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The Making of a Translator: An Interview with Kimon Friar

Kimon Friar

By Marianthi Photiades

In a letter to Lawrence Durrell (June 1946), Anais Nin described Kimon Friar as "interesting...vital...one of the very few articulate human beings in the U.S.A. ...He is a poet." At the time he was director of the Poetry Center, New York City.

To most of us, Kimon Friar is known as the master translator of modern Greek poetry and more specifically the artist who dared to re-write the modern sequel of The Odyssey. Those of us who teach Greek literature on American campuses could not carry on our job without Friar. To us, he is the great facilitator.

Greek poetry has he longest tradition in the Western world. It presents us with an interesting phenomenon since the turn of the century in terms of sheer volume. I find the number of poets and their creative work inordinately large in proportion to the number of readers who can read it in the original. Friar's lifelong dedication to translating it is a testimony to its validity and achievement. As he told me during his recent visit to the U.S.A.: "I wished to give the English-speaking world a sense of its great vitality and variety." Other worthy scholars such as Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard have translated modern Greek poets skillfully but only after the poets became widely recognized and accepted in the West through other translations. Mr. Friar translates into English a representative cross-section of contemporary artists. In fact, he keeps the rest of the world abreast of what new trends are taking place in Greece.

Literary translation is basically and ultimately a sign of indebtedness to the poet who moved us, a showcase for an extraordinary talent. But it can also take dimensions one cannot even begin to measure.

The respectability of literary translations has improved considerably since the days when Alexander Pope called translators " the saddest pack of rogues." A lot more scholars and poets undertake translations to the great benefit of the comparative study of literature. Do you think that the theory of translation is anew field in the theory and in the practice of literature?

Translation is nothing new; it has existed from the time two merchants met to barter, to engage in commercial transaction, and this is translation. One can think back to the King James version of the Bible, to Urquhart's Rabelais, to Sir Thomas
North's Plutarch, to Chapman' Homer (even though I have suggested that Keats i his maturity should have written another sonnet entitled "On a Second Look into Chapman's Homer"). A translator then did not have a verified text, concordances, exegeses, scholarly notes. He approached his text much less self-consciously, with greater freedom, more as a literary game; there was not then, as there is now, a considerable body of critique. He could be more indulgent, cater to his whims of style, his own idiosyncrasies, his own creative delight and license, confident that his readers would take his work more in the spirit of creative endeavor than of scholarly prudence. He had the same freedom of expression available to Shakespeare who, when he wrote, was not burdened with a college education, with grammars or dictionaries of the English tongue, and could play with words, punctuation and syntax as his fancy pleased, so long as he was immediately apprehended by his public, whether in the pit or the court.

But now theories of translation abound, the work has become highly conscious, and there are critics offstage ready to condemn or praise according to canons they have set up. Like original works themselves, translations have become more constructed, more artificed, more careful. The dadaists and the surrealists rebelled against these straitjackets, and in freeing men of letters from their shackles have also freed the translator, so that today we witness as much freedom in translation as poets and prose writers are taking with their original work.

Are you in any way thinking of translators today whose works are paraphrases or adaptations, such as Lowell's "imitations" from Baudelaire, or Pound's Women of Trachis, or Yeats' King Oedipus and Oedipus at Colonus?

I am indeed. Such adaptation has by now returned to the earlier freedom of which I spoke, and has indeed become a literary genre in and of itself. But I also feel quite strongly that such liberty, such departure from the original work, should only be countenanced with works already available to the reader in one or several more-or-less faithful translations. It should be explicitly clear that what is presented is not the original author's work but the translator's amalgam, a new creative work that has used as base another work in another language. The adapter may use only a line or two of his original, or he may omit several sections, or he may intermingle his own words and images with those of the original author's as he goes along, but in all cases the finished product should be considered to be as much the "translator's" as that of the original author.

What is, then, your description of a good translator?

That depends on what kind of translation is involved. Let us suppose that we are not talking about the literal translator nor about the free adapter, but of the translator who wishes to bring across to another language, as well as he can, the entire poem as an entity with as much impact in his own language as that which the poem makes in the original language. He must then, I believe, try to be as faithful as he can to the aura and intent of the poet. If the poet has more talent than he (as is often the case), he should keep as close as he can to the original work, congruent with a transposition that is nothing less than the best possible English.

If the poem is written in meter, I strongly believe that it should be translated in an analogous meter, for rhythm is an essential part of meaning; they cannot be separated. The problem is that very few translators of poetry are expert in traditional metrical techniques. If it comes easily, the translator should also transpose into rhyme, but not if in so doing he finds he has to pad or distort unduly. On the whole he should, in all humility, serve the poem and the author as best he can, and not try to "improve" the poem, but keep it as it is, blemishes and all. Because modern poetry is "difficult," the translator must not in arrogance simply guess at the poet's meaning in various phrases, clauses, sections or the whole, confident that only he is capable of understanding the poem, but should avail himself of help from others and from sources. Best of all, of course, would be to work in close collaboration with the poet, ferreting out implications of which even the poet himself may not have been aware. Much nuance will be lost; that is inevitable. He must bear inmind that he must try to bring across the suggestive meaning of an entire phrase or clause, and in so doingmust often translate not from word to word but from concept to concept. He must keep this delicate balance throughout the poem. But there are many other problems; this but skims the surface.

I would like to pursue this topic a little further by asking you first a broad question and then a more specific one. First, how do you perceive the relationship of the translator to the poet?

The post begins with his vision or "inspiration" subjectively and then proceeds to embody this in words, rhythms, images, forms. The translator begins objectively with given words, rhythms, images, forms and must try to reach to the original vision of the poet. They begin from opposite extremes but must reach the same destination. A bad translator will carelessly read the poems he is to translate only once or twice, and while still not comprehending it begin translating word by word as he goes. A good translator will know the poem almost by heart, will delve into its implications as much as he possibly can, so that every word he translates will be chosen, among many possible synonyms, according to the central vision of the poem as a whole.I'm afraid that few translators submit themselves to such discipline.

All but four of the poets whose works you have translated for your anthology Modern Greek Poetry (1973) were living, and all the rest have participated in the transnational act.Has the exchange helped you in deciding the issues of tone, language level, idiom? How does the poet feel when his work is under such scrutiny?

To work with the poet himself is an immeasurable help.Poets are not infallible, and a very good poem will often contain a phrase or two that will stump even the most sensitive and penetrating reader, places where the poet has not successfully communicated what he wanted to say. The problem here for the translator is how to clarify meaning without losing mystery and suggestivity.The translator cannot sustain the essential ambiguity unless he knows from where it stems. Nearly all the poets with whim I have worked have discussed their poems with me at length, have (under prodding) attempted exegesis, and have recorded their poems for me on tape.Even though a poet may read badly, only he knows where to pause, what to emphasize, what rhythms he wants, and I have found these tapes invaluable. Many have also written me credos of their work: why it is they write the kind of poetry they do, what it is they have tried to accomplish. Many, however, dislike such prodding and prefer not to limit their views by consolidating them in this manner, preferring to keep their attitudes in flux. Most of the poets have expressed their amazement in the pains I take. My reward is the many letters I have received from them to tell me that I have caught their inner rhythms, their inner spirit.

In one case, at least, the collaboration of the poet is close to necessary. I am thinking of Nikos Kazantaokis whose poetry is written in a personalized idiom culled from islands, monastic retreats and towns of the Greek mainland--not to mention several countries where he lived and worked. Would you share with us some of the techniques you used to translate his modern epic, The Odyssey:A Modern Sequel?

Kazantzakis is indeed a case in point. It would have been impossible for me to have translated his epic without his active participation, precisely because of the reasons you outline. A great many words he used cannot be found in any modern Greek dictionary; many, though known to many segments of the peasant class, are utterly unknown to the educated. To the first edition of his poem he appended a lexicon of some 2000 words, but even this is far from sufficient. Otherwise, his grammar and syntax are of great simplicity. During the first four months of our collaboration in Antibes, we sat side by side at his working table as he read me the 33,333 lines of his poem, word by word. I would listen and interrupt frequently to ask questions on tone, images, nuance, but primarily on the meaning of various words images or ideas, and in this manner I filled three large notebooks. Later, as I translated, I would send him carbon copies of each of the twenty-four books with detailed questions, and he would reply with answers almost immediately. After I had finished half the poem, we met in Yugoslavia and went over what I had done, and when I had finished the last book, we met again for a month in Antibes, and went over the entire poem.Of course we also discussed the larger philosophical questions on which his vision was based, and so I translated his The Saviors of God:Spiritual Exercises of which The Odyssey is an embodiment.I should like to refer you to the issue dedicated to him of The Journal ofModern Literature (Vol. II, No. 2, 1972) and to my article there entitled "A Unique Collaboration" in which I give a detailed account of our collaboration, publish two of my working letters to him and twenty of the hundred or so letters he wrote me.

Mr. Friar, you are presently working on two new anthologies, Contemporary Greek Poets and New Greek Poets. What new artists are you including: Is this the first time their work is being translated?

Of the seventy or more Greek poets to be included in the two supplements to my Modern Greek poetry, by far the great majority are completely unknown to the English-speaking world, except for appearances in periodicals, and these primarily in my translations, often in rather specialized magazines such as The Charioteer: A Review of Modern Greek Culture, of which I was the first editor.In this magazine, in Poetry, The Chicago Review, Grove, and in The Literary Review, I have published extensive anthologies of contemporary Greek poetry, and individual or small groups of poets in many other magazines in the United States, Canada, and England. Before my supplementary anthologies will see print, I shall have published in book form the Selected Poems of Eleni Vakalo, Nilos Karouzos, Kostas Steryopoulos, Takis Varvitsiotis, and Andonis Decavalles.

Even if there were more bilingual editions of Greek poetry, only a few readers would be able to appreciate your endeavors and enjoy your art. Modern Greek is taught at very few academic centers in the U.S.A. Could you explain briefly what basic adjustments you need to make in terms of syntax, grammar and etymology when you translate from modern Greek into English?

The interest in modern Greek is increasing yearly, and quite a few universities, really, are now teaching the language. I spent the previous academic year teaching in the newly inaugurated modern Greek program at Ohio State University, and gave the inaugural talk last December for a modern Greek program at Columbia University. Hopefully, the publication of bilingual editions will interest more persons to learn the language. Once, of course, they visit Greece, then they are caught and can never extricate themselves! But a bilingual edition does pose problems for the translator and his readers or critics.It invites close scrutiny of the texts, and most readers, inexperienced in the problems of translation, will almost subconsciously demand a more literal translation. What they really want is a trot to help them read the Greek. Even those who are more knowing in the ways of translation will be tempted to cavil about the rendition of this or that word or phrase, without considering the stanza or the poem as a whole which often demands the subordination of such literalness to the more unified elements of tone, style, rhythm, or orchestration. Of course the syntax and grammar of all languages differ, and these features must be completely adapted from one language to another. These problems are much too technical to be presented here, but I would like to refer your readers to my essay "On Translation" in my Modern Greek Poetry, and particularly to those sections entitled "On Translating from the Modern Greek" and "On Craft.

One of the most popular (and translated) Greek poets is C. P. Canafis. His subject matter and his diction span no less than twenty-five centuries. The magic of his poems remains intact today. This most pleasing artist is also the most difficult to translate and teach. Out of all the elements that make up his poetry, which one have you found resisting translation?

From one point of view, Cavafis is easy to translate, because his poems are most often highly dramatic, ironic, involve scenes or situations or characterizations, often a theme and indeed, at times, a "moral."All these, I would say, are extra-verbal effects that come across very effectively in any language. The difficulty in Cavafis lies in his meter and his diction.He began with strict metrical, rhyming, and stanzaic forms, and slowly loosened them as he progressed; a good translator, it seems to me, should try to follow him in this evolution. His diction is an individual amalgam of words from the entire development of the Greek language from ancient to modern times, embellished with the intonations of Constantinople and Alexandria, all rooted in a demotic base and interspersed with words taken from the artificially constructed language, the katharevousa. It is impossible to duplicate this amalgam in English, which has no living tradition that is as viable. Using the basis of a common, standard English, I have tried to reproduce his tonalities to some degree by making extensive use of various formal aspects of English diction derived from the Greek or the Latin, cheek by jowl with idiomatic and even slang terminology. I should like to refer you to an article I have recently published on this problem, "Cavafis and Translators into English," Journal of the Greek Diaspora, Spring 1978, Vol. V, No. 1.

Let's say you have found a satisfying alternate statement to the poet's own. How do you reconcile next the metrics of such diverse languages as the inflected polysyllabic Greek and the analytic, heavily monosyllabic English language?

This is indeed a problem. The English language is rich in monosyllables, and the syncopated or counterpointed use of them in metrical poetry constitutes one of the great beauties of English versification. Interested readers may find a more detailed technical analysis of this in my "An Additional Note on Prosody" in the Appendix of my translation of Kazantzais' The Odyssey.The problems are two.First:Since English words (especially those derived from eh basic Anglo-Saxon) tend to have fewer syllables than Greek words, a Greek verse in English often, though not always, becomes shorter. This problem becomes aggravated when translating from meter into meter, and can often be solved by choosing a shorter metrical line than the original line. Often a line, I have discovered in actual practice, about four syllables shorter than the Greek line, if the meter is iambic (as it most often is). For instance, Kazantzakis' original line in The Odyssey is iambic octameter with feminine ending or, as it is termed in Greek, a seventeen-syllable line. This I have reduced in English to an iambic hexameter with variable (as is normal in English versification) masculine or feminine endings: that is, a line of twelve or thirteen syllables, not counting anapests, elisions, and other variations common to both languages.

Second: Because of its polysyllabic content, a Greek verse, by and large, is more supple, more rippling, more sinuous than an English verse, which tends to be stronger, more abrupt, more syncopated. To compensate for this, the translator at times must paraphrase where such paraphrasing adds rather than detracts. He may, for instance, to give a very simple example, prefer "the final reach of the arrow" to "the arrow's final reach." In my article on Cavafis' translators, I have had occasion to give an example a propos to our discussion. In the poem "Ithaca," a line reads

an iambic pentameter which Keeley-Sherrard (both excellent translators) render into the abrupt "to buy fine things," which has none of the undulating grace of Cavafis line and reduces twelve syllables to four. Keeley-Sherrard translate Cavafis' metrical lines into free verse; in my version, keeping more or less to the hovering pentameter lines of the original, I have translated "to procure the goodly merchandise," wherein "procure" is more faithful tothan "buy," and "merchandise" is more faithful to than "things."The spare and the lean is not always a virtue.Thus I try by some technical means or other to compensate, but it goes without saying that I often fail and am forced into condensation. Reductio, yes, but not ad absurdum.

Breaking down the cultural barriers seems to be an intricate a task as that of breaking down the barriers of mutually incomprehensible languages. Does a translator ever succeed in "translating" the customs and traditions of one nation into those of another? I am thinking of the lore that surrounds that well-watered pot of basil perched on the window sill of a whitewashed rural Greek home. How do you convey this third presence between two languages?

I don't see how specific mores, customs or traditions can possibly be translated into another language and another culture, for this is not a problem of finding the proper word, synonym, or paraphrase, but of ringing over an event, a point of view, a situation, a talisman or totem that is peculiar of one particular nation, tribe, or locale, and which cannot be found or fully understood anywhere else. Your pot of basil on the windowsill of a whitewashed rural Greek home is a case in point. Of course the pot of basil itself, the window sill and the whitewash can be brought over literally into English, but certainly not the emotions, memories and reverberations attached to that complex in a Greek setting. Rare is the English or American rural home that has a pot of basil, whereas no Greek peasant woman would think of being s\without several, not only for the aroma (as she rubs and sniffs a few leaves between her fingers), not only because she will use it to savor her food, but also because the basil is o redolent with memories of her husband or her son who slip a spray over their ears as they w\go to work; or of the priest who dips a spray of basil in holy water to l\bless her home. When Kazantzakis' Odyseus leaves his island home in Ithaca for a second time, he finds no way of expressing his sad nostalgia but by crying out:" Comrades, our eyes shall never look on her again!/She was a small, small bird that passed, a toy that broke, / a sprig of curly basil fallen from over our ears." Whitewash is all but unknown to the Anglo-Saxon housewife, but to the Greek peasant woman it is not only a cleansing element, but the symbol of all that is white, virginal and purifying. To the poet Odysseus Elytis, it connotes justice and law; in Axion Eati he declares, " Now in whitewash I enclose and entrust/ my true Laws"; and in a new poem he is now writing he says, "Light-years in the skies, virtues in the whitewash," as though a measurement for ethical distances exist in whitewash comparable to astronomical distances in the heavens.

But how convey the feeling for whitewash for one who has not lived and played since childhood among island whitewashed homes, courtyards and even streets, dazzling white in the sun against the cobalt blue of sea and sky? And even if one translates the word "sky" in a Greek poem, will this connote the same aura to one reading the poems, say, in Iceland? All these cultural reverberations are of necessity lost in translation. The miracle is that something important remains, something residual that is common to us all, a universal element whether in the jungles of Africa or the icebergs of the North Pole.

The other quality I find almost impossible to reproduce adequately is when the poet plays with the full orchestral sounds and rhythms of his language. How, for instance, is one adequately to translate the opening of Gerard Manley Hopkins "The Windhover": "I caught this morning minion, king- / dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn falcon in his riding / of the rolling level underneath him steady air"? Or all the rest of Hopkins, or Dylan Thomas, or Sir Thomas Browne? As equally difficult, I would add, is the simple lyric, devoid of any bravura, like Blake's Songs of Innocence. And yet, the translated poem does take on the burden of another set of mores, traditions, connotations. When transposed into l\another sphere, another heritage, it undergoes a metamorphosis, it is reincarnated, so to speak, takes on another life on another planet (often in another century), not as a clone, but as a new personality, a new temperament, a new creation." The festival of the amaryllis" says Elytis, and which, if I wished, I could translate into "the fete of the amaryllis," and thus take advantage of a play on words unavailable in this instance to Elytis in Greek, if I thought it consistent with his general practice and of the connotations in that particular poem. Or by transferring the plains of Thessaly to the prairies of Missouri, I could add another dimension to a poem, reveal connotations nesting deep in universal meaning. But this is an almost inexhaustible subject worthy of deep and detailed analysis.

Translation Review, Volume 2, 1978.

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