Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Translation of poetry by Katerina Anghelaki Rooke (1994)

More Questions than Answers

The following idea came to me the other day: Would one demand from two friends, that one happened to have, that they should not only keep close company, but that they should interchange roles, knowing all the while that these two have very little, if at all in common, meaning that they have very different characters and tastes in life? Certainly not.

And yet. If English and Greek were human beings they would be as different as day and night. I was asked by someone recently, how come I don't conceal anything in my poetry, how is it that I don't use "shutters", as the person in question put it.

I answered that I had never thought of it and that probably the flaw of poetry that was coming out of me was taking me where it did. But later I gave it some more thought and I wondered if it was the fact that I was writing in Greek, that my mother tongue was Greek, that made this openness so natural. To quote George Steiner: "certain cultures speak less than others; some modes of sensibility prize taciturnity and elision, others reward prolixity and semantic ornamentation". Elsewhere, I think, he says that English is a language that was made in order to conceal more than to reveal. And obviously Greek is the exact opposite. The fact that in English you can talk for some length about your love without having to disclose - grammatically speaking - the sex of the object of your adoration, is I think quite indicative. I am not a linguist, but I have a feeling that grammar is like the gestures of a person: they betray this person's weaknesses and strengths. An inflected language gesticulates much more than an non-inflected one. And finally; to add yet another metaphor -, often, when I translate, especially poetry, I have the feeling that I am a seamstress and that I have been given a piece of material. What I am going to make out of this material is up to me. I can make a suit, or an evening dress or a handkerchief. It depends upon my sensitivity, my good or bad taste and my sense of tone, not to make a Mackintosh out of a flowery print. All this to say that I see poetry as entirely language. Even the famous distinction between "image poetry" and "language poetry" - whereby image-poetry is easier to translate than language-poetry - convinces me less and less as the years go by. Could surrealism be born against a background, other than that of Latin-born languages? For example.

We know that poetry is that which is lost in translation, but if, for a moment, we leave aside this huge generalization, and start counting our losses, we would find, I think, that one of the first things to go is the tone. When I talked about sewing a three-piece suit out of some yards of muslin, I meant precisely this.

The quest for the correct corresponding tone, led me very early in my life and career, both as a poet and as a translator, to realise that I could never achieve the correct poetic tone if I were to write my own poetry in a language other than my own. I could never, that is, write poetry not my mother tongue. Because the tone is based on the most complex mechanism: that of the choice of words. The mechanism is so complex because in poetry, most of it rests in the dark, deep sea of the unconscious. And the unconscious cannot be translated, I think.

Are things easier when the object of my translating work is my own poetry? Hardly.

The fact is that I never take full responsibility - I don't sign, that is - when I translate into English. I always collaborate with a native speaker. Two collection of poems of mine have appeared in the States, one in 1976, one in 1986. For the first one - I collaborated with an American poet, Philip Ramp, the second with an English, woman, a linguist, not a poet, Jackie Willcox. In both cases the English speaking counter part had a rather limited knowledge of Greek and very few of the nuances of the original could be grasped without explanation. Now, what is interesting is, that I noticed, to my great surprise, that very quickly, I started distancing myself from the text, feeling less and less that I was the author of the original; in a way I was disowning my poems. So, I would analyse less and less this or that image and its implications for the whole poem. The truth is that I was slipping into the personality of the translation, a position that I found more comfortable. I was more anxious to find a translating "solution" to a given problem, then to render exactly in English what I had written in Greek. After all translating was interpreting. Why shouldn't my poems have more than one angle, or better still, why should I be the one who held the key to the right one?

I was a bit disappointed though. I thought my poems would put up a much bigger fight, that they would raise demands. Was I discovering that they were less good than I thought, or on the contrary, I was so conceited that I believed that they were so good that no bad translation would harm them? And, did I feel that what I was saying in these poems had to come across in the other language at all costs, or that what I wrote was so inseparable from the language in which it was written, (to the point that were it written in another language, it would be so completely different), that good or bad translation didn't really matter?? These trite, for all translations, questions, I can assure you that they sound quite different if they are printed on your own skin. Yes, being the author was really very dangerous. Another routine question, - for translation of literature - is: is this piece of literature, r e a l l y, worth translating? (Not all of us have the beautiful fate to translate Seferis, Cavafis, even Ritsos). Now, when you translate your own


and you ask yourself the same question, it may be fatal. So, it is much easier to feel that you are "the translator" with or without quotes. And what if - one could argue - translating your own work, helps you to correct her or his mistakes? Ba....no such chance! Because what a poet instinctively does, is to blame the translator."

Athens 11/5/94

Written for the Fifth Seminar: Cultural actions for Europe 1994 held in Athens, June 3 - 5, 1994, Katerina Anghelaki Rooke presented her paper in Workshop 8: Literature, Identity and Discourse



Poetry, one of the oldest flowers of this world, was already object of countless definitions and analysis by people who wanted to understand its essence or rather the reason of existence as well as also the reason of life. How it is similar to life itself, that resulted in many determinations; in numerous interpretations one gives poetry a secretive role. One connected poetry with deity, with the sky, one saw in it the enemation of the cosmos, even as poet creator of the world.
The biographies of poets fall to my feet like heavy drops of a sad rain, for grey is the rain and only rarely do the drops glitter. Always I have been impressed by the contrast between the messianic image of the poet, as it is attached to some people, and the often poor and curtailing real existence of poets.

Personally these definitions and theories of poetry do not touch me, except as writing exercises in emptiness. However what I know is that poetry has helped me to live, a half a century devoted to it almost exclusively. But I do not mean with that I emerged myself completely in poetry, in order to forget the poisoned reality. Rather I mean that poetry lies over a path which leads directly to the source of things. To that place where passion develops before it can become love for a single person; the entire notion of the unknown, which life clothes until it becomes fear of own death; and the despise for pettiness, indeed at times for the treacherousness of people before it becomes hostility and to personal distaste. The terrible anticipation of a catostrophe which you feel approaching transforms itself into a ‚holy touch, which captures body and mind’. Or else“ the world reveals itself to you while at the same time it retains the various meanings to itself.…As a matter of fact poetry has given me many magic moments. Thus I see suddenly very clear, for example, how few objective unchanging things there exist finally. That life and death alone, perhaps…That same object or happening takes on in a different light, at a different moment a new value, and has other consequences, mostly upon different facts. This relativity runs throughout poetry, ruling in an almost natural way, then that is the call which to express is what poetry is called to do.

Poetry helps me and helps me to live, not because I believe, since things become what I make out of things in order to exist – “…upon such pretentious hope I do not rely upon…”- nor equally because I belong to an order which serves holy goals. It is because that I know, when poetry is there and close to me, even if it abandons me and I feel myself on my side the air despite being naked and shaking out of cold. Moreover I have learned and poetry has taught me, to present the sense of life as love for life.

Katerina Angelaki-Rooke

Athens 24.Maerz 2002

Taken from: 'further stone – large heart – modern Greek poetry'
selected by Kostas Giannakakos & Christian Greiff, Babel Verlag, 2002
translated from German text into English: Hatto Fischer


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