The Theatre of Translation by Konstantina Georganta

girl in an empty red cargo coach

Verona by Vasw Mand. Photography

The Theatre of Translation

by Konstantina Georganta


As part of an older project I was involved in, I worked together with Dr Chris Gair from the University of Glasgow on an article on Greece and the Beat Generation with a particular focus on the poetry of Lefteris Poulios. We took Poulios’ 1973 poem ‘An American Bar in Athens’ as a starting point. The standard translation for this poem comes from the 1970’s, with a rendition by Philip Ramp and Katerina Angelaki-Rooke. What is interesting in this version is that it is giving the impression of a close similarity to Allen Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California”, an act of homage imposed by the translators in such a way we found both unnecessary and misleading, when the poem itself bears such a close resemblance to Beats in any case. In line 6, in particular, we read “while I hold your book in your hand”, a line added by the translators and not appearing in the original. We found an explanation for this in the following: as already stated, “An American Bar in Athens” has been compared to Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California” and Ezra Pound’s “A Pact” both of which depict the poets’ relationship with the past that Walt Whitman represents in contrast to their own times.

The apparent act of homage Poulios pays to Palamas creates an imitation of an imitation, since Ginsberg, too, is advertising the degree to which the form of his verse replicates that of Whitman’s. Likewise, Whitman, Ginsberg and Poulios all imagine the poet in acts of flânerie that combine observation, political engagement and (within their own cultures) dissident or deviant sexual desire. Poulios is also specific in replicating Ginsberg’s imagery, noting the moon, the streets and shops and the presence of the ancestor-poet, in a coupling of anxiety of influence and veneration which makes the presence of the book in line 6 redundant. Its function is to exaggerate the -already strong- allusions to “A Supermarket in California” – where a line reads “I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and feel absurd” – by creating a material presence that serves as a synecdochical reminder of the coupling of anxiety of influence and veneration mentioned before.

Other choices that we made for the needs of the project included a substitution of the narrator’s “long hair”, as found in the first version, with “effeminate hair”, closer to the original ‘χάχανα λόγω των γυναικείων μαλλιών μου’ which we also found more appropriate as it mirrored the atmosphere in Greece during the military junta when the poem was written. The corollary of the censor’s demand for a perfect fit between what one said and what one meant [during the regime] was the moralist’s demand for a perfect fit between what one looked like and who one was. Any kind of undecidability, textual or sexual, was considered subversive[1]. The poet therefore appears with effeminate hair, we argue, to disturb the passive clientele of the bar, prisoners in a constant state of suspicion and fear. The focus here rests with performance. The reader of the poem is urged to react to the illness at the heart of the community of “informers” and “seated statues” in whose presence the two seemingly unlikely companions perform upon the stage, intimated by the phrase “πάνω στο σανιδένιο πάγκο”, an intentional term used to resemble another word for “stage”, namely “σανίδι”. The line “lights go out in an hour” (“τα φώτα σβήνουνε σε μια ώρα”, apparently a deliberate echo of Ginsberg’s “The doors close in an hour” in “A Supermarket in California”) points both to the control imposed by the regime and to the limited and very specific time slot the two poets inhabit during a performance orchestrated to disturb an involuntary audience, populated by the doubly immobile “seated statues’ (notice also here the contrast with the previously rendered as “sitting statues” for “καθισμένα αγάλματα’” the permanence of the first making them one of the features of the bar where they remain passive and voiceless[2]).

The abundance of choice when translating involves a set of artistic and pragmatic choices. In theatre, for example, when texts are rewritten for new audiences, the translators act as mediators between foreign cultures and theatre practitioners responsible for respecting the integrity of the target text from the perspective of the intended audience. The translator then needs to negotiate the culture specifics of the source text to comply with the target reception aesthetics and take into account the political slant of the language used, while there might be part of the message or language of the play that remains untranslatable.

I found an interesting example of a modern translation becoming political statement with intentional linguistic choices, in Liz Lochhead’s (Scottish poet and playwright) version of Euripides’ “Medea”, performed in 2000 in Glasgow. Instead of the “conventional” way of doing “Medea” in Scotland – which included presenting Medea’s own language in Scots and that of the, alien to her, Corinthians, the “powerful ‘civilised’ Greeks”, as patrician English – Lochhead opted for the dominant mainstream society as a Scottish tongue and presented Medea’s a foreigner-speaking-English refugee voice. The author/translator did not opt for the safe choice of presenting the Scots as a marginal society, which gave her in turn the opportunity to criticize this society at a time when controversy raged around the Scottish Executive’s plans to repeal Clause 28. This concerned Section 2A of the Local Government Act 1986, which provided that a local authority shall not, among other things, ‘intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. In response, Lochhead made her Medea a symbol of unthinking superiority in the face of difference in any form:  “No one loves a foreigner”, Medea exclaims, “everyone despises anyone the least bit different, ‘why can’t she be a bit more like us?’ «[3]

What I hope I have intimated so far, among other things, is first the significance of context for translation and the significance of translation itself as criticism and for criticism. As Nasos Vayenas argues, translation may be harmless when the original text has completed its immediate historical mission (i.e. its contribution to the literary expression of its period), yet it is premature when the poet has not yet completed his oeuvre; translating “The Waste Land” entails, therefore, knowledge of the “Four Quartets” so that an approach is not fragmentary.[4] At the same time, however, translation is the medium that provides sometimes the missing link. Even this most famous poetic slogan of the twentieth century, “Make it New”, was not the “making of an original work of art ex nihilo but the excavating of what had not been apprehended before, by means of translation, from a prior act of creation”.[5][6] This interpretation of translation creates, in turn, a process which links different texts together in a way that does not resemble anything usually implied by the term “continuity” (and that’s what makes translation, I have found, very interesting because it incorporates a web of influences and communicates this to future generations of writers). Dante’s Ulysses, for example, which both Eliot and Pound used in “The Waste Land” and “The Cantos”, respectively, was pieced together from a “pastiche” of classical Latin sources – especially Virgil, Statius, Ovid, Horace, Cicero, and Seneca. It is from these and other authors that the Middle Ages inherited a bifurcated Ulysses, both negative and positive, as Homer’s Odyssey was not yet available to the Christian West in his time.[7] Dante’s Ulysses who departs from Circe straight on his new quest, pulled not by the desire of home but by the lure of adventure  is part of the Ulysses that both Eliot and Pound inherited and used. [8]

Translation is a political act. One is asked to make choices throughout the way knowing that each decision will lead down a specific path. Still, other options remain open and are open to interpretation by readers. But, the translator has made a statement; her work is the testament of time well spent. Each word bleeds in the hands and the eyes, it gives its all and is given a world of choices in return. We should not forget that translation is a series of specific acts. It may be a solitary activity but it speaks about existing within the multitude that comprises the polis. The end result will eventually appear out there, and even if it is not, the translator’s words are in themselves proof that the actor exists within a society which opens up and at the same time restricts the extent of someone’s world of choice.

Translation is a word for word game. It asks for precision, attention to detail and a wealth of imagination to plain be thinking out of the box at all times. The translator is an animal living in multiple zones at one time, zones both spatial and temporal, a constant traveller into a universe of signs, an adventurer who breaks cultural taboos. As Kostes Palamas affirmed in 1912:

The Bible is a Taboo; do not translate it. Katharevousa is a Taboo; do not covet it. Homer is a Taboo; do not disturb him. The ancients are a Taboo; do not wake them. The vernacular is a Taboo; do not write it. […] Iphigeneia is, finally, also a Taboo, even by Moréas. N’ y touchez pas.[9]


A few words about the author:

Konstantina Georganta is the author of Conversing Identities: Encounters Between British, Irish and Greek Poetry,1922-1952 (Rodopi/Brill, 2012) and Ρακοσυλλέκτης χρόνος (Πανοπτικόν, 2015). She collects material on Greek Urban Poetics at and is currently working on her second book and translating. This coming fall, she will be teaching 20th Century Poetry and Literary Translation at the Department of English Literature at the University of Athens.

[1] Karen Van Dyck, ‘Reading Between Worlds: Contemporary Greek Women’s Writing and Censorship’, Modern Language Association, 109:1 (January, 1994), 45–60 (47–48): ‘The regime’s erasure of the distinction between the figural and the literal led the resistance writers to a heightened awareness of the difference.’

[2] The full translated text can be found at &

[3] Liz Lochhead, Medea, London: Nick Hern Books, 2000.

[4] Nasos Vayenas, ‘Πάτροκλος Γιατράς ή oι ελληνικές μεταφράσεις της Έρημης Χώρας’ [1973], in Ηλίας Λάγιος, Η Έρημη Γη (Athens: Erato, 1996), 57: ‘Όσο ανώδυνη είναι μια μετάφραση όταν το πρωτότυπο έχει εκπληρώσει την άμεση ιστορική αποστολή του (τη συμβολή του στη λογοτεχνική έκφραση της εποχής), τόσο ανώριμη είναι εκείνη όταν ο ποιητής δεν έχει ακόμη δώσει ολόκληρο το έργο του. Η μετάφραση στην πραγματικότητα είναι ένα είδος κριτικής, ίσως το δυσκολότερο. Είναι αδύνατο να διατυπώσεις για ένα ποίημα μια φιλόδοξη γνώμη, αν δεν γνωρίζεις ολόκληρη την ιστορία του δημιουργού του.  Και το να μεταφράζεις την Έρημη Χώρα  χωρίς να έχεις υπόψη σου τα Τέσσερα Κουαρτέτα σε υποχρεώνει κατ’ ανάγκη σε μια προσέγγιση αποσπασματική.’

[5] Kurt Heinzelman (ed.), Make It New: The Rise of Modernism (United States of America: University of Texas Press, 2003), pp. 131-2. Pound first used the phrase ‘make it new’ in canto 53, written probably in the early 1930s but not published in book form until 1940, and was also used in an eponymous book, Make It New, published in 1934.

[6] Heinzelman (2003), pp. 131-132. ‘If perceived as ‘a call for translation as if it were a kind of original composition’, the imperative ‘make it new’ is a reminder that the ‘eighteenth-century meaning of “originality” itself mistranslates the Latin verb innovare to which it would seem to have direct affinity. The primary sense of innovare in Latin is “to renew” or “to restore” or, more exactly, “to add something new to,” not “to create anew.” The “in-“ prefix is an intensifier, like the “in-“ of “inflame.” Innovare means essentially to introduce some new element into what was already given, rather than to create originality out of formlessness. The English word “innovate” is, therefore, an innovative variant on its own Latin root.’’

[7] Richard Lansing, ed., The Dante Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 2000), p. 842. See Ronald Bush, The Genesis of Ezra Pound’s Cantos (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976), p. 133.

[8] Lansing (2000), p. 843.

[9] Kostes Palamas, ‘Τι Έγινε Γύρω σε μια Μετάφραση’ [1912] (‘What Happened Regarding a Translation’), Kostes Palamas: Complete Works, Vol. 8 (Athens: Govostes, 1969), pp. 133-142 (pp. 135, 139): ‘Μα πάντα ο ποιητής, που μεταφράζεται, είναι σα να κερδίζη, όταν τύχη να πέση σε χέρια ομότεχνου, που καλοσυνείδητα δοκιμάζει και προσπαθή να δώση μιαν ιδέα του πρωτότυπου με τα διαλεχτά μέσα που βάζει σ’ ενέργεια της γλώσσας του και της τέχνης του.’

Photo: Verona by Vasw Mand. Photography


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