Guest Post: A Report from the Creative Translation Class: Reconceiving Andreas Embirikos

by Paschalis Nikolaou 

There is good reason for deploying creative writing exercises within the teaching of literary translation, even more so at postgraduate level and once those (often contradictory) conventions, contracts between reader, author and language mediator have been established with some clarity in students’ minds. This is not so much an innovative didactic approach but simple confirmation of text generation within literary history: from ‘poetic translation’ to interpreters and translators featuring as characters within fiction (Borges always comes to mind first) or film (from Star Wars’ C-3PO to The Interpreter), the meeting points of writing creatively and rendering literary expression in another language have proven fruitful across the centuries. Even though fables like that of a well-known Menard to Michael Marshall Smith’s The Gist (2013) may at first appear as curia, infrequent events and hybrids inside a gray zone, they can arguably be traced to the core of literary production; to essential psychologies and imperatives bringing together both creative writers and literary translators. Recognizing the part varied textual practices or frames, from Cervantes’ legendary pseudotranslation to the meaningful self-translations of Samuel Beckett or Vassilis Alexakis play within shared environments of literature demands workshop enactments of what takes place in the mind of poet and translator. Certain common spaces in the teaching of literary translation, as well as creative writing, are necessary: practitioners of both stand only to gain from awareness of what their other, does.

At the Department of Foreign Languages, Translation and Interpreting of the Ionian University a concerted effort started from the 2014-2015 academic year, to bring creative writing closer to the experience of students of (literary) translation. A more detailed report on this development and on adjustments to course programmes in Corfu should occur after a few of years, with all components firmly in place; yet a brief description may be given here, followed by discussion of just one exercise at postgraduate level. In the coming academic year then, there will be an optional creative writing workshop in the Spring semester for students also following literary translation courses at undergraduate level (typically during the final two years of the degree offered at the Ionian University), in one or two small groups between 7-12 participants, around twice a month. The idea is for this to also extend to guest seminars and regular invitations to writers (and certainly, poet-translators). Especially at MA level, the meeting of worlds, regularly hinted at undergraduate classes, is more confidently simulated. One of the non-compulsory modules taught in the autumn semester is now titled Λογοτεχνική Μετάφραση και Δημιουργική Γραφή (‘Literary Translation and Creative Writing’). Again, a more detailed description of the unfolding syllabus, the progression of examples and exercises is not a matter for the present. Suffice to say, in these classes we attempt to explore the range of creative possibilities between original and translation, and in ways that indeed confirm limitations as well as freedoms, too; the real-world necessity of ‘translation proper’ is also part of this picture, just as categories and emphases of translation activity are better understood at the moment boundaries are transgressed. Meanwhile – fictional translators, poetic occurrences, the value of imitation, the manifold regions of originality as well as evolving ideas about them across time; the effort is to relay to postgraduate students a picture as complete as possible while searching, in the course of ten 2-hour classes, for voices from the field, closely attending to the ever-shifting dialogue and dynamic between authors and translators as they influence each other.

In this particular context, practical engagement produces better understanding of the conditions engendering such texts. How to open a discussion of the creative potentialities in literary translation, the range of possible movements or actions beyond fidelity? Among the approaches adopted is a direct request to ‘translate creatively’ following class discussion – and the choice of text here again is key: Αι Λέξεις (‘The Words’) is a prose poem by Andreas Embirikos (1901-1975), a key proponent of surrealism and psychoanalysis in Greece:




        στον Νάνο Βαλαωρίτη

Όταν καμιά φορά επιστρέφομεν από τους Παρισίους και αναπνέομεν την αύραν του Σαρωνικού, υπό το φίλιον φως και μέσα στα αρώματα της πεύκης, εν τη λιτότητι των μ,ύθων – των σημερινών και των προκατακλυσμιαίων – ως σάλπισμα πνευστών, ή ως ήχος παλμικός, κρουστός, τυμπάνων, υψώνονται πίδακες στιλπνοί, ωρισμέναι λέξεις, λέξεις-χρησμοί, λέξεις ενώσεως αψιδωτής και κορυφαίας, λέξεις με σημασίαν απροσμέτρητον δια το παρόν και δια το μέλλον, αι λέξεις «Eλελεύ», «Σε αγαπώ», και «Δόξα εν υψίστοις», και, αιφνιδίως, ως ξίφη που διασταυρούμενα ενούνται, ή ως κλαγγή αφίξεως ορμητικού μετρό εις υπογείους σήραγγας των Παρισίων, και αι λέξεις: «Chardon-Lagache», «Denfert-Rochereau», «Danton», «Odeon», «Vauban», και «Gloria, gloria in excelsis».


And here is a translation into English by Maria Margaronis:



Sometimes when we return from Paris and breathe in the breeze of the Saronic Gulf, under the friendly light and in the scent of pines, in the simplicity of myths – both modern and antediluvian – then, like a peal of trumpets or the tight, pulsating sound of drums, particular words leap up like shining fountains, words of prophecy, words of supreme and overarching union, words of immeasurable significance for both the present and the future: the words “Elelef”, “I love you”, and “Glory in the highest”; and suddenly, like swords that, clashing, join, or like the clangourous onrush of a train arriving in Parisian subterranean tunnels, also the words “Chardon-Lagache”, “Denfert-Rochereau”, “Danton”, “Vauban”, and “Gloria, gloria in excelsis”.


As they prepare for their own English version, a personal history with the original is disclosed to the students: Oktana (1980), the posthumous collection where Embirikos’ poem can be found, was one of the first books for poetry I owned; the translation, one of the very first I ever attempted. Yet it has remained unfinished since the mid-90s, for a host of reasons: at first my abilities were limited, then the right tone and equivalences within the English poetic tradition couldn’t quite be found, then a fine translation by someone else was discovered after all. Regardless, my attachment to the poem was such that the project had to mutate, gradually, into experiment: towards integrations of visual language, typographical variances, hyperlinked, constantly multiplying online presentations, forking paths and translational roads not taken. It still is a work-in-progress, perhaps aptly so: untangled from the prospect of a finished, proper English existence owed to poem and poet in this case, ‘the words’ become a field of intentional non-finality where alternatives are imagined every time the draft translation is revisited. Some of these alternatives are now perhaps as surreal as some of the original’s components. ‘Embirikos’ Words’ as my version’s title, is about the only decided thing at this point.

The above comments already point to how suitable Embirikos’ poem can be for such an exercise, given exactly the surrealist frame that prompts towards a similar freeing of choices and associations in translation, a conscious extending of the mode of composition to the mode of processing literary text in another language. Combined with self-referential elements beginning with the very title, particular thematic attention to how (foreign) words and experience are linked, this is a poem where translation is recognized embedded in the very fabric of its telling.

At the same time, the sharing of my own, somewhat ambiguous, relationship with the original involves students in a process where this is certainly not just another poem to be translated, despite it not being a ‘talismanic encounter’ of their own, an individual choice. Yet they do discover personal entry points within group discussion, also while a reading of the poem by Embirikos himself is played in class, and later on, working from the solitude of their own desks. Existence of published translations is mentioned so they worry less about adhering, aspiring to or competing with them (nevertheless the one by Margaronis which can be found in The Greek Poets: Homer to the Present is handed out to them in the following weeks and once their own creative responses have been produced). Some unintentional ‘reverse psychology’ was interestingly noticed when these were handed in: despite a brief of working freely with Embirikos’ text as starting point for something radically new even, several of them compartmentalized their response to the assignment – producing a relatively faithful version alongside, and before proceeding to engage with more creative textual formations.

Rewording and reconceiving ‘The Words’ was one among the ways of making creativity and translation come closer together. A selection from the work of postgraduate students at the DFLTI can be found filed under Translations and other writings.

© (Paschalis Nikolaou) 2015

Brecht in Translation Workshop

This autumn, Birkbeck Centre for Contemporary Theatre Fellow, Phoebe von Held, will run a double-session workshop on her new translation project, Jae Fleischhacker, a dramatic fragment by Bertolt Brecht, dealing with Chicago’s wheat exchange market and the crises of global capitalism at the beginning of the twentieth century. This is the first translation of this fragment into English.

  • Saturday 17 October, 10am-1pm, Birkbeck University of London, Keynes Library
  • Saturday 14 November, 10am-1pm, Birkbeck University of London, Keynes Library

The purpose of the workshops is to invite feedback and exchange on the translation. We will read newly translated scenes, focussing on particular passages where the linguistic style of Brecht presents particular challenges to the translator. The workshop is primarily addressed to English native speakers (German is an added benefit) and anybody who is interested in theatre, writing, literature and translation. The maximum number of participants in each session is 10. Participants can sign up for one of the dates, or for both.

To enrol, please send a brief letter of interest and description of your background to:

Sea change: displaced bodies and disembodied voices

We have produced a short animation on the theme and experience of otherness for the OthernessProject (Representations of the Other: Language, Body and Space in Cross-cultural Performances).

Thinking and imagining otherness as metamorphosis, we took as point of reference for the video Ariel’s song in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Water becomes both death-bringer and transformance.  Here the voice, disembodied from the text, speaks from the possible perspective of the (alleged) drowning man, who becomes other, while sounds, music, and ideas of change are explored  at different levels. You can see our animation and the other projects here. (Scroll down to Otherness Stories for the video clip titled ‘Sea Change Movie’).

Manuela & Eugenia

Translating Tarchetti

We continue with our theme of avant-garde and our focus on Italian writer and poet Iginio Ugo Tarchetti. As previously discussed, Tarchetti was an exponent of the Scapigliatura movement, which developed in the North of Italy at the end of the nineteenth century, in particular among the cultural and literary circles of a sprawling, increasingly wealthy Milan. While despising the provincialism of some aspects of the Italian literature of the time, and polemicising the ways and values of the bourgeoisie, the scapigliati led bohème lives and sought to explore in their writings and artwork an alternative reality. Tarchetti, together with Cletto Arrighi, Arturo Graf, Giuseppe Rovani and Emilio Praga, among others, became influenced by the German Romantics, by the French symbolists, and by foreign gothic fiction. In this sense they proposed a fresh outlook to the domestic literature and culture. Their work, and in particular Tarchetti’s novels and poems, are concerned with death, illness (physical and psychological), deformities, pathologies, and the bizarre. The aspect of the ‘fantastic’ in Tarchetti’s works, as well his relationship through translation to the foreign gothic, have been extensively discussed by Lawrence Venuti, who sees Tarchetti’s own translation and adaptation practice as foregnising and dissident (2008, pp.125ff).

IMG_3123The next poem by Tarchetti which has been translated for this blog is number VII, also taken from his Disjecta collection.  The poem, picturing the poet and a female companion sitting on the bank of a river, ‘alone’ physically and mentally, contemplating  fate and death, is full of ambiguity and despair, as they seem to be attracted at once to the flowing, free waters of the river, and yet grieving for what lies beyond.

The translation is in the form of a filmic poem. In a previous post ‘Notes on the art of text making‘ I have discussed how filmic or cinematic poetry  (or indeed poetry-film) experiments with different media to express different textual layers and narratives. Filmic poetry – both as a literary genre and an art-form – has been pioneered by the modern American and European avant-garde, who sought to create a new genre, where the verbal and the visual text together would produce meaning in a poetic form, in the sense of creating metaphors, associations, new connotations (see Wees 1984).

The use of the moving image is also apt in the translation of avant-garde texts (and in the avant-garde mode of translation of texts) as movements such as Surrealism were experimenting with the then new and exciting medium of film making, playing with, and subverting it.

You can read more about the translation of Disjecta VII, and view the translation, in our page Translations and other writings.


Venuti, Lawrence (2008) The Translator’s Invisibility, A History of Translation. Routledge

Wees, William (1984) “The Poetry Film” in Wees, William & Dorland, Michael (eds) Words and Moving Images, Mediatexte Publications.

Translating the Italian ‘Scapigliatura’ and Iginio Ugo Tarchetti


After a long break we are back to offer you some translations on the theme of surrealism and avant-garde.

The Italian writer we are working on at the moment is Iginio Ugo Tarchetti. He was born in San Salvatore Monferrato, in Piemonte, in 1839 and later lived in Milan where he joined the ‘Scapigliatura’, an artistic movement equivalent to the French bohème. Literally, ‘scapigliati’ means ‘dishevelled’, ‘unkempt’, and its members shared a spirit of rebellion against traditional values and the artistic and literary canon of the time. Tarchetti published short stories, novels and poems. He was called the Italian Edgard Allan Poe as the atmosphere of his Fantastic Tales echoes the gothic obsession with the morbid.

Tarchetti was born too early (and indeed died too early at the age of 29) to be part of any twentieth-century avant-garde movement. However, his rebellious spirit and his sense of the ‘fantastic’ flows into a series of images which are originally surreal and therefore his writing well lends itself to experimental translation.

We have decided to translate a couple of his poems from a collection called ‘Disjecta’. The first poem we present is number VIII. To read and view the translations go to Translation and Other Writings.

As always we look forward to having your comments.

Guest Post: Translation and Avant-garde: Beyond National Literatures

By Clive Scott

For me, the notion of avant-garde in relation to literary translation means three things. First, it means that a translation must always be ahead of its original, not merely in the sense of updating it, but in the sense of projecting it deep into possible futures, imagining its formal and expressive potentialities. Second, in order to make that projection, translation must draw on all those graphic, typographic, dispositional, multi-medial innovations that avant-gardes have made available as expressive resources over the last century and more, and which ‘standard’ literature tends to eschew. Third, and consequently, translation must seek to be avant-garde in relation to national literatures. In other words, translation must not be afraid to create a literature of its own, a literature which challenges national literatures to look outwards, beyond their own linguistic frontiers, and to adopt those universal languages already referred to, I mean the languages of image, of lay-out, of typeface and font, of graphism, of acoustics. By way of indicating what I mean, I attach two translations, one a modern musical account of Goethe’s ‘Über allen Gipfeln’ (written 1780) (Fig. 1) and the other a photo-poem, that is, a photographic transcription of lines 71-76 of Apollinaire’s ‘Zone’ (1913) [Now you’re walking in Paris among the milling crowds/Herds of lowing omnibus drive by close to you/Love’s pains contract around your throat/As if you were bound never to be loved again/If these were days gone by you’d join the brotherhood of monks/Shame takes a grip when you catch yourself in prayer] (Fig. 2). This photo-poem is designed not only to suggest the content of the lines, but also their original French rhythms.

(To view the translations click here)

© (Clive Scott) 2014

Guest post: Russian Futurist Velimir Khlebnikov – the First Chairmain of the World – and a translation challenge for you!

Are futurist poets notoriously untranslatable?

Russian translator Veronika Bowker has shared with us the translations of two poems by futurist poet Velimir Khlebnikov, which you can read in the Translations & other writing page.

This is the way she introduces Khlebnikov:

“In their early pamphlet ‘Slap in the Face of Public Opinion’ Russian futurists called themselves chairmen of the world. They unanimously considered Viktor Vladimirovich Khlebnikov (1885-1922) to be the first among them. This was a person who not only created art of and for the future but lived the life of a futurist. Khlebnikov came to literature through natural sciences and painting. Throughout his short life he was formulating universal laws of history which would demonstrate the futility of all wars. Osip Mandelstam called him a ‘citizen of all history’ (‘гражданин всей истории’).  He was also creating a language which would transcend surface meanings and enable all people on the planet to understand each other. He called it ‘заумь’ [zaum’ – za/beyond + um/ intelligence] – a supraconscious language.

In view of the above Khlebnikov is notoriously difficult to translate and often is considered untranslatable. Encyclopedia of Literary Translation into English (2000) edited by Olive Classe doesn’t even mention his name (though it doesn’t mention Mayakovsky either). Probably the best Khlebnikov in English can be found in R. Chandler’s translation in his forthcoming Anthology of Russian Poetry for Penguin.

Comparison with more well known futurist Vladimir Mayakovsky may give the translator an idea of the formal features of Khlebnikov’s writing. Initially Khlebnikov learnt a lot from Mayakovsky’s verse form, later Mayakovsky was influenced by the way Khlebnikov appropriated it. His language of ‘zaum’ developed into a complex and diverse phenomemnon rooted, on the one hand, in linguistic and literary sense (combination of folklore and neologisms), and in historical and ideological perception of the world (reconstructing future), on the other. Whilst Mayakovsky dealing with epic themes remains a deeply lyrical poet, Khlebnikov is epic even in a very short poem. Zaum is always a constituent part of any of his texts, it defines the context of a poem and places it in the universal context of  the whole human reading experience.”

Veronika Bowker


A translation challenge for you, our reader!

Back to our initial question ‘are futurist poets notoriously untranslatable?’ We invite you to take up the challenge to translate the following poem by Khlebnikov. You don’t need to know Russian to do it. Veronika Bowker has provided a word-for-word translation and a transliteration. We encourage you to be as creative as possible and defy the untranslatability belief. Finally, we would be delighted to receive your translations and post them on our blog. Please email your translation(s) as attachments to 


Khlebnikov, 1913

О достоевскиймо бегущей тучи!

О пушкиноты млеющего полдня!

Ночь смотрится, как Тютчев,

Замерное безмерным полня.


Word-for-word translation

Oh, dostoyevskijmo (Dostoyevsky + pismo/writing) of running cloud!

Oh, pushkinoty (Pushkin + krasoty/beauty) of melting midday!

Night looks (at itself) like Tyutchev*,

Filling immeasurable (beyond measure) with immense (unmeasured).

© (Veronika Bowker) 2014

Transliteration  (stressed vowels are unerlined)

O dostoyevskijmo begushej tuchi!

O pushkinoty mleyushevo poldnya!

Noch smotritsa kak Tyutchiv*,

Zamernoje bezmernym polnya.


*(Fyodor Tyutchev (Федор Тютчев) (1803-1873) – Russian poet, worked as a diplomat in Germany and Italy.

Veronika Bowker says more about this poem:

“The first two lines demonstrate Khlebnikov’s typical method of creating neologisms which he explained through the method of pointilist painting when ‘two pure colours applied next to each other from the distance create a shimmering sense of a third one’.

This is a portrait of Russian literature represented by the names of its most important figures against the landscape of a fleeting change of early morning, midday and twilight/ night in the space of one day. Literary figures and parts of the day give meanig and light to each other: Dostoevsky with his ‘White Nights’, Pushkin – ‘the Sun of Russian poetry’, Tyutchev and his theme of twilight of life…

The last line places this portrait/landscape within the context of immense art enriching  the eternal universe.

This an early poem.  Russian futurism strongly denied symbolism but at its early stage in many aspects continued its legacy. Tyutchev and Verlaine were two sacred names for Russian symbolists.

It is intersting to see the parallels between Khlebnikov’s poem and an extract from Verlaine’s ‘Art poétique’:

C’est des beaux yeux derrière des voiles,
C’est le grand jour tremblant de midi,
C’est par un ciel d’automne attiédi,
Le bleu fouillis des claires étoiles!

My English version above is just an explication of the inner workings of the original. I would be interested and grateful if anybody would like to take it as a challenge and offer their own reading and possible version/s in English”.