25 August 2004

Translating a Greek icon

Inspiration; Yannis Ritsos, left, with Amy Mims, who spent 12 years translating his last major work into English

Having brought Yannis Ritsos to English speakers, his translator is now taking Kavanagh to Greece, writes Patrick Comerford

Amy Mims, an award-winning poet and translator, is proud of her descent from the O’Sullivans of Castletown Bere, in Co Cork. Having lived in Greece for more than four decades, she now feels Greek. But having devoted much of her working life to introducing Yannis Ritsos, the great Greek poet of the left, to English-speaking readers, she is now introducing Patrick Kavanagh to her adopted home.

Mims met Kavanagh on her very first day in Ireland, in 1957. On later visits she went with Kavanagh and John Ryan, the friend and supporter of many literary figures, to Newgrange, where they made comparisons with Knossos and the Minoan civilisation of ancient Crete. Studies in classical Greek at Harvard, followed by Byzantine and modern Greek studies at Oxford, led to a Fulbright scholarship in 1958 to study medieval Greece. Having chosen to stay in Greece, she now describes herself as “Greek by identity”.

She has published four translations of Nikos Kazantzakis – author of Zorba The Greek and The Last Temptation Of Christ -- innumerable versions of contemporary Greek playwrights and poets, and her own poetry and essays. She has been good friends with Leonard Cohen since they first met on the island of Hydra, but her literary and artistic Greek friends have included the composer Mikis Theodorakis and, of course, Ritsos.

Like many creative Greeks, she was forced into exile under the colonels, first to Paris, where the Greek exiles included Vassilis Vassilikos, author of Z, followed by “18 ghastly months in London” and travels in Cyprus and Crete and among the Pontic Greeks of the Black Sea.

Ritsos (1909-1990) paid for his political commitment with long periods of internment and internal exile under the post-war right-wing regime and under the colonels. His epic poem Epitaphios became the anthem of resistance to the colonels, while Romiosini made the resistance movement the natural heir to the heroes of Greek mythology. Both were set to music and arranged by Theodorakis and Manos Hatzidakis.

Ritsos was hailed by Aragon as the greatest poet of his time; Pablo Neruda thought Ritsos better qualified for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Mims first met him in Cyprus in 1973, then spent the next 30 years making his works available to an English-reading audience.

Her translation of Ritsos’s nine-volume Iconostasis Of Anonymous Saints was a 12-year labour of love on his last major work, the one he considered his freest and finest ever; it led to her three-volume collection from the leading Greek publisher Kedros (1996-2001). Now a new complementary bilingual work, Ritsos Of The Iconostasis, offers readers in both languages a companion for the journey through the Joycean passageways of her translation of Ritsos’s swansong.

The iconostasis is the screen decorated with icons of saints that traditionally separates the altar from the main body of a Greek church. For Ritsos, the anonymous saints he needed to remember in his prayers and to keep the oil lamp of his heart burning before are not the traditional saints of Orthodoxy but the everyday “anonymous saints” from his neighbourhood in old Athens, members of his large family, the simple inhabitants of his home town of Monemvasia, his tragicomic aunts, unassuming political prisoners sharing internal exile on a lonely island and a close-knit band of friends.

All these “anonymous saints” are skilfully counterpointed with the hero, Ion, who is Ritsos, and his alter ego, Ariostos, and woven into a dreamlike tapestry of reminiscences, vivid memories from childhood, reflections on modern Greek history and politics, introspective confessions and surrealist dreams. Although a quarter of the size, it has been compared with Proust’Remembrance Of Things Past.

Although the Times Literary Supplement described Mims’s translation as a “wild and fascinating work”, the Iconostasis received little attention from the Greek literary world and has yet to attract a wider readership. Her translation has been praised by Louis de Bernières, author of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, as “a marvellously diverse and rich work” of “sheer beauty, individuality and humour”, a “masterpiece that remains always inexhaustible” and a commonplace Odyssey of “the world’s little people”. Theodorakis believes Ritsos Of The Iconostasis “should be read by all who love the work of Ritsos”.

In Ritsos Of The Iconostasis, Mims finds similarities between Ritsos’s style and that of James Joyce in Ulysses. “Ritsos’s Iconostasis is embellished with an almost Joycean richness of words,” she says, “including outrageous puns, unprecedented though ineffably ‘poetic’ erotica and miraculous flights of language.” Although Joyce’s Ulysses is often compared to Kazantzakis’s sequel to Homer’s Odyssey, she prefers to compare Joyce and Ritsos.

She describes Ulysses as an expression of the “miraculous kinship” between Ireland and Greece, and believes Joyce and Ritsos would have enjoyed each other’s company. She speaks of Joyce “the Ulyssean” and Ritsos “the Odyssean” as “kindred spirits from two opposite poles of Europe”, yet “two writers with certain essential points in common”.

She sees parallels between Joyce and Ritsos in their tremendous variety of styles, the plethora of puns and use of invented words, games with names, superb passages where only the music of sound plays a role, the use of onomatopoetic words appearing as single sounds, the occasional obsession with bodily functions or misfunctions not usually discussed in polite company, and “the aura of ‘poetic obscenity’ … almost always transforming even the rawest sexual scenes into poetry.

“Molly Bloom’s monologue, with her allusions to her sexual life at the end of Ulysses, is transcended and transmuted into a marvellous paean to nature. Ritsos does the same thing. Wherever he has a particularly raw section, it is almost always 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”.

Even Ritsos’s allusions to the Orthodox liturgy parallel Joyce’s outrageous quotations from the Latin Mass. Yet, unlike many critics, she praises Ritsos for “his deep religious themes”. “Many people think that for a Marxist this is impossible”" she admits. However, she insists “he did indeed believe in God and, above all, in the power of love”.

Ritsos’s epic Epitaphios, drawing on the imagery of the Good Friday rituals in the Greek Orthodox tradition, became the anthem of resistance to the colonels in the 1960s and 1970s. Despite its unique place in modern Greek literature, Epitaphios has never been fully translated into English. Mims translated eight of the 20 cantos for MBI’s recording, in 2000, of Epitaphios, but she admits the “translation of 15-syllable Greek verse can never really be at an end” and concedes she is still unhappy with the final work.

Now she is returning to her Irish roots, translating Yeats and Kavanagh into Greek. Having translated The Great Hunger and The Green Fool during two previous visits, she returned to the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, the artists’ retreat in Annaghmakerrig, for a third visit earlier this year and continues to work on translating a selection of 28 of his shorter poems. She has persuaded Macdara Woods to write an introduction and hopes the Athens publisher Odos Panos will eventually publish her translations of Kavanagh.

This quarter-page feature was first published on the Arts pages of ‘The Irish Times’ on 25 August 2014

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