Sunday, 16 February 2014

Nikos Kavvadias

Readership has been going down lately, but if people won't tell me what they want to see on the blog it's hard to know how to please them. However, one person (thank you Jane) did write in to say that yesterday's post - in which I talked of Melanie's 'Brand New Key' and Strauss's 'Der Rosenkavalier' - might as well have been in Greek. I thought therefore of writing today's post in Greek, but instead will do the next best thing - here is the text of a talk I gave at the University of East Anglia on translating the work of the Greek sailor/poet Nikos Kavvadias:
Nikos Kavvadias

I won’t talk for long because I’d like to leave plenty of time for questions — I’ll just read what I’ve got written down here and then I hope people will ask lots of questions, and if I can’t provide all the answers so much the better.

When Lela rang me up in Greece some months ago to say she'd like me to be here today and to talk about Nikos Kavvadias I think I suggested I might talk about the special difficulties of putting his work into English. Now that it comes to the point I feel tempted to say ‘Difficulties? What difficulties?’ and not just because then we can all get back to the bar where, as everybody knows, all serious conference talk takes place.

The fact is that of all the Greek writers I’ve read, I found Kavvadias the most immediately sympathetic and understandable; I dashed home to start translating him the very day I first picked up one of his three volumes of poetry — appropriately enough from a shelf in a radio station where I was working — and carried on doing so for a good year before it occurred to me, with the encouragement of Alan Ross of London Magazine, that there might be people in England who would be interested in his work and life. His interest led to an article about Kavvadias for a special Greek issue of London Magazine, and later to a selection of the poems, done into English, which he published under the title Wireless Operator. Now we're doing Bavrdia, the novel about shipboard life, which we're calling ‘First Dog’, for reasons I can explain if anyone wants to know.

Now certainly in translating Kavvadias I found there were lots of words  I didn’t understand, but any translator will tell you that the words are the easy bit. I made lists of the words I couldn’t find in even the most enormous dictionaries, and it was only when I showed these words to Greek friends and they asked me where I found them that it occurred to me I might be doing anything difficult. ‘In the poems of Nikos Kavvadias,’ I said; ‘I’m translating him.’ ‘FFFF!’ They said — that’s a special noise we usually associate in England with plumbers surveying one’s kitchen — ‘Difficult!’ ‘Oh? Why?’ ‘Well…the sea…and…and…’ And if I persisted there would come that pitying smile and the standard remark ‘You are not Greek; you cannot understand.’ The old Kai>movß thß Romaiosuvnhß argument, or rather non-argument, to which it's best to respond with no more than a grave nod and a look of deep sympathy — one must never forget that the Greeks have a monopoly on suffering. 

Anyway yes I jolly well can understand, and so, I think, could most English people. The earliest sea-going vessel in existence is one that was dug up recently from under a hotel in my home town of Dover, and I believe the inhabitants of the  British Isles have been going to sea for at least as long as the Greeks if not longer, though I admit the Greeks were probably already writing poetry about it when the Brits were still communicating in grunts and painting their faces blue.

I took to carrying around with me the list of words I didn’t know and couldn’t find in dictionaries. In Greece I’d ask taverna waiters — they all seem to have worked on the ships at one time or another, though sadly in these days of huge container ships with tiny crews and quick turn-arounds in port the merchant sailor, whether British or Greek, is a dying breed. The list also gave me an excuse to hang round some dubious bars and cafés in Piraeus and call it ‘research’. In England I'd  approach anyone I thought might be Greek — I remember embarrassing my English girlfriend in of all places a canal-side pub somewhere near Milton Keynes — about as far away from the sea as one can get in England — one summer  lunch-time by going up to a group of total strangers and whipping out my list just because I'd heard them talking Greek. As far as I remember they didn’t know a single word on the list, but they did know who Kavvadias was, and from my point of view I’d gained an introduction to the Greek community of Milton Keynes, albeit my friend’s point of view was that one just doesn't do that sort of thing. Incidentally that’s another thing about Kavvadias — it’s rare to find a Greek, even one who never reads poetry, who doesn’t know who he was.

Many of the words on my list turned out to be technical terms or sailor’s slang. People I would not have suspected of literary habits turned out to know Kavvadias’s poems and would advise me that as an Englishman I couldn’t possibly understand him — some of them would also tell me in confidential tones that Kavvadias was born in the area of Piraeus known as Kokkinia, that he was homosexual — poustis was the word they usually used —  and various other items of privileged and totally false information — Kavvadias is the sort of person around whom myths grow —  but at least they’d tell me the meanings of the words when they knew them, and the list got shorter.

Now nautical words are all right so long as they have only the one meaning — to take English examples, one is safe enough with, say, ‘Starboard’. It means the right-hand side when one’s on board facing the pointy end, and has no non-nautical meaning. But one could get into trouble and make hilarious mistakes with, say, ‘Stern’, which might be an adjective meaning strict or a noun meaning the blunt end of the ship. Or how about ‘Port’? It might mean harbour, or the other side of the ship, or fortified red wine. In a novel one might guess from the context, but not always in a poem. Fortunately in that particular case Greek sailors use the word Povrto, which also carries all three meanings, and I was able to rely on that in one poem, but one isn’t often that lucky. Greek is not as full of ambiguities as English — at least, not straightforward lexical ambiguities — but nautical language turned out to be an exception. Kavboß, for instance, can mean either promontory or hawser, and since both are likely in a nautical context one can’t always be sure which is intended — it occurs in one of the poems and I still don’t know if I made the right choice. In the first verse of another poem the bosun is said to have half a bottle of gin and two migavde". Now the usual meaning of migavde" is ‘mulattos’ or ‘half-breeds’, but there’s a slang meaning of small glasses for drinking spirits. That seemed more likely in this context, but then in the last verse the bosun, who has meanwhile fallen asleep, suddenly wakes up and curses both his gin bottle and one of the migavde", who — or which — has started to cry. Difficult.

Then there are the slang nautical terms. One might, especially if one had a special interest, know that the Greek word for a ship’s compass is Puxivda, but one has to talk to Greek sailors to find out that they almost never call it a Puxivda, they call it a Mpouvsoula", and that’s not even — strictly — a Greek word, though there one’s on difficult ground — I mean, is fastfountavdiko a Greek word? Worse still are words that almost everyone would say have one meaning and one only, but turn out to have another slang meaning used only by Greek sailors. Lamarivna, for instance, is a common enough word, and every Greek speaker knows it means a piece of sheet metal, but for Kavvadias and all other Greek sailors it can also mean the ship itself.

Furthermore, Kavvadias’s family came from Kephallonia, so that — especially in Bavrdia, his autobiographical novel, full of reminiscences of village life, there are many words known only in that island. For these I would have to hope to meet people from Kephallonia — and I did, including a very nice girl — but even then they often didn’t know the word in question because they were from the wrong village, where they called whatever it was something else. One word — bostilivdi — stayed on my list for two years and was the last to go: no-one, sailor, Kephallonian, Kephallonian sailor, whatever, knew it. Finally one day I was walking through the old city in Rhodes and I came across something called the Rhodes branch of the National Library of Greece. This was about the size of the tiny branch libraries we used to have in English villages before our new leaders sold them to fund their literacy campaign, but I asked to have a look around and found a dictionary that took up over a metre of shelf-space. Bostilivdi turned out — rather unexcitingly, and I’d never have guessed it from the context — to be a variety of grape-vine. I went back to the Translators’ house at the other end of town — incidentally I recommend it to anyone looking for somewhere nice to do their work; it’s in the old British Admiralty building so just right for working on the writings of a sailor — wrote it into my typescript and took the ferry home.

And that’s it really. And all I’ve talked about is a few trivial lexical problems. I’ve told you nothing about Kavvadias’s life and work: there’s really no need to — though of course I’ll be happy to answer any questions if I can —  because, as I said, Kavvadias is — at any rate for an English reader — the most straightforward Greek writer one could wish for. His poems, short stories, and one novel are all autobiographical and speak very clearly for themselves. And if you don’t read Greek, you can read my translations. They weren’t at all difficult to do, just enormous fun, and I met all sorts of people I might otherwise have missed.

Simon Darragh.



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