The Writing Disorder




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A Note on Translating Dimitris Lyacos’ Trilogy

by Shorsha Sullivan


Bless thee Bottom, bless thee; thou art translated.
                                                              ( A Midsummer Night's Dream,  Act Three, Scene One )

Translation serves several ends. It was long the the practice in Western Europe to print a running Latin translation beside Greek texts. We are inclined to think why should it be in Latin, why not the current language of the particular country, but perhaps the learned language was a sort of half-way house towards admitting that our Greek was not as good as we would like it to be. The tradition continues in bi-lingual series like Loeb and Bude, where we plainly accept that we need a crib. Even if we can use the guest language competently enough to buy groceries or find out where the bus goes, dealing with a literary text is something quite different; we have to unravel a web where the strands lead us to examining a constantly expanding context, a process which, if it were possible, would end in the necessity to acquire an entire culture. To this extent we can see translation working at an immediate surface level, a word equivalent, an explication of an involved piece of syntax. but also serving as a continuous commentary, an exegesis of the alien text. However, most of the translations we read are from languages we do not know and will never know: “Then felt I like some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken/” —so Keats responds to reading Chapman's Homer, a poet outside of his experience “till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold.” It is odd that he had not read Pope's Homer, much closer to his time than Chapman, but of course for an early nineteenth century romantic Pope belonged to a vilified poetic tradition. World literature is obviously an enormous field; to get even a taste of it we must use translations. At this point the translation has to work as an independent piece of writing: MacNiece's Agamemnon and Faust, Rex Warner's Prometheus Bound, the excellent translations from Homer and Aeschylus by Fagles and Lattimore, they can be enjoyed without reference to the originals; though on considering the matter I wonder if there is not a bond between original text and its rendering useful to the reader in that it throws light on two different places and times. “I do not love thee, Dr. Fell,” is an ingenious, simple and elegant eighteenth century English epigram, but how much is opened up to us of both eighteenth century England and the Rome of  Martial, by considering it as a translation.

My own experience as a translator was in Lyacos’s case facilitated by some facts of life: The author, and myself were both living in Brixton, an interesting part of London. I began visiting his flat, a meeting place for a large number of artists and intellectuals, drinking coffee and chatting in a lively group of people. Out of these visits emerged the idea of making an English version of The First Death, which had been published in Athens earlier in the year, and had already been turned into Italian. This was in fact the third part of a projected composite work, Poena Damni, The Punishment of Loss. This was about a disintegrating body cast up on an island. Although dead it goes through the torture of feeling its breaking up and corruption, recognising the nightmarish horror of its location, running through its consciousness vivid memories of its life. A secular mechanistic re-writing of the Inferno, and, like the Inferno, using concepts derived ultimately from Thomistic theology. And in the end there is no end, the body, the person, blasts off from the earth—to where?

Dimitris was arranging a reading at the Foundation for Greek Culture of some extracts from the Greek text of The First Death, and the Italian translation. Since the reading was happening in London, it seemed a good plan to have some sort of text in English to help the unGreeked part of the audience to enjoy at least some of the conceptual adventuring in the work, and perhaps even at second hand some of the linguistic acrobatics. To this end we put together an improvised translation of the stanzas selected for the reading. We discovered that the audience liked it, and when we looked at it again, we decided to spend a bit more sweat on it and produce a solid piece of work. So started a long series of weekly meetings, sometimes they happened more frequently to push the matter forward, or to deal with specific difficulties. I labour this piece of history to emphasize an important point in the making of the English versions: Author and translator worked closely together from the beginning. Indeed so did many others; as people arrived at the flat they would be drawn into discussion of the point of translation anyway, and why this particular translation, and the talk would soon narrow down to debating the best word equivalents and how to attempt to reproduce the Greek metrical patterns in the plain verse stanzas. Naturally, the conversation soon became a lot less serious, less literary, especially as our host was generous with food and drink and it started a sense of fun about the whole business which persisted throughout our long collaboration. That is not to say that we were unaware of doing something useful and important, but “cheerfulness kept breaking in.”

Getting The First Death into English clothes meant first of all, at quite an elementary and surface level, ensuring that I understood the words of the gorgeously metaphored, richly textured lyric pieces. A difficult piece of writing, a dense, concise sequence of condensed images, linguistically diachronic, demanding close attention from the reader. I tried to be guided to English expressions by thinking of  the core value of the Greek word, and then, as far as possible, taking in the penumbra of associated meanings, though much of this proved impossible. Having assembled a sequence of English words you then had to fight the tendency of language to write itself, and wrestle the sentence back into following the Greek. At this stage I mistranslated the Greek “tarsos” (ankle bones) by torso, although it made no sense in context, but I suppose I was beguiled by its similarity in sound to the English word, and I am afraid the stupid error lasted through our many reviews and almost reached the published version. And the Greek took advantage of its long lineage as a literary language, from pre-classical antiquity through Hellenistic times, Byzantine Christianity, and on to the present. The very first stanza carried a reminiscence of a shipwreck in the Iliad into an entirely different context “fruit of a womb shipwrecked by the winds.” The opening words equated the flat surface of the sea with steel; a metaphor easily understood in English, but Gregory Solomon pointed out the unpleasant sibilence of  "sea of steel," so we decided on “sea of iron.” Whether Greek or English steel and iron are different things with different names, but we were writing poetry not a treatise on metallurgy. Where it was impossible to work the breadth of meaning into the text, we used some notes at the back of the book, e.g. κοιταίων (koitaion), “bed-ridden” in the text, has also the meaning of an animal's lair. “The un-nailing of my boyhood years,” the Greek word for “un-nailing” is also the word for “Deposition” the taking down of Christ's body from the Cross, opening up areas of savagery and grief, but also sympathy and understanding. So we developed our methods; a first draft sticking closely to the Greek, no matter how inelegant the English. Discussion at this level was solely to make sure I had thoroughly understood the lexis and construction of the original text. Secondly, the correcting of this first draft, and thirdly the developing of  a corrected and annotated version which formed the basis for talking towards a draft in an English that would sound natural to a native speaker. It is this third draft that is sweated and argued over, sometimes it seemed ad infinitum. Fourthly, we would both try it out on unsuspecting friends, and I must mention especially Gregory Solomon, who very generously gave up time and energy to criticising all our projects. His help was all the more valuable because he had a sensitive ear for the cadences of English and a just appreciation of the problems of translation. The fifth stage was evaluating the comments and deciding which could be used, until eventually we had a text which we thought good enough to publish.

Now the Greek text of the second part of Poena Damni, Nyctivoe, had been put out by an artistic private press in Hamburg together with a German translation. They had cut a special font, which they called Greek Gill, and produced two very handsome books, one in either language, that fitted in a slip-case. It was very different from Τhe First Death, a minimalist text deliberately constructed with rhetorical figures like ellipsis, anacoluthon, and aposiopesis; so the English translation in this case would have to differ quite a bit from The First Death. I had seen the original text as it grew  through its altering drafts, and matched it pari passu with provisional Englishing, so that both texts grew together, and paradoxically, the translation sometimes had an affect on the original. Nyctivoe, too, was different in that it took the form of a drama, perhaps even an oratorio, with characters speaking parts, a narrator, and a chorus; the action taking place within two frames: a group of raggedy homeless people putting on a performance on a city derelict site littered with industrial rubbish, and then an inner frame made by the possessed man in St. Mark's Gospel, cutting himself in the cemetery—“my name is Legion.” (The piece was later performed by actors directed  by Piers Burton-Page and it was very helpful to experience this kind of oral publication, which again gave feed back into smoothing out the translation further ).  For the first time I had to deal with gaps in the text, and single words or expressions left hanging in strategic places which had to be abandoned sometimes to fit with the foreign syntax, and some less striking part of a sentence substituted. I realised how useful grammatical inflexion was in holding this kind of artful syntax together, and how thoroughly  annoying pronouns in the nominative case can be, when, of course, Greek can largely dispense with them. There are quotations from St. Mark and from the Epistles, and they are given from the King James’ version. However they colour the language of the entire poem, bringing a stately, hieratic feel as they integrate into the text:

and truly if they had been mindful of that country
from whence they came out
they might have had opportunity to have returned;
but now they desire a better country,
that is a heavenly.
wherefore God is not ashamed
to be called their God
for he hath prepared for them a city

They have gone into the car,
Legion drags the cover shut

Crowned with bones and then they bloom
glasses of grey drunkenness
                   to melt with her
in the slime of each embrace, here
in the hollow garden she comes up to live
life twice to clasp memories in the
rotting palms
without breathing
on the edge of the pit
the wind troubles her flesh
you almost see the fallen body
it floods and takes heart again
is drawn near and
sinks in the mouth,
the end of his breathing.

The last published part of the trilogy, Z213: Exit came out in Athens in 2009. Parts of the translation had been out in magazines and seeing the words sitting hard and impudent on the page gave us second thoughts in a few cases, affecting  the translation and sometimes the original too. The book was written in an almost telegraphic style, omittting inessentials like articles and conjunctions, using a diary form; mainly colloquial, simple, with violations and distortions of grammar. As with Nyctivoe I had tracked its growth through several drafts, always, of course. with an eye to translation. The author was now working in Athens and Berlin, but we would read sections of the text over the telephone, occasionally every day, keeping the recital to not more than an hour at a time. This suited me because I had always had to read out loud whatever I had written in order to get the rhythms right, and here the sounds were coming out of my first thoughts. The aim was to tell, in as direct and straightforward a way as possible, about a man escaping from some sort of confinement, and then trying to avoid being re-taken and brought back there. There are references forward to Nyctivoe and The First Death. The events he experiences are generally the everyday happenings of a contemporary Everyman—he must find food, shelter, sleep, sex, and so on; but there are also connections to the persecutions and pursuit of the Jews escaping from Egypt, the harassing and murder of Antigone, a constant and increasing sense of dread, an awareness of an all-powerful authority from which there is no ultimate escape. The language is deliberately plain, though in some places there are references to mostly Old Testament, and these tend to suffuse the contexts with more poetic tints. Although plain, the syntax is sometimes fractured, and the translation must try to follow this without demanding too much of the reader. One of the conceits of the text is to suppose that it is being composed by the narrator/protagonist on whatever paper he can find, in whatever light is available, and whatever intervals of rest he can allow himself in his flight. This results in lacunae and detached phrases which suggest to the reader fragmentary poems transmitted from antiquity, and also, perhaps, the harsh and interrupted breathing of a despairing fugitive. Reading this first part of the trilogy, it seemed to me to firmly clamp the parts together into a satisfying whole, I could easily see the escaper of Z213: Exit becoming the man in the cemetery, the disintegrating body on the island.

And an endnote on the tradition of modern Greek poetry: Poets like Cavafy and Seferis are firmly entrenched in English minds, because, while certainly being Greek, they slide easily into the mainstream of European Modernism. We could juxtapose them with writers like Papadiamantis, whose concern with the life of the village results in a Romiosine that loses its savour in translation, and even more Macryiannis, the hero of Greek Independence, writing to ensure that the glories and horrors of the revolution are not forgotten. Lyacos’ case differs from both: he speaks to us as fellow human beings from an almost non-local viewpoint, using western tradition but not commiting himself to any side; here, different contexts fuse into one another; my aim was to try and bring some of that into English; I have tried to come up with a version that could possibly make sense in the context of our own tradition. A question remains: Could this version have been produced originally in English?

Dimitris Lyacos was born in Athens in 1966. He studied Law at the University of Athens and Philosophy at University College London. His highly acclaimed trilogy Poena Damni (Z213: EXIT, Nyctivoe, The First Death), written over the course of eighteen years, has been translated into English, Spanish, Italian and German and has been performed across Europe as well as the USA. A wide range of interdisciplinary projects including drama, contemporary dance, video and sculpture installations as well as opera and contemporary music have been based on the trilogy. The work has also become the attention of academic research, among others by the universities of Miami, Amsterdam, Trieste and Oxford. Excerpts have been published by numerous literary periodicals, principally English-speaking, throughout the world. Lyacos' work both straddles and crosses perceived boundaries of literary form - from the journal-like prose in Z213: EXIT, to the elliptical monologues of the distinctly dramatic Nyctivoe, to the pared down poetic idiom in The First Death. Z213: EXIT, translated in English by Shorsha Sullivan, appeared recently in the UK by Shoestring Press.

Shorsha Sullivan was born in Dublin in 1932. He studied Classics at Leeds and has spent most of his working life in England. He has a special interest in Modern Greek theatre and poetry.

For more information, visit the author's site at

To purchase a copy of Poena Damni, Z213: Exit, please click here.

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