Some English translations of Elytis have been extremely bad! I have also translated his poems (e.g. here) so I do know the problems involved. Here I will discuss some solutions, as well as their underlying Semantics.
In April 2006, Greek blogger «Tasos» published English translations of some poems by Elytis. Some of them seemed to be… quite bad. In fact, they were not his own (as he admitted); they were -alas- «official translations» from a book (by the «National Broadcasting Corporation of Greece«, EIPT).
Admittedly, Odysseus Elytis‘ poetry is one of the most difficult to translate in other languages. The reasons for this are similar to the reasons for which the Greek counterpart of «WordNet» (the well-known semantic dictionary database for the English language) has taken so long, and work for it hasn’t finished yet: The specifically Greek connections between Greek words and their meanings. Odysseas Elytis’ poetry is extremely rich in meaning. It is often based on very deep semantic connotations and subtle denotations, a lot of which don’t seem to exist in English (and quite possibly in other languages). Here is a small example of the immense translation problems involved:
- How does one translate the Greek adjective «νοητός» (pronounced «noeetOs»)?
The title of an important poem by Elytis, «Της δικαιοσύνης ήλιε νοητέ», has been translated (badly) «Intelligible Sun of Justice», in the «official» translation re-published by Tasos (in his blog, here).
Well, from my point of view (being almost bilingual in Greek and English), such a translation is disastrously wrong. However, it was taken to be «the official translation», for a number of years. Translating «νοητός» as «intelligible» makes the meaning of the poem… unintelligible! 🙂 -Why is this so?
In English there is -admittedly- no exact translation of the Greek word «νοητός»! If you are not a Greek reader, here is what it means, by invoking Greek etymology and several words (rather than one):
The noun «Νους» in Greek means «Mind» (more-or-less precisely)
The adjective «Νοητός» (=Mind+»-τός») means «what appears to the mind», «what is (or can be) conceived (or visualised) by (or in) the mind».
«Being Νοητός» is quite distinct from «intelligibility» (which is comprehension or understanding)
Therefore, the correct English translation of «νοητός» cannot be «intelligible»!
Let’s try to investigate the semantics of relevant English words, through advanced linguistic tools, such as the on-line Visual Knowledge Base «Visuwords», http://www.visuwords.com:
Let’s examine the Semantic Space of the word «intelligible». Here is a screen-shot from «Visuwords»:
This picture confirms the objections raised earlier. The word «intelligible» can (just about) be associated with the process of grasping or apprehending some-thing (in the Mind). However, it does not have entail active «Creation of Meaning in the Mind» (as the action of applying the adjective «νοητός» entails). I.e. even the secondary meaning of «intelligible», which is «graspable» or «apprehensible» conveys a totally wrong idea, in the context of Elytis’ poetry (which is based on a process of Active Inner Visualisation).
- So, how do we translate «νοητός» in English?
Well, I would prefer to use several words, so that the poem’s title, «Νοητός Sun of Justice», becomes: «Inner Sun of Justice, conceived by the mind».
To the best of my knowledge, this (somewhat longish) English translation of the poem’s title, manages to preserve almost 100% of the title’s original meaning!
So, here is my own English translation of the poem’s first four lines (the Greek original follows):
Inner Sun of Justice, conceived by the mind
And you, οh myrtle, glory-bringing myrtle
I implore you; please do not
do not forget my country
Της δικαιοσύνης Ήλιε νοητέ
Και εσύ μυρσίνη, δοξαστική
Μη παρακαλώ σας, μη
Λησμονάτε τη χώρα μου
The improvement in translation is more-or-less obvious. The translation has also managed to sound pleasant; with some added tendency to rhyme (almost…)
You can now compare my translation with the «official translation» (mentioned by Tasos in his blog):
(BAD «official» translation)
INTELLIGIBLE sun of justice and you, glorifying myrtle do not,
I implore you do not forget my country !
(…to be continued…)
There is a lot more material about Odysseus Elytis, his poetry (both in Greek and in English) , his life and work, etc. collected together in my public bookmarks:
You can also listen to an AUDIO recording of my own English recitation (and translation) of a rather remarkable poem by Odysseas Elytis: «The Primal Paradise», HERE.
- This particular recitation became No. 6 in the international Top 10 Chart of Poetry Recitations (in the «SoundClick» site). Here is the translation itself:
You can also listen to my remixes / remakes of music by Theodorakis (and Odysseus Elytis’ lyrics), e.g.