Nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature nine times, awarded the Lenin Peace Prize in May 1977 and deemed by French poet Louis Aragon “the greatest poet of our age”, Yiannis Ritsos is rightly considered amongst the greatest Greek poets of the twentieth century. Given this great stature then, it is perhaps surprising – and certainly disappointing – to note that English translations of his prolific works are so rare. Thus it was with great eagerness that I embarked upon Bill Berg’s very recent translation of Ritsos’ epic, Romiosini.
In order to do Berg justice, it is apt to consider briefly what constitutes an effective translation, particularly of poetry. More so than any other form of literature, poetry acquires meaning not only through the literal connotations of its lexical composition but also through rhythm, rhyme, metre; through its phonetic qualities. This poses obvious problems for the translator. For in translating a poem, one must undoubtedly consider whether more emphasis ought to be placed on semantics or on poetic form, on capturing aspects such as the insinuations of words – which may differ from one language to another – and their sonic elements. Berg without doubt chooses a literal, word for word mode of translation and though the syntax strikes me as slightly awkward, his opening lines succeed:
These trees don’t take well to a narrower sky,
these stones don’t take well to strangers’ feet,
these faces don’t take well to anything but the sun,
these hearts don’t take well to anything but the just.
However, as one reads on, it becomes blatantly obvious that the poem is a translation. One might of course question whether its being recognisably so is an issue at all. In this particular instance, I would argue, it most certainly is. For example, consider the following extract:
with your rifle – your betrothed – glued to your right hand,
you remember that heaven never forgot you,
whenever you’ll take from that inside pocket its old letter
and, unfolding the moonbeam with burnt finger, read of heroism, and glory.
Here the line, “whenever you’ll take from that inside pocket its old letter”, is painful to read, for it attempts to imitate the composition of the Greek line so closely that its syntax risks being incomprehensible in English.
Ritsos was a life-long member of the Greek Communist Party and an active member of the Greek Resistance during the Second World War. He continued to write despite repeated conflict with the authorities regarding left-wing views in his poetry. On separate occasions Ritsos was imprisoned and exiled, witnessing his work being publically burned by the Metaxas dictatorship. He is undoubtedly a man who bore great passion, and this passion is tenderly painted in Romiosini, a war poem. Unfortunately, such syntactical inelegance as is detailed above dilutes the poem’s power in this translation. Moreover, for all that it appears to reproduce the Greek text exactly, it nevertheless reveals a lack of understanding of the nuances of the original language. At times a synonym would have better captured the essence of the original text than the English word used; take for example the following line: “This land is theirs, this land is ours”. Here the word “land” stands in for the Greek “χώμα”. Much more effective here would have been the use of ‘soil’, ‘earth’ or even ‘dirt’, which not only are more exact translations, but which also better capture the context of war and the patriotism, the romiosini, or ‘Greekness’, so prominent in Ritsos’ poem.
The poetry of Giannis Ritsos is immensely powerful, and while much of this power is unfortunately lost in translation, this publication, which boasts the original text to Berg’s English translation on the adjacent page, does offer the first English translation of Romiosini in book form. Consequently, Smokestack’s publication is a welcome addition to the English Ritsos oeuvre.