Blurring the line of a sailor-poet’s horizon

I’ll always be the unworthy, romantic lover/ of distant journeys and azure seas/ I’ll die one evening like any other/ without interrupting the horizon’s blurred line. This unworthy lover of the sea and distant journeys is Nikos Kavadias. Though not a Nobel Prize winner or the author of the national anthem, he is probably the most popular poet of the Greek people. Kavadias himself preferred the sea to human company and traveled extensively on merchant ships as a wireless operator, but his poetry is little known outside the country and almost none of it had appeared in translation until now. In her introductory notes to the newly published «Collected Poems of Nikos Kavadias,» translator Gail Holst-Warhaft relates that when she first asked Kavadias’s sister for permission to translate her late brother’s poems, she was refused. Jenia Kavadias, herself a translator, told her she didn’t think her brother could be successfully translated. Whether or not that was the sentiment of a loyal sibling, it is to our benefit that Holst-Warhaft remained determined and, along with Cosmos Publishing, has just brought out the first bilingual edition of the seafaring writer’s collected poems. There are 52 poems in this book, from Kavadias’s three collections of poetry: «Marabou» (1933), «Fog» (1947) and «Traverso» (1975). The last collection, when it was originally published, also included a glossary to explain Kavadias’s sailor slang to his layman Greek readership. Kavadias himself needed translation into his own tongue. Kavadias isn’t hard to translate because he used complicated language or difficult Greek but because of his word play and reliance on rhyme. The enjoyment is in how he expresses himself, much like the poetry of Oscar Wilde or Lewis Carroll. Or just as Dr Seuss, a writer completely accessible in English, would be inconceivable in another language. I first came into contact with Kavadias through a boyfriend, himself a poet. He gave me a tattered edition of «Marabou» and we’d lie reading the poems together, discussing the foreign phrases, the difficult nautical terms and enjoying the meter. I thought them both brilliant; I still do. I’d even begun translations into English myself, in pencil on lined paper, constantly erasing this wording or that in an attempt to get the rhythm right, but which somehow always sounded flat in English. So when this bilingual edition was handed to me, I immediately turned to my favorite poems – «The Knife,» «Marabou,» «The Monkey of the Indian Ocean Port» – to see how the translator had rendered them in English. But having first loved them in the Greek, I felt they didn’t move, speak, dance quite right in translation, so much of the humor, nuance and music was lost. Then I began reading some of the poems I didn’t know as well (and, I see now, would have had trouble understanding all on my own) and fell in love all over again with Kavadias the loner, the misogynist, the misunderstood observer of the human condition, who took his inspiration from faraway ports and irredeemable people. I studied poem after poem, comparing the original Greek with the English on the opposing page, and realized what a huge body of work this was to take on and how much effort Holst-Warhaft has put into it. Translation is hard; the translation of poetry is even harder because one must make sacrifices of precision for a better attempt at meaning in the other vernacular. However, for lovers of language, there is nothing like huddling over a text trying to decipher its meaning. Holst-Warhaft has excellent credentials. She is an adjunct associate professor of classics and comparative literature at Cornell University. She has a PhD in comparative literature and has translated numerous Greek authors, including Alki Zei and Iakovos Kambanellis. Her first book, written in 1975, was «Road to Rebetika: Music of Greek Sub-Culture.» But the most surprising was that she played the harpsichord in the orchestras of Mikis Theodorakis, Dionysis Savvopoulos and Mariza Koch, which brings us back to Kavadias. After their original publication from the 1930s to 1970s, Kavadias’s words became part of the national consciousness when they were set to music in the late 1970s by Koch and Thanos Mikroutsikos. Those poems, a body of songs collectively called «The Southern Cross,» can be heard sung in places ranging from tavernas to the Athens Concert Hall and have joined the anthems of today’s generation. This must have been one factor that inspired Holst-Warhaft, as Kavadias’s poems are much like rebetika songs, telling of hashish smokers and down-and-out places. She writes in the introduction: «Kavadias accepted the sea as a vocation demanding his complete loyalty. He realized that his life made him an outsider in the literary world, but he shared with many outcasts and misfits a certain pride in his difference combined with a confused nostalgia for the joys and comforts of the ordinary world of the landlubber. It is this quality that links his verse not so much to the sophisticated, cosmopolitan poets of his day, but to the versifiers of the rebetika songs.» I will treasure this edition, as Holst-Warhaft’s exceptional work has blurred the line that separated Kavadias from an English readership. More personally, the book will help me to get closer to this most worthy romantic lover of distant journeys and azure seas, even if in the end, I’d prefer to read, as much as I am able, in the original. Biography of a seafaring poet Nikos Kavadias was born in 1910 in Manchuria, China, to a merchant family from Cephalonia. The family returned to the Greek island when he was a young boy. In 1921, they moved to Piraeus where Kavadias finished school and began working in his uncles’ shipping office. In 1929, after his father’s death, Kavadias went to sea, where he worked for a number of years before beginning training as a wireless officer. His first volume of poetry, «Marabou,» came out in 1933. In 1940, he was drafted and went to fight the Italians in Albania, though he remained in Athens during the Nazi occupation. He returned to the sea in 1945, publishing his second book of poems, «Fog,» during this time. He continued to work as a radio operator until his retirement in 1974, when he published his last poetry collection, «Traverso.» He died of a stroke in 1975. In addition to his poetry, Kavadias also wrote a novel «The Watch» (1954) and some short stories. One of these, «Li,» was made into the movie «Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea» in 1995. All his works are available in Greek from Agra.