On Tuesday, May 12, the translator Karen Emmerich read from various Greek works that she has translated into English. She spoke before a packed crowd of about 60 in San Francisco’s Minna Gallery at 111 Minna St. and appeared the invitation of San Francisco’s Center for the Art of Translation.
Though Emmerich is a young translator, she has already worked on a number of impressive projects and won widespread recognition. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University, where she is at work on a number of translation projects from the Greek.
Emmerich, whose brother Michael translates from Japanese, started the event by reading from the text I’d Like, which was awarded the NEA’s International Literature Prize. I have seen I’d Like variously described as a novel in stories, a collection of linked stories, a fictional biography, or the shards of a novel yet to form itself. (In this it resembles another Greek book also translated by Emmerich.) It is a hard book to define, but whatever you call it Amanda Michalopoulou’s work, published in English translation in 2008 by the Dalkey Archive Press, was one of the more interesting books of that year and appeared on the longlist of the 2008 Best Translated Book Award (which I participated in as a judge).
Emmerich read from the book’s first story, simply titled “I’d Like.” The story begins with a married couple at a party, the husband of which is a Greek writer who sees another far more famous Greek writer and is encouraged by his wife to go up and speak to him, as it might help his career. Emmerich explained that the battle for status and the relationships between writers is an important aspect of the Greek scene, and that Michalopoulou is partially playing off this in her story.
Emmerich then went on to note that Michalopoulou only began to be interested in writing seriously in her 30s, although she has made up for lost time, already publishing 11 book-length works and at work on more. In a conversation prior to the event, Emmerich also noted that she has hopes to translate a book of Michalopoulou’s called Princess Lizard that is the story of a person’s spirit coming to inhabit her granddaughter’s body, although she has doubts as to whether she will find a publisher willing to take it on.
The second writer Emmerich presented was the poet Eleni Vakalo, whom Emmerich characterized as the only major woman author in the first postwar generation of Greek writers. She is also well-known in Greece as an art critic.
Emmerich read from a book of Vakalo’s that is one of a collection of nine books called The Other Side of Things, written between 1954 and 1994. Emmerich described this work as as one continuous poem with titles interspersed and called these 9 books, which she is currently translating, a 15-year project.
One hopes to read Emmerich’s translation, as Vakalo is very difficult to find in English translation, her work either out of print or scattered across omnibus collections like A Book of Women Poets from Antiquity to Now After. After she finished reading from Vakalo’s poetry, Emmerich perhaps referenced this fact when she sighed and remarked: “She’s really good, and I hope she gets to exist at some point in English.”
The third of the four authors presented Tuesday afternoon was Ersi Sotiropoulos, an avant-garde Greek writer born in 1953. Emmerich first discussed the odd case of her book Zigzag Through the Bitter-Orange Trees, which was censored as pornographic and removed from school libraries in Greece. Emmerich considered this to be a sexist gesture, as she noted that one of the most celebrated works in the Greek postwar period, Megas Anatolikos (Great Eastern by Andreas Embirikos), is a completely filthy work that consists of the transatlantic journey of what Embirikos calls a “hedonistic vessel.”
But to return to Sotiropoulos, Emmerich read from a soon-to-be-published-in-English story of hers provisionally titled “Freehand.” (Emmerich reached out to the audience for suggestions, noting that the author wanted the word sketch to appear somewhere in the title.) The story will eventually be part of the collection Landscape with Dog and Other Stories, forthcoming from the new publisher of literature in translation Clockroot Books. (Another of Sotiropoulos’s stories will be available in English in the forthcoming issue of the journal Two Lines, an annual of literature in translation published by the same people who brought Emmerich to San Francisco.)
The final author that Emmerich read from was the Greek poet Miltos Sachtouris, whose collection Poems (published by Archipelago Books) was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award in 2007. (Of Emmerich’s translation, Harold Bloom remarked, “Karen Emmerich’s poignant, eloquant versions of Sachtouris reveal not only the disturbing intensity of the original but also a remarkabel diction and poetic pacing of her own.”)
Before reading, Emmerich related the interesting biographical note that whereas many other Greek writers of his generation held day jobs, Sachtouris, though a frequent gambler, was not regularly employed. Emmerich told the audience that while dying of tuberculosis as a combatant during World War II Sachtouris decided that if he lived he would dedicate his life to poetry. He did, so he did.
During the reading from Sachtouris’s book Poems Emmerich demonstrated her great love of the writer’s poetry and her felicity with the Greek language when read her favorite of Sachtouris’s poems. Upon reaching the poem, she “back-translated” the English into Greek from memory and “read” it to the audience (following it up with a reading of the English translation). Emmerich also explained that Sachtouris is notable for writing very brief poems and using a radically condensed vocabulary. Of his poetry, Emmerich commented: “he kept on living the war until 2005 [the year of his death] in his poetry.” Emmerich also noted that in Sachtouris’s entire oeuvre, only twice does he reference Ancient Greece.
The reading of Sachtouris closed an event which had certainly presented a number of fine avenues of entry into contemporary Greek literature. Allow me to present one more: The Scattered Papers of Penelope by Katerina Anghelaki-Rhook, recently published in English translation by Graywolf Press and recommended by George Fragopoulos, whose interview with Emmerich and Amanda Michalopoulou will appear shortly in Issue 16 of The Quarterly Conversation.
Read More on this Subject:
More from The Quarterly Conversation:
- The Michael Emmerich Interview Elizabeth Wadell talks to the English-language translator of Banana Yoshimoto and Yasunari Kawabata....
- Reaching One’s Promise: What Writers Need to Do to Last Ten Years In 1938, Cyril Connolly wrote a book about what writers needed to do to see their work last for 10 years. Jeremy Hatch determines if his predictions were accurate, and how contemporary writers might see their work continue to be read....
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by TQC Reporting