Philip Ramp: A poet who earns his living by translating from Greek

American-born poet and translator Philip Ramp came to Greece in 1964 with his wife Sarah, planning to make their home here. After studying language and literature in Michigan, his hometown, Ramp went to New York for a year to enjoy cultural pursuits. He had already started writing, prose and poetry, and he supported himself with part-time work while taking in concerts, jazz and shows. Originally they settled in Athens, but life in the capital lost its charm during the grim days of the junta and the couple moved to the island of Aegina, where they had friends. Ramp’s vocation is poetry, but it is usually translation that pays the bills. Shortly after moving to Aegina he met the Greek poet and translator Katerina-Angelaki Rooke, and for some years they worked on translation together. He started working on his own in 1975 and has done so ever since. In town on a regular business visit last week, Ramp talked to Kathimerini English Edition about his work and views. Knowing the secret Should only poets translate poetry? «I wouldn’t go so far as to say that. Kimon Friar was a minor poet,» says Ramp, «but a major translator. I’m glad people are going back to appreciating his work – he did an enormous job of boosting Greek literature. He was very egocentric but he knew where the secret was.» As an experienced translator of poetry – titles include the selected poems of Tassos Denegris, Manolis Anagnostakis and Lydia Stephanou for Shoestring Press – Ramp has clear ideas on what can and can’t be done. «You’ve got to get as much as you can from the text that you’re translating. Don’t be too cute or creative. Get it down, get every word. I have to make sure that the poem isn’t mine, that it is not obviously by Philip Ramp. It should stand as a poem on its own. You have to be careful moving it around. Someone said that you start from nothing with your own work, but you start from a complete work when you’re translating a poem.» He concedes that some people used to translate more freely: «That was a different school; Ezra Pound did it that way. But say, ‘This is a recreation, not a translation.’» As for the qualities translators should possess, Ramp says, «They better know both languages well – their mother tongue and their adopted tongue.» Long-established in his field, Ramp is able to choose the texts he works on: «Now I translate only poetry and novels – anything that’s literary, but fairly good, and anything to do with art that’s within my range – painting, sculpture, architecture, but not ancient Greek architecture.» Like all his fellow-professionals, Ramp has had his difficult moments, though he says, «I’ve been very lucky; most jobs have been beneficial.» The typical problems facing translators, he says, are low pay, the quality of the text to be translated, interference from the publishing company, and inappropriate editing. «Poorly written poetry is impossible. You can only make it better – and why should you?» Disagreements with publishers can arise over the number of words per page or lines per page and unrealistic deadlines. The latter is more of a problem with the state sector, according to Ramp, but at least the state sector pays: «I’ve waited for years sometimes to get money from the state sector, but I’ve always got it.» Editing can be a sore point. Ramp cites the cases of editors who don’t know English, or who edit a text when there’s no reason for it, «just to change the style.» But he has no major grievances: «It’s more aggravation than problems; I haven’t ever really been shafted.» Could the lot of translators be improved by a professional organization? Such organizations, says Ramp, tend to «end up as vehicles for the egos of whoever’s running them. A professional translators’ association is a good idea if it is founded on principles rather than on leaders.» While dubious of what benefits the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens will bring – describing them as an unnecessary thorn that will cost so much in terms of money and heavy criticism – Ramp hopes the Cultural Olympiad, though «a bureaucratic leviathan,» may improve conditions for translators. He hopes they establish the practice of signing contracts: «Publishers don’t like to sign contracts and they don’t like to stick to them. There are too many small publishers wanting to finagle things; they don’t want to pay.» Despite his reservations, Ramp is an optimist who believes Athens will manage the Games successfully. «It will work out,» he says. «It won’t be ready at the last minute. Greeks are extremely good at improvising.» Greek poetry Greece was the guest of honor at last year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, and Ramp did translations for a CD-ROM of Greek poetry. He was impressed by the new poets: «The poetry was solid – showed a great grasp of language. The Greek language has lost a lot of punch, but not in poetry. And Greeks are interested in poetry. They aren’t readers, but they do know poetry. Even if Greeks don’t go to poetry readings, they think poetry is a good thing, they don’t scoff at it. In the US, only in a literary milieu does anybody respect poetry. The average American has no respect for poetry, except for jingles or sentimental stuff, or not even that. Once they know you’re a poet, they’re afraid. They think they’re not going to understand what you say.» He likes reading works in translation, especially eastern European poets. «I feel vaguely connected to them. My father’s side of the family was from eastern Europe, Germany. «It’s a necessary evil. As a poet, I want to read as many poets as I possibly can from as many places as possible.»