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Responses to American Poetry

The aim of this online space is to host the research work of university students or young scholars as this emerges from larger projects focusing on the American poetry scene. The objective of this initiative is to bring this kind of research activity to the attention of the general public in an attempt to further promote the exchange of ideas with regard to the process of reading, understanding and appreciating poetry writing.


Tatiani Rapatzikou 
(Associate Professor, School of English, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece; Advisor and initiative co-ordinator


From Poetry to Poiesis: Celebrating Poetry in Translation

Vasiliki Misiou


A Creative Contemporary American Poetry Translation Project into Greek

It is believed that poetry translation is the most demanding, yet perhaps more rewarding, type of literary translation. The core elements of poetry –rhythm, meter, structure, syntax, diction, form, sound, tone, voice, imagery, to name but a few– are very difficult to transfer, let alone reproduce in another language addressing a different audience of another culture. Pursuant to Roman Jakobson, it is due to the complexities inherent in the process of translation that many “proclai[m] the dogma of untranslatability” (qtd. in Venuti 115). What they actually mean, though, is that “it’s impossible to translate poetry perfectly” (Cavanagh 234). Certainly, one cannot deny that translators are always asked to deal with difficulties, often insurmountable, while translating a text. Yet one needs not to forget that loss and gain are intertwined in translation. Of course, it is not our intention here to discuss the problems that arise, but rather to celebrate the power that lies within translation and allows us to enjoy poems written in a language that is not our mother tongue. As Iossif Ventura has claimed, “[t]he poem talks like a teardrop. […] Poetry helps us talk about the world as deeply as possible” (qtd. in Goldwyn, “An Exile from the Sea with the Desert in His Mouth: A Conversation with Iossif Ventura”). It would be truly sad if we could not enjoy the work of great poets whose language we do not understand, but whose views and perspectives are worthwhile to consider and illuminating one way or another.

Conceiving the Idea for the Project

The idea for this project was born during one of the Literary Translation (TIS 311) classes taught at the School of English, AUTh (winter semester 2018-2019). While discussing with students the translation of one of the songs included in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1995), I found out that they loved poetry. When they started to translate poetry, as part of their weekly assignments, they paid attention to rhyme and metre, tone and musicality, language, the grammatical and syntactic structure, and to all possible devices and nuances employed by poets that make their work so challenging and unique. Hence, it sounded great the idea of engaging them in a project to celebrate the World Poetry Day on March 21st, 2019.

First, they were asked whether they had any favorite poets and if they preferred a particular kind of poetry. The majority of students expressed their love for modern and postmodern American poetry. They had already attended and completed successfully American Literature and Culture courses at the School of English, and they were familiar with poets, genres, movements, schools, and other Considering that contemporary American poetry is characterized by “experimentalism, innovation and also its redefinition through new cultural and social patterns” (Rapatzikou 12), it is not surprising that students were touched by poets of this period. Confessional, New York School, Beat, Black Mountain, and Black Arts poetry inspired this project’s participants. Students embraced the novel approaches to poetry, as well as the new forms, modes of expression, and meanings. The plurality of voices and diversity of experiences shared invited students to explore new poetic worlds and territories, while engaging at the same time in a process of interpretation of the works and creative dialogue with the poets they have chosen to translate into Greek.

Through this project students ultimately wish to show that we do not just gain pleasure when reading poetry, but also knowledge, wisdom, and awareness – we are mentally and emotionally stimulated, we experience moments of solace, triumph, self-recognition. When reading poetry that is deeply characterized by novelty, diversification, originality and open-endedness, we are urged to accept its transformative ability, and we are encouraged to try to escape our social conditioning, the prescribed way of thinking and acting. Through the students’ work we are invited to appreciate (or perhaps re-appreciate) poetry writing, the beauty of translation and the power of language. We are also challenged to share questions, ideas and feelings.

Setting the Stage

Given that the project was optional, students were invited to express their interest in participating in it and decide on which contemporary American poet and poem to translate into Greek. There was no intention on my part to intervene in the choices made. However, students were advised to translate the work of a poet that they truly liked and meant something to them. Many poets and/or translators believe it is vital that there be an affinity between the creator of the source-text (ST) and the creator of the target-text (TT) – that is, though it may seem inapprehensible or it may not be considered a prerequisite, the significance of poetical affiliation between a poet and a translator has always been stressed one way or another by both poets and translators (Misiou, 2013). The “elective affinities” have always been presented as leading to a more successful outcome. Early in the eighteenth-century, Dillon Wentworth (Earl of Roscommon) had pinpointed that translators need to be related to the poet and work they translate (8). Charles Baudelaire had stunningly said that he decided to translate Poe because, when he first read him, he found “poems and tales which [he himself] had vaguely thought of writing, and which Poe had been able to work out to perfection” (qtd. in Eoyang 122). And  years later he repeated himself arguing that “[t]he first time [he] opened one of Poe’s books, [he] saw, with terror and delight, not only subjects [he] had dreamed of, but sentences [he] had conceived, which were written by him twenty years before” (122).

When students made their choice, we discussed it and they immediately started to work. By this time, they had already attended poetry translation classes and had practised translating poetry. Also, they had engaged in discussions held in the classroom regarding poetry translation and the main issues and concepts in translation theory and practice (Bassnett, 1988; Bassnett and Lefevere, 1992 and 1998; Boase-Beier, 2013; Connolly, 1997; Gentzler, 1993; Hermans, 1985; Holmes, 1972/1988; Jakobson, 1959; Lefevere, 1992; Munday 2000; Newmark 1982, 1988; Nida, 1969; Nord, 1997; Pym, 2010; Robinson, 1997; Weissbort & Eysteinsson, 2006; Venuti 1995, 1998, 2000). It was now time for them to apply the knowledge acquired to a real context and an actual project. We met frequently during the translation process, but I did not read their work and/or part of it before the first draft was complete. This does not mean that they were not offered guidance or advice when needed. But the ultimate goal was for students to deal with dilemmas and problems that all translators encounter in their everyday professional life and try to find a solution on their own based on the skills acquired in their undergraduate courses – a solution that would satisfy them and would feel right for both the poet and poem to be translated.

Once the first draft was written, I examined the student translation(s), gave them feedback, and we arranged meetings to discuss their work further, while they were doing a very meticulous second draft. The suggestions made were meant to help them clarify and deepen their thinking about parts that proved truly challenging and difficult to transfer into the target language (TL), to help them apply different strategies for solving problems as well as consider various perspectives. It was important that they understood that “a literary text is made up of a complex set of systems existing in a dialectical relationship with other sets outside its boundaries” (Bassnett 83). Hence, they should not focus only on one or some aspects of the ST at the expense of others. It is great that all students participating in this project are aware of the intricacies of literary translation and have practically seen that poetry translation requires not only a great command of the two languages and in-depth knowledge of the two cultures, but also a close acquaintance with the poet to be translated and a high, if not the highest, level of sensitivity, understanding and accuracy.

Poets and Poems in Translation: Students as Creative Translators

The ultimate goal was for students to engage in a process which would nourish their skills and enhance their creativity. As stressed by Octavio Paz, “[n]o text can be completely original, because language itself, in its very essence, is already a translation – first from the nonverbal world, and then, because each sign and each phrase is a translation of another sign, another phrase. […] Up to a point, each translation is a creation and thus constitutes a unique text” (qtd. in Biguenet and Schulte 154). The translation strategies adopted by the students are, to a great extent, the same, but they have used language differently and have focused on different aspects. After all, the process of decoding that follows reading leads to a different outcome every time, let alone when the work to be translated is different. What is more, a translator does not only translate a text but interprets it as well. An interlingual translation will always “reflect the translator’s own creative interpretation of the SL text. [But] the degree to which the translator reproduces the form, metre, rhythm, tone, register, etc. of the SL text, will be as much determined by the TL system as by the SL system and will also depend on the function of the translation” (Bassnett 86). And, as we will see, students translated the poems keeping in mind all parameters.

It is true that translators invariably make a number of choices, whether they do it consciously or not. According to David Connolly, “over and above any particular approach or methodology, is the need for constant reworking and reassessment of the translated text in an attempt to make it correspond to the original poetic text on all levels” (45). What is interesting and has been stressed by most students is the importance of producing a text that will respect the target language and culture and respectively its readers. They also tried to meet the expectations of the target readership, taking into consideration what Connolly calls the ‘poetic’ or normative level on which a poem functions. Connolly is right when he stresses that a translator of poetry is “asked to produce a text that has some intrinsic poetic quality defined in terms of the poetic norms of a particular time, place and tradition. This basically amounts to an acknowledgement of the expectations of the readership for poetry in a specific language or tradition” (48). Thus, translators need to focus on all levels –the semantic, stylistic, pragmatic, and ‘poetic’– with the ultimate goal being to produce a poem that will correspond to the original and will satisfy target readers. On the other hand, one cannot but agree with Tatiani Rapatzikou who underlines that “every poem is reborn every time it is read or translated, as it borrows something from the energy and the psyche of the person who brings it back to life through their own writing or their own breath” (60). Thus, the poems that follow gain new life through students’ interpretation and translation.

All students chose to translate poets to whom they felt close – or to be more accurate, poems that directly spoke to them. As Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke stresses, the real and unique energy of contemporary American poetry lies, one the one hand, in the “use of the past – distant or more recent one” and, on the other, in “poets’ own new and exciting elements” (12). As she claims, it is a “more personal, more confessional” poetry (12). And perhaps this is the reason why students identified with these poets and their work more deeply. Nicoletta Baka translated the poem “Why I Am Not a Painter” by Frank O’Hara, Aristeidis Kleiotis the poem “Daddy” by Sylvia Plath (as well as the song “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me – but i have it” by American singer/songwriter Lana Del Rey, having traced the influence of Plath on her thought and work), Virginia Leontaridou the poem “Lady Lazarus” by Sylvia Plath, Maria Ntokli the poem “Still I Rise” and Styliani Chomata “The Lesson”, both written by Maya Angelou, Paraskevi Christidou John Asbery’s “My Erotic Double,” and Sofia Koudouni the poem “Belly Dancer” by Diane Wakoski. Two more students participated in the project translating Robert Creeley’s “America” and Kenneth Rexroth’s “A Dialogue of Watching” respectively, but for personal reasons they decided not to publish their work. The poems are presented chronologically; hence, one can witness the emergence of themes, the simultaneous presence of traditional and new forms, as well as the shifts in artistic expression. Through the translations produced by the aforementioned students one can follow the molding and evolution of contemporary American Poetry. I am not going, though, to discuss the strategies and methods adopted by students while translating into Greek the poems they chose or move on to an analysis of these, as students opted to provide us with this information.

Instead of an Epilogue

No matter how hard we try, the original will always be there to remind us that translation is “second writing” (as Odysseus Elytis saw it) or “retoned music” (in the words of Kostis Palamas). However, as Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke argues, “the words and expressions chosen by translators can preserve the communicative power and intense silences of a poem when it is transferred in a new, different language. It is crucial that the meanings and emotions be conveyed unhampered” (qtd. in Rapatzikou 14). This is actually what most, if not all, students attempted to achieve. I totally agree with Vasilis Papageorgiou when he claims that “translation, like art, offers new arrangements, new harmonies, pleasures and experiences of different kinds, while at the same time it offers its cosmos to the cosmos of new originals. Maybe then love is the muse of the translation, love that sets text and reader free” (79). And the students participating in this project definitely love poetry, they love translation and they have felt free to render the poets and poems that were important to them into Greek and share their work with their readers.


Vasiliki Misiou

Nicoletta Baka (O'Hara)Aristeidis Kleiotis (Plath)Aristeidis Kleiotis (Del Rey)Virginia Leontaridou (Plath)Maria Ntokli (Angelou)Styliani Chomata (Angelou)Paraskevi Christidou (Ashbery)Sofia Koudouni (Wakoski)
Translator Statements: Nicoletta BakaAristeidis KleiotisVirginia LeontaridouMaria NtokliStyliani ChomataParaskevi ChristidouSofia Koudouni
Bios: Nicoletta Baka, Aristeidis KleiotisVirginia Leontaridou, Maria Ntokli, Styliani Chomata, Paraskevi Christidou, Sofia Koudouni,


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