Journal of Modern Greek Studies 20.1 (2002) 155-157
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Reflections and Conversations
Edmund Keeley, On Translation: Reflections and Conversations. Australia: Harwood Academic. 2000. Pp. xii + 117. $54.00.
Edmund Keeley's On Translation: Reflections and Conversations is a selection of four essays and five interviews, spanning the years 1972 to 1995. The publication date of 2000 commemorates Keeley's fiftieth anniversary as a translator—since, as the author tells us, he began his career almost by accident in 1950 while writing his dissertation on Modern Greek poetry at Oxford and needed sample texts for readers who knew no Greek. The selections, involved with the "craft and commerce" of translation, generally stand in their original form, with updates to reflect recent developments or to bolster an argument. Nevertheless, Keeley points out "the relative consistency of [his] attitude toward the craft of translation and even of what in [his] case are its primary subject, the poets of Modern Greece" (x). It is not surprising, therefore, that a number of themes emerge in the course of the volume's lively mix of biographical details from Keeley's experience as a teacher (primarily at Princeton) and as an activist in translation issues (with the Translation Committee of the PEN American Center and with the American Literary Translators Association). Most important, On Translation offers Keeley's insights about poets who, mainly through his own efforts, have come to represent Modern Greece to the outside world—insights that only the "quotidian" but sometimes "inspired" (Keeley's own terms) process of translation could provide.
The theme that dominates the book is Keeley's commitment to "honor[ing] the instability of translation" (42). "Instability" is best understood in the context of Keeley's ongoing efforts, largely in partnership with the late Philip Sherrard, to translate the poems of Cavafy and Seferis. Keeley details the saga that led from the 1960 Six Poets of Modern Greece through various selected Cavafy and Seferis volumes to the final (or, by definition, not so final) collected versions most recently published. Readers are privy to case histories of how specific translations evolved. In one example, Keeley describes the struggle to capture the nuances of the word "ángelos" (in Seferis's Mythistórima), replete with meanings that span the history of Greek language and culture. The translation evolved from the early "messenger" to the later "herald" to the ultimate "angel"—a "more neutral, more comprehensive figure" (40), in Keeley's view.
The constant re-tooling that translation demands contrasts sharply with Seferis's belief that a poet should never change a poem, as each one is "'a work of art that expresses you as you were when you wrote it'" (38). A translation, according to Keeley, is never stable because it must create a readable, [End Page 155] contemporary text in the target language. Keeley doubts that any translation can survive as a self-sufficient work of literature, with rare exceptions such as Pope's Iliad or FitzGerald's Rubaiyat (95-96). He concludes that generally a translation should reflect the stylistic conventions of its time and that "new versions, revised versions, are needed in every generation [30 to 40 years] to offer a better contemporary image of the original . . ." (96). As a result, the poets he has translated demand re-thinking by himself, as well as by others. Keeley relates that, early on, he had not fully understood Seferis's post-Nobel Three Secret Poems and that by 1981, when he was ready to add it to the collected edition, he and Sherrard had developed a composite voice different from their earlier one. Three Secret Poems harked back to some lesser known Seferis poems, which, in turn, required re-thinking and re-translating. In short, a translation does not remain stable, even with the original translators "watching over it" (40).
Another theme that runs through the volume is "voice." Keeley sides with Pound and Auden, who believe that a poet's unique voice can be heard in any translation. He uses "voice" in various ways: to describe the quandary...