Τρίτη 16 Αυγούστου 2022


Speech at book launch of Giorgos Christodoulides Selected Poems 1996-2021, Roes, Nicosia, 22.06.2022

  *Academic professor, poet, translator, critic, ethnographer, documentary film maker

I am honoured and delighted at the invitation to speak at the launch of this book of poems by Giorgos Christodoulides in the English translation of Despina Pirketti.  The book commemorates twenty-five years of Giorgos’ poetry (1996-2021) and my life has crossed with Despina and Giorgos for most of those years – the beginning of our friendship was when Despina was in my MA Seminar in Comparative Literature around the beginning of the 21st century.   The beginning of our di
alogue and friendship focused largely on questions and debates of what is World Literature? and What is Translation?  


At that time, Despina also shared with me one of Giorgos’ poetry book (I believe it was his second – then newly published).    It was the beginning of a long-lasting and strong literary kinship among the three of us and Despina as the translator of both our works, played a significant role in mediating this literary kinship.   A powerful role to play and only possible through the agency of someone who understands translation as a powerful literary mode or genre in its own right. 


I would like to suggest that the ‘world’ in ‘world literature’ cannot be taken as given, since it is the performative outcome of our own interventions that makes a world.  Whether as writers or translators we perform language in a way that enables our claims on our embodied memory through the multiple mediations of the imagination. Translation is one such performative intervention whose impact and outcome might inject literature with a new energy.  Despina – as a writer for theatre and television – is very much aware that translation is like taking a script from one place and space, and making it perform in another.   


It is noteworthy that in Middle English the word ‘autor’ and ‘actor’ were often confused.  She knows only too well that she needs to put aside the tired concepts of fidelity and equivalence, and give her attention to kinship –like Walter Benjamin asserts in The Task of the Translator – translatability is in kinship not in mimesis – a kinship that catches fire on the ‘magical moments’, fan the sparks and gives new life.  Translation has to allow unpredictable movements and affective allegiances that can open up new spaces through translation.  

As Despina says in her introduction:  ‘translation as bold intervention prompted by informed reading is a dynamic process of endorsing the polyphony of the cosmos;’  this indeed is the only way to translate Christodoulides she says, because his poetry “nurtures decentralises notions and gestures;  he has affinities with disruptive irreverent thinkers and is in awe of disjunctive episodes that only pretend to be whole.”  This is illustrated by the lines in the opening poem: 


In the moment

When the cup falls to the floor

And smashes into a hundred shards

You realize the value of wholeness



Despina rightly notes in her Ιntroduction that Giorgos expresses hesitations about the  possibility of poetic language to effect change. Yet we could also say that this impossibility is counterbalanced by the commitment to writing itself, which holds promise for fulfillment. Even though the promise may never be fulfilled, the promise gives new life in a quest for a language we want to inhabit. The poet is haunted and shell shocked with the fractured reality of history yet poetry serves as an affirmation and antidote to apathy through the experience of felt life and of love. The path of the poet is radical indeterminacy with a fractured consciousness whose perspective is vibrant yet uncertain.  Yet both the poet and the translator write on the edges of language in continuous experimentation.


In the cramped space of islands such as our own, lost in a labyrinth of of time/space compressions we bring dissimilarities next to each other, and modes of noncomprehension, a charged speechlessness with osmotic moments that re-imagine what has been denied or excluded.  As Despina says:  the Cypriot landscape is defined by what it lacks. And as an island we are surrounded by the permeability of the sea – where one may escape, crossing ‘the line of no return’ as in ‘Sea of Happiness’.  And: 


Drenched, you return,

Distant and uncanny,


The sea allows us to shift the boundaries by redistributing tensions and affective connections of language in personal and cultural memory, by exploring the edges of language in the cosmopolitan and the vernacular, the national and the mythical, attempting to be here, there, elsewhere at the same time, and taking real or imaginative lines of flight beyond.  

As Despina notes, wings take on significant metaphoric value in Giorgos’ work as ‘symbols of divine dexterity and refined humanity.’  In the poem the ‘Adventure of Poetry’ he says:


“Trainee butterflies/

elevate me up to the mountains of Troodos

in the curves of the blooming almond trees.

human twigs welcome me.  

They want to show me

that beauty is defeated

without love

And that’s why

the ending to a story like mine

might be ambiguous.  


Let me read Giorgos’ poem A magical moment.  His voice is subdued and minimalist yet looking for moments to burst out – the moment of poetry hovering and haunting – suspended.   



In thinking about writing and translation practice, I think of a tetra-lingual model for the spatiotemporal categories: vernacular (here), vehicular (everywhere), referential (over there), and mythical (beyond), and how the interaction of these work to imaginatively and creatively construct the languages we inhabit and our sense of being in the world both spatially and temporally. Kafka (in a letter to Max Brod of June 1921) speaks of his predicament of writing as a choice among the impossibilities of writing in Czech, or in Yiddish or in German, the impossibility of not writing, the impossibility of writing.  This suggests a condition of intimate estrangement in the language in which one writes, making other voices vibrate within through the neural correlates of consciousness and our affective relationship to different languages. Giorgos states:


A large part of me is made of others;

Their remnants fray

Rubbing off one me

like the dry scales of an African cobra. 


And in the Clang of Words (for his son Orestes) he says:


I give him words each morning,

Words of love,

To take with him

To have and to hold

When the clang of foreign words

Closes in on him,  


I would therefore place myself in the camp of poets like Josef Brodsky (among many others) who say that ‘poetry is found in translation’ rather than Frost’s statement that ‘poetry is what is lost in translation.’  Many writers of world literature are often in the vanguard in these debates, bringing new challenges to myths and stories of origin, and translation is often used (metaphorically or otherwise) as a foundational practice rather than a derivative practice.  Jorge Luis Borges irreverently and ironically states in one of his essays: “the original is unfaithful to the translation (1999, 106),”[1] (with reference to Henley’s English translation of Beckford’s “Vathek” written in French.)


Translation may give new life to the text as counterpoint by probing through the gaps of language and perceiving the difference.  In this way, translation refracts, disperses and bends sound, like a prism does with light. It creates a third space. Borges brings translation to the centre of literary practice in a number of essays by emphasizing that texts (translation or writing) are only versions or drafts that create transformations and a repertoire of possibilities, in other words literariness itself, and the idea that translations are inferior is our superstition (or founded in theology such as in the story of the Septuagint, and the translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew to Greek).


Writers and translators embody an impossible desire to find a pre- or post-Babelian condition, while in our worldly condition we live in a ‘Poétique de la relation’ as Edouard Glissant would have it.   Our experience has been shaped by personal and affective immersion in felt life, in the specificity of places where we have lived, and the claims that places have made on our embodied memory and the multiple mediations of the imagination across distance and dispersion, a movement and process that requires mediation. 


As writers we probe differences in the play of literary language, and this is repeated/doubled in translation while sharpening awareness of the literary and linguistic economies of exchange.   In this constant and unpredictable movement, translation like poetry opens up new spaces:


In Giorgos’ words:


I drill a hole into the lining of the day

And my years spill out

Like change of an unraveled pocket


I expand the soundscape of my space

By tossing furniture out the window

My house empties with pleasing echoes

[1]     “el original es infiel a la traduccion“ Borges, Obras Completas vol II, p. 109.