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:

 

ΑΝΔΡΕΑΣ ΕΜΠΕΙΡΙΚΟΣ

ΑΙ ΛΕΞΕΙΣ

        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:

 

WORDS

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

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