CULTURE

Two books highlight work of Ritsos

Amy Mims, indefatigable translator of Yiannis Ritsos, has produced two new books in homage to the poet. She talked to Kathimerini English Edition about her new translation of the «18 Short Songs of the Bitter Motherland,» now available in a collector’s edition, and «Ritsos of the Iconostasis,» a bilingual companion to «The Iconostasis of Anonymous Saints.» Heady times Ritsos wrote «18 Short Songs of the Bitter Motherland» in 1968-70, at the request of Mikis Theodorakis who wanted new poems to set to music. Greece was still under the colonels’ junta and the 18 poems poignantly reflected the sufferings and resilience of the Greeks. It was before the junta fell that Mims began her first translation of the poems. Those were heady times: «We were abroad in Cyprus and I felt delighted to be translating Ritsos. In the early months of 1974, it was still a challenge; in fact, one felt one was making almost an act of resistance to post translations out to the publisher in Minnesota, and get them into print.» Rendering Ritsos’s 15-syllable verse was doubly difficult, says Mims: «My main goal was to preserve the rhythm of the songs. I think I succeeded in keeping the rhythm, but at certain points it was at the expense of the freedom of the translation.» She reworked her translation, completing the final version in 2000. A fortunate meeting with Loukas Loukakis of Aetion Collectors’ Editions led to collaboration on a hand-bound collector’s edition, and a happy decision to illustrate it with five of the original 18 paintings done by Minos Argyrakis. For technical reasons, those paintings were not used in the 1974 edition. As Mims explains, «That particular edition has drawings by Ritsos himself, but they are not directly connected to the actual quatrains.» Few readers examine works of literature as closely as their translators do. Mims’s experience of translating Ritsos, culminating in a 12-year labor of love on the «Iconostasis of Anonymous Saints» (Kedros Publishers), gave her profound insight into the poet’s work. She shares her perceptions and a wealth of additional material in her companion volume, «Ritsos of the Iconostasis,» now available in a bilingual Greek and English edition. ‘A seafarer’s map’ Primarily intended for readers who know and love the work, and who need what Mims calls «a kind of seafarer’s map to guide them through the hithering-and-thithering waters of the ‘Iconostasis,’» this companion will also whet the appetite of new readers. Nearing the end of the 1,000-page «Iconostasis,» Mims felt the need to write about connections she had observed: «There are certain elements of his style which remind me very much of Joyce in ‘Ulysses.’ Another obvious comparison that occurred to me was Proust, because Ritsos has an enormously interesting conception of the role of scent, of smell, in jogging memory. In Proust, there’s a very strong connection between the author and his mother, which Ritsos also has in the ‘Iconostasis.’ There’s an eccentric Aunt Leonie in Proust, and in Ritsos there is a whole galaxy of eccentric aunts. There is also the sheer vastness of the work. When I finally reached the end of the Ritsos behemoth, this huge work, my first need was to plunge into Proust and read it all, from beginning to end.» Mims also comments on what she calls «poetic obscenity.» Joyce, she says, transmutes even the rawest of passages into poetry: «Molly Bloom’s monologue, with its allusions to her sexual life at the end of ‘Ulysses’ is transcended and transmuted into a marvelous paean to nature. Ritsos does the same thing. Wherever he has a particularly raw section, it is almost followed by a lyrical outburst of unparalleled beauty. One of the main motives in my writing the companion was to help dissolve the prejudice against what many people have called the obscenity in the ‘Iconostasis.’» A mosaic Her immersion in the «Iconostasis» rewarded Mims with a breakthrough in her own writing, showing her how she could organize her own story of more than 40 years in Greece. «Ritsos took all the 75 years of his infinitely rich life and managed to shape them into small individual sections, like a mosaic. I want to weave it into a story, and the only way I can manage all that material is by following Ritsos’s example in the ‘Iconostasis,’ of using little, individual pieces of a mosaic. Not worrying too much about plot, or about anything except to capture small bits of the experience in a shape, a frame.» Mims has written the outline for a scenario for a film of the «Iconostasis,» is translating poems by Alekos Panagoulis, and wants to get the work of Kevin Andrews translated into Greek. Typically, though Mims insists she wants to concentrate on her own work, nearly all her plans involve unselfishly promoting the work of other writers. The publications There are 99 numbered and signed copies of this collector’s edition of Ritsos’s «18 Short Songs of the Bitter Motherland.» The original Greek text is in the poet’s famous calligraphy and the English translation is by Amy Mims. Illustrated with superb reproductions of Minos Argyrakis’s original paintings, the volume includes Mikis Theodorakis’s score for the first song, a CD-ROM of actor Christos Tsangas reading the poems and of Ritsos himself reading «Moonlight Sonata.» Available from the publisher, Loukas Loukakis, at Aetion Collectors’ Editions, fax 010.677.1188. «Ritsos of the Iconostasis,» by Amy Mims, is a bilingual companion in Greek and English to Ritsos’s work, «The Iconostasis of Anonymous Saints,» illustrated with more than 60 previously unpublished photographs. It was published with the help of funding from the Hellenic Foundation and the A.G. Leventis Foundation. For further information, call 010.766.6900.