- The Oxopetra Elegies, and The Collected Poems of Odysseus Elytis
The translators of these two editions of Elytis’s poetry grapple not only with familiar issues involving the theory and practice of translation but also with the inherent complexities prescribed by the demands of translating this type of Greek modernist poetry into English. Their collective task is not unlike that which was contemplated by Ezra Pound in advising Mary Barnard on the issue of translating from ancient Greek into English: “[C]an we in eng[lish]/observe the [Greek] measurements[?] . . . Can it be done without paralyzing the speech altogether?” Similarly, contemporary translators vie with the technical difficulties of generating Greek into comparable English because of the former’s polyvalency in its inflectional patterns, its grammatical gender markings, its syntactic variants, let alone its multiple lexical significations, all of which impede an easy passage into English. Connolly relates Elytis’s own skeptical view that only a fraction of his poetry can be adequately translated; the poet “plays in so many keys of the Greek language—the ancient, the medieval, the modern, the [End Page 365] learned, the popular, the private” and such a scale is simply “not available to the translator in English.” The translator also faces the impossibility of relaying the stringent metrical patterns, rhyme schemes, and cadences that typify Elytis’s poetic signature in his conscious deployment of the tenets of the Greek modernist project, which aims, among other things, at textual recall by reproducing and/or breaking away from Greek literary traditions ranging from the ancient and ecclesiastical to the demotic.
Despite such obstacles, the translators of the two separate volumes under review have produced fine translations in their own right by espousing a “literal” approach that, they maintain, befits the specific case of Elytis. Yet each of their translations produces quite different results. In Connolly’s case, a literal translation counteracts a common practice among colleagues, who advocate a “re-creation . . . of a new and independent poem” and usually condemn “a close adherence to the words of the original. . . .” Underlying this “re-recreation” method, Connolly explains, is the idea that “both the poet and the translator are ‘translators’ of the poet’s original vision in the sense that the poet too is faced with the problem of finding a suitable form of expression in the source language in which to embody his vision.” But Elytis himself, Connolly argues, rejects such a premise. The essence of Elytis’s poetry is implied in the very autonomy and arrangement of the words he employs, “in which the words themselves as sounds and images precede, or are at least as important as, their own cognitive content.”
A literal translation entails for Connolly “as close a correspondence as possible in the target language to the original word or phrasal unit”; however, he abandons this technique when the “result [is] clearly unnatural in terms of utterance in the target language or unsatisfactory in terms of poetic effect.” Yet he warns against a common tendency of the translator “to normalize the language of the original, to bring it more in keeping with normal usage in the target language and in so doing simplify the original.” Such an undertaking leads one into the “trap of clarifying or explaining” through the act of translation. An overriding concern was to preserve the singularity of Elytis’s enigmatic and elliptical expression.
Connolly’s translation of The Oxopetra Elegies is an eloquent reproduction of the Elytian elegiac form—fourteen pensive meditations on love, death, and the afterlife that invite comparison with the elegy’s originary function. He conveys the richness of the Greek but also reveals comparable resonance in the English language, as reflected, for example, in the elegy “La Pallida Morte”: “Odourless yet like blossom / Death is grasped through the / Nostrils. Square silent buildings with / Endless corridors come between but the odour / Persistently...