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Commentary on DIALOGOS
David Ferry


he human quality that a good translation gives evidence of is generosity: the generosity of imagination that can hear and respond to the voice of somebody else which speaks or spoke in another language and place and sometimes time; the generosity that tries to reproduce, in so far as it can, the qualities of that voice, not only the data of what is said, but the feelings, the attitudes, the nuances, the shifts, the hesitations, the intensities, and the degrees of intensities, that he or she hears in that voice of somebody else. Never entirely successful, of course, if the scale by which you measure “success” is as absurd as to suppose that success in that regard were possible. You can never be that other voice; you can never keep your own voice, its personality, its experience both of life and of other reading, out of it. Nor should you. What we hear in a good translation is not purely that voice of somebody else but also the voice of the translator registering that effort and its delight. It’s an activity which is at the same time selfless and not selfless. And when that voice of somebody else is the voice of someone great the delight in the effort is exalting, and the delight in that is one of the ways the voice of the translator himself enters in and is heard.

George Kalogeris’s translations in this book, all of them, are instances of realization, realization in several senses but mainly in two: making the poem he is translating be realized, made real in the language it’s being translated into, and realizing it not only by bringing it across like a message of its sense from beyond the border, but by his choices of language and syntax and his versification, making the translation a poem made real in the company of other good poems, whether translations or not—a poem of his own. And realization therefore in the sense that the language of the translation exhibits, especially at key moments of its detail, its own delight and its conscious understanding of what it is doing.

Look at several small examples first. Kalogeris knows about line endings, what they encapsulate and how they shine back their radiance on what’s happening in the life of the lines that contain them: a whole event, as in this line from Pindar’s “Olympian 14”: “Echo, go now. Deliver the news to his father.” Or about a generic old man in Juvenal’s “Satire X”: “Sex has already crossed the River Styx,” an event spelling itself out according to its order. Or in sequences of such lines telling their story, as in these two-and-a-half lines from Lucretius’s “Atomic Movement,” where the line-ending decisions and syntactical decisions are perfectly managed, and in which the action of the lines is the action of the flames:

Can reach a roof-And just as a leaping flame
Can reach a roof-beam, and lick along the rafters

Until that voracious tongue devours the house,

Or in these implacably end-stopped lines from his sublime Hölderlin:

But isn’t there some other way to know
How we compare to everything else?
No, there’s no way on earth to know.

Here, at least till the tercet’s over, we’re locked up between the walls of the repeated “know,” blocking us in from knowing, and “isn’t there some other way” is locked in by “no way on earth,” and in that third line “No” and “no” say no to “Know;” and “No, there’s” says no to “isn’t there,” and says it in a comparable place in the line and in the syntax of its clause; and then you end up hearing the rhymes in “there” and “compare” and “there’s” and what you’re hearing is its meaning and also the delight of the tercet in itself, in its music and order. These transactions of realization are an aspect of a wonderful translation, and Kalogeris’s poems are full of such examples.

I hear this work of transaction in Kalogeris’s versification’s grandly simple metrical delight in translating the grandly simple lines of Leopardi in “Saturday Night in the Village”:

Already the darkness is filling the air we breathe;
                Already the sky is no longer azure;
Evening shadows now the slopes of the hills;
                Now the young moon is just beginning
To turn the rooftops white, as if the houses
                Were marked with chalk; and now and again
The mouth of a clanging bell is telling us something
                We already know: tomorrow is Sunday.

And I hear it, in another sense of “grand” and “simple,” in the conclusion to Pindar’s poem, where the poet’s voice is godlike in its authority, sending off his poem to carry its message to the Underworld. Godlike, and also human, like a neighbor in its almost mischievously tender affectionate way of saying how the dead father should be told that his son was a victor in the games: “And tell him that someone he knows was crowned today.” And the poem sends its words echoing down, as if down a well, to where Echo will go down there, echoing “Down” and “down,” and “and,” “find,” and “and,” to tell him the news.

Echo, go now, down to the dark-walled house
Down where Persephone lives, and find Kleodámos,
And tell him that someone he knows was crowned today
With olive leaves, at the foothills of Olympia:
A boy whose hair the breeze will never turn silver,
Now that we know that the name Asópikós
So brightly evokes the flutter of Victory’s wings.
Echo, go now. Deliver the news to his father.

I hear it, and I think every reader will hear it, in the lines describing what’s pictured and told on the beautiful cup in Theocritus’s “The Cup,” and in the speaker’s voice, so sophisticatedly naïve as to sound like he’s seeing the scenes alive, his idioms so colloquial and so present. The beautifully enjambed lines, alternating hexameter and tetrameter, curl and turn and lace themselves like ivy around the telling:

Just past that old man, his back as beaten by molten waves
                As the rock he stands on, there’s a vineyard
Whose gorgeous intaglio of grapes is staked on a child’s
                Vigilance, and this little boy sits
On a low stone wall that’s warmed by the sun. Around and about him
                Go two foxes, one of whom flashes
Between the vine-rows, devouring all that’s ripe for the picking,

While the other fox is trying every trick in the book
                To snatch the kid’s breakfast, his satchel that’s full
Of bread and cheese, and won’t give up until she succeeds
                In sending him home on an empty stomach.
But the boy is busy constructing a tiny intricate cage
                He hopes to catch some crickets with,
Interlacing the stems of rushes with tendrils of asphodels.

And there’s the way Kalogeris’s versification registers a heartbreakingly exact enactment of Radnóti’s situation in this passage from his tragic “Seventh Eclogue”:

               A line that bears itConcentrate on the line,
                A line that bears its leveling pain
Without the slash of accent marks. Call it a lifeline,
                Inching along the page like a slug
In the dark, but not so dark that you don’t pick up the gleam
                Of its slime, if the mind’s glow is steady
As a searchlight. Concentrate on Homer’s meter,
                As the line squiggles blind as an earthworm.

You can hear how Kalogeris’s versification pays shocked tribute to Radnóti’s grief and his courage, writing there in the prison camp, in the way it enacts the heroic effort of writing the poem, the words of each of these two lines inching along its own lifeline in the dark—“Inching along the page like a slug” and “As the line squiggles blind as an earthworm.” You can see, as Radnóti could see, in the dark, the inching-alongness of the line, and in the latter line—tetrameter like the other tetrameter lines, but with an anapestic first foot, a trochaic second and third, and at the end of the stanza that over-stressed “feminine ending” syllable “-worm” pushing its blind head against the as yet unwritten future of the doomed poem. “Blind” is both adjectival, an attribute of the earthworm and also somehow part of the verb “squiggles blind,” an attribute of the activity of writing—hearing it both ways affects the rhythm of the line and therefore our experience of Kalogeris’s writing of the line, and Radnóti’s experience of the writing of the line, and, so to speak, the experience of the line itself and of the doomed poem, found in a rotting notebook in Radnóti’s pocket on his body dug up from a mass grave. The poem is an earthworm in the earth of the grave, squiggling, blind, squiggling blind, somehow still alive. The life is in the versification.

And hear the realization in this wonderful passage translating Pessoa’s cheerfully disconsolate poem “Aniversário,” about how different the poet is from the child he was, and how different his world is from the world he was a child in:

At the end of the day, treNow my walls are bare.
At the end of the day, trembling through my tears,
I feel even less substantial than stagnant air
In a hazy hallway. I’m the door that opened
Reluctantly on the day the deal was closed
And the house was sold, still shadowing the threshold

Where, one by one, the others passed into night.
Back in the days before my years were spent
Like smoldering wicks on a cake, my face aglow
As I made my birthday wish to the birthday candles
Before I blew them all out with a single breath—
Back in the days that none of my poems can rekindle.
Those days that I still love, the only days

I ever felt like a normal human being!
And as long as those flights of longing persist, I still
Go running back down the stairs of a two-storied house,
While running up the stairs is the boy I was,
Who gives me this look that’s neither here nor there.

That boy he used to be runs up the stairs past him giving him a look that was “neither here nor there,” the idiom for indifference—a kind of verbal shrug, and at the same time, not “here” on the site of longing, nor “there,” back there in past of his identity, and also neither “here nor there,” somehow, in the mind of his longing, in both places, both times, at once, and not locatable in either. Kalogeris finds so much of the poem and of the beautiful complexity of Pessoa’s feeling and his self-understanding, qualities shared by the poet and the translator and given to each other by the marvelous choice of the idiom. (And there’s also the poignant play on flights of stairs, in “flights of longing.”)

Take the example, too, of an idiomatic expression in these lines from his version of Borges’s “To a Minor Poet of the Greek Anthology”:

To bestow on otAs long as the gods have chosen

To bestow on others that brilliance that never fades,
You’ll be left in the dark forever, dear friend.

And given that dark, what more can we say, really,
Except that once you heard the nightingales singing?

In the dark of the ancient past, of the grave, of the Underworld, of the text in which other guys’ poems are there, but not his, and (because of our idiom, “in the dark”) in the dark of his own limitations, of his hapless lack of that brilliance with which the brilliant poets shine, he cannot understand how it happened, or didn’t happen. His being “in the dark” is a kind of innocence in which he hears the nightingale singing (nightingales sing at night), a real nightingale he perhaps failed to make a poem of and which he may have unenviously heard, being too “in the dark” for envy, in the poem of another.

Several more instances of realization, though the evidence is everywhere in these wonderful poems:

I hear this beautiful transaction everywhere in Mandelstam’s #126 (“As I was washing myself in the dark”) but becoming vivid in a particular way in the third line of the fourth stanza:

Soon the weavers will weave a new pattern
From anything they can get their hands on,
Looming there, in the near future:

The weavers are the Fates, maybe the constellations, certainly the oppressors who were his fate, and that “Looming” looms even more darkly there in the trochaic first foot. The triple “there” and “near” and “future” rhymes or off-rhymes recognize and intensify the looming menace in the lines.

I hear, the poem makes me hear, the transaction in another way in this passage of the translation of Sappho’s “Fragment 58”:

Crave the freshness of that scent
        When the Muse is so close her breasts
                Are open blossoms,

And no matter how many years it takes you
        To master the difficult chords
                Of the tortoise shell,

Learning to play those melodies clearly
        Will keep your promise in tune
                With her lovely gift.

Like you I was slender and dark as a lyre;
        Then Time plucked a string
                And my hair was silver.

Listen to what Kalogeris’s imagination does with the beautiful tune of the opening three stanzas, the playing of “those melodies clearly,” mastering “the difficult chords” so skillfully and correctly: iambic tetrameter line, iambic trimeter line, iambic dimeter line, the beautiful correct meter played three times, stanza after stanza, and then in the fourth stanza, “Time plucked a string” and momentarily the correctness of the trimeter meter is broken. “Then Time plucked a string.” Three stresses, yes, “Time,” “plucked,” “string,” but Time has plucked a syllable and the iambic music is interfered with. And “plucked” is wonderfully chosen, because that’s what the musician does, and Time knows it.

There’s his translation of a stanza in René Char’s “Conduite”:

Vois bouger l’entrelacement
des certitudes arrivées
près de nous à leur quintessence
ô ma Fourche, ma Soif anxieuse!

See how tenuously the certainties stir,
stitching together what seems to come together
so seamlessly now you can sense its essence
becoming presence. O Cleft in the self,
the root of my thirst unslaked as my desire!

Yes, for Char’s condensed and intensely focused short free verse lines there’s the translation’s expansive iambic pentameter, used by the translator to unpack Char’s stanza and thereby to tell himself what it means, but also to enact its deep understanding of “enlacement,” in the enlaced rhyming of “stir” and “together” and “desire,” in the alliteration of “stir” and “stitching,” and the repetition in the intrawoven second line of “together” and “together,” and then the rhyming “sense” and “essence” and (brilliantly acted out by the line-ending and the line-beginning) the rhymed “essence” “becoming presence.” How eloquent Char’s climactic “quintessence” leading to the outcry of “ô ma Fourche, ma Soif” and how eloquent the unpacking of Char’s “anxieuse,” “unslaked as my desire!” There’s so much to say about how such writing registers its delight in what it has found in the original writer and his language and versification. The last line of Kalogeris’s stanza is an outcry of anxiety, too, but also an outcry of his stanza’s delight in how it has exhibited its understanding.

And finally Kalogeris’s translation of Cavafy’s “The Trojans”:

No matter what we do, this always hapWe’re like the Trojans.
No matter what we do, this always happens—

Though right till the very end we still believe
We still might win, if only by being brave

And not giving in. But once we go out to meet
Our fate, behind our back it bolts the gate.

Even at the eleventh hour, we truly
Believe the gods are with us, defending Troy.

But as soon as we resolve to make a stand
That daring spirit dissolves, like a phantom friend.

Now it’s our worst nightmare, but there we are,
Outside the city walls, running for dear

Life as the sweat pours down, though our legs feel frozen.
Already it’s time to start the lamentation.

And then, high up on the ancient parapets,
Priam and Hecuba weep, weeping for us.

In “But once we go out to meet / Our fate, behind our back it bolts the gate,” how decisively that gate is shut and bolted, decisively by the statement and by the ostentatious regularity of the iambic stressing in this line-and-a-half—and by the rhyming of “out” and “meet” and “fate” and “gate,” and the clicking “t” sound as the gate is shut and bolted and the hapless Trojans are left out in the field to be slaughtered by Achilles. And the terrible comedy of it is enacted again in “But as soon as we resolve to make a stand / That daring spirit dissolves, like a phantom friend.” The phantom isn’t literally there in Cavafy’s poem but it gives its warrant to Kalogeris’s allusion to the shocking passage in Book 22 of the Iliad where Hector realizes he is alone outside the walls—the friend he thought was there was not.

These moments of realization are instances of how Kalogeris’s generous and self-exacting imagination registers and responds to his deep understandings of the poems he translates. They are instances only of what is offered everywhere in DIALOGOS.

George Kalogeris teaches English Literature and Classics in Translation at Suffolk University in Boston, Massachusetts. He is the author of Camus: Carnets (Pressed Wafer Press, 2006), a book of poems based on the notebooks of Albert Camus. His translations have appeared recently in AGNI, Harvard Review, and Poetry.

David Ferry is Sophie Chantal Hart Professor Emeritus of English at Wellesley College.  He is the author of nine books of poetry, translation, and criticism, including Of No Country I Know:  New and Selected Poems (University of Chicago Press, 1999), The Georgics of Virgil (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2005), and Bewilderment:  Poems and Translations (University of Chicago Press, 2012).  He has received the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award, the Ingram Merrill Award, a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, the Library of Congress’s Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry, and the 2011 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize.  He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.