Anthology of Greek writing in English

« Modern Greek Writing: An Anthology in English Translation,» edited by David Ricks (Peter Owen Publishers, 2003) meets a long-felt need. Ranging from the rapid-fire narrative of independence struggle hero General Makriyiannis’s memoirs to the lyrics of contemporary poet and songwriter Michalis Ganas, this new anthology makes a wide variety of Greek prose and verse accessible to Anglophone readers in worthwhile translations. «The aim is to whet the reader’s appetite,» said Ricks at the launch of the book on May 22 at the Old University in Plaka. He hopes the reader will track down the originals, he explains in the preface, «and thus enlarge his or her sense of what modern Greece has contributed to the republic of letters – even seen in a glass darkly, through translation.» The anthology, jointly funded by the Thessaloniki-based Center for the Greek Language (CGL) and the Greek Culture Ministry, draws on works written since Greece became independent. Ricks is the first to admit that the selection is not comprehensive. When the CGL asked him to compile the anthology in 1995, it was clear that the budget did not stretch to commissioning translations. Working within that constraint, the editor wisely chose to include only quality translations by many different hands. There’s still plenty to read here: A hilarious extract from Emmanuel Roidis’s «Pope Joan,» Stratis Myrivilis on the horrors of trench war, Stratis Doukas’s spare, heartrending account of life as a prisoner of war; prose from Alexandros Papadiamantis, Nikos Kazantzakis, Stratis Tsirkas, Costas Tachtsis and Giorgos Ioannou; poetry by Solomos, Kalvos, Palamas, Cavafy, Seferis, Elytis and a great deal more. Particularly welcome is the inclusion of work by living poets. The editor signposts the entries with crisp, informative headwords, setting the writers in context, evaluating their achievement, and tracing influences. Ricks wears compendious learning lightly and his own translations are some of the best in the book. David Ricks Dean of the School of Humanities at King’s College London, Dr David Ricks came to modern Greek literature by way of the classics, he told Kathimerini English Edition in an e-mail interview. «I studied straight Classics as an Oxford undergraduate,» says Ricks, «but spent six months before I went to university in Galaxidi. That inspired me to try to learn the (very difficult) modern form of the language. And once I graduated, I migrated to London to work on a thesis that combined my ancient and modern interests. This became my book ‘The Shade of Homer,’ which has since been translated into Greek. Since then I’ve worked on pretty much any kind of Greek poetry I can get my hands on and have time to deal with.» Locating texts for the book was a major undertaking: «Almost none of these books were in print – a sign of the relative lack of success that modern Greek literature beyond Cavafy, Seferis, Kazantzakis (and to some extent Ritsos and Elytis) has had in attracting, and keeping, an Anglophone audience consistently over the years. Much of the stuff I had to read through was of very low quality, but some of it comically so.» Lamenting the inevitable lacunae, Ricks comments: «Not to have more of Angelos Sikelianos is a particular shame, though some good translations of some of his later poems by Sarah Ekdawi appeared after my selection was completed. The near absence of K.G. Karyotakis and of the arresting ‘Satirical Exercises’ of Costis Palamas which were his forerunner is also a pity, but I hope that some able translators will step into the breach.» What kind of reception does he expect the book to get in Britain? «I would hope to attract those who visit the country, who perhaps know something of it from the many perceptive travel and history books, but whose acquaintance with its imaginative literature has been limited.» British interest in foreign literature has grown of late, Ricks believes, «but only patchily: It’s a forlorn truth that Greece became much more fashionable (with some good translations appearing) when it was in the forefront of events because of the colonels’ dictatorship, but less so since then. And it’s also true that, as travel patterns broaden, Greece no longer has the flavor of the exotic. «We at King’s College are launching new degrees in Comparative Literature shortly, through which we hope to get students who would otherwise do straight English to branch out a bit, and also work on the languages while they’re at it. I’ve met people who’ve learned Danish to read Kierkegaard and who’ve learned Greek to read Cavafy and Seferis, so I have a hope that my anthology might stimulate that, as well as getting people to read more widely.»