Our heroes are small men, pasty-faced and fat.
--from David Harsent, "1972," in In Secret: Versions of Yannis Ritsos
Nikolaos Mihaloliakos, leader of the Greek fascist party "Golden Dawn"
Harsent's book is well-timed.
In the brief period between my move to Maine and the start of my current main job, one of the wilder projects I conceived to fill my time (but perhaps not my wallet) was to improve my Greek and start translating some of the many unknown or underappreciated poets of modern Greece. I contrived to arrange with my father and my cousin for the purchase of volumes hard or impossible to find on this side of the Atlantic, thereby putting a few extra Euros in my cousin's pocket while saving me a few of my scarce dollars. By the time I was offered the job and had to set certain projects aside, I had compiled a long list of poets, and was ready to ask for their assistance. Ritsos was at the very top.
The subtitle "Versions of..." absolves Harsent of the burden of fidelity to the original text, and thus frees him to versify in Ritsos' spirit, without tripping over his words and cadences. Unfortunately for me, it also absolves the publisher of the added cost of typesetting the Greek in a bilingual edition, my preferred way of reading poetry in translation. Yet I think that will serve as a better introduction to Ritsos for most readers. Consider the poem from which the line above is taken. For anyone with personal ties to Greece, it carries a whiff of history on a grand scale. One feels the urge to encase it in a ponderous apparatus of footnotes, lest any reader fail to understand. And thus one would guarantee that no reader will understand.
A single line of Ritsos can blow up social relationships better than any Molotov hurled against a Starbucks window. My hope is that Harsent's poetic renderings will clear the path for more comprehensive and scholarly translation efforts. (Efforts that it is unlikely I would participate in: Work, fiction and now juvenile non-fiction have pushed translation far down on the queue, and of the demotic tongues of my ancestors, Yiddish exerts the stronger pull right now.) Read it now, and see which lines explode for you.