Rick M. Newton writes in his introduction that his translation is “aimed for the ear.” It is of course a traditional function of poetry to aim for the ear, but we can see how Newton has made a wise decision here. Yiannis Ritsos wrote the poem in 1936 after seeing in a newspaper the picture of a woman weeping for her son, a factory worker killed by the police during a strike. Much of the beauty, dignity and power of Ritsos’ poem comes precisely from the way in which he has allowed this woman, the mother of a factory worker, to speak lines of heart-breaking beauty and almost unbearable grief while using the language of the people. Sound is of paramount importance in this enterprise, and Newton has in this sense remained faithful to the spirit of the original. Epitaphios is a political poem that transcends its historical context. Its title recalls Pericles’ funeral oration honouring the dead of the Peloponnesian War and extolling the virtues of democracy, a famous speech that every Greek schoolchild has had to study. Ritsos honours those who died those who die but without the glory that comes from fighting for their country, and he celebrates democracy by highlighting the consequences of its erosion. His poem speaks out against oppression and brutality, and it celebrates the lives of the common people, the ones excluded from official versions of history. However, the poem is above all a lament, spoken entirely by the grieving mother, and the short introduction in this book does a fine job of explaining the lament as a genre and practice in Greek culture. The reader follows the tragic mother’s journey from pain, incomprehension and rage at the unjust murder of her son to some sense of hope as her personal grief becomes part of something larger than itself. “You are not gone, my dear,” she says in the last section of the poem. She sees the image of her dead son amongst the workers marching for justice and change, and as the lament comes to a close, she starts to see the sun through the veil of her tears.
In its originating culture, the poem has been made famous by Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis, who set it to music in 1958. To Greek ears, Ritsos’ verse is now indistinguishable from its musical setting. For a complete experience, then, the English speaker should also look up the corresponding songs. Yet even without the powerful accompaniment of music, both the original and the translation captivate with their fresh, vivid diction, and their sounds and images that paint a picture of grief, loss, but ultimately also hope. This slim volume can comfortably be held in one hand. It may be wise to keep a tissue in the other.