Alicia, thank you for taking the time to speak to us about your translation of Hesiod’s Works and Days, which has been shortlisted for this year’s Runciman Award. You seem particularly inspired to follow in the footsteps of the ancient Greek poets. Can you explain why you are drawn to them?
I’ve lived in Greece since 1999, and before that I studied Classics at University. So I suppose the interest has been there for a long time. Living in Greece has perhaps given me other kinds of insights: having a feel for the landscape, for instance. Living in Modern Greek much of the time, even as an atmosphere, has also made the ancient language much more intelligible to me, since there is a huge amount of shared vocabulary. Words I might have looked up in a dictionary as a student (even if I understood them grammatically), are words I rub shoulders with every day on the street. While the Athens of Pericles seems very distant to me, very foreign and long ago, Hesiod’s Greek countryside, the seasonal work, the community celebrations, the beauties of cranes migrating and golden thistles blooming, the specter of hunger and famine, is within living memory; some of it is now.
Unlike many modern-day poets writing in English, you write in formal styles, using rhyme and a variety of metres. Is this one way in which you feel closer to the ancient Greeks for whom metre (but not rhyme) was of the essence?
I think it is really important, particularly with “didactic epic” (as I would call didactic poems in epic meter) that the reader understand that the work is a poem; that’s a little strange to us, since we expect arguments and information to be in the form of prose. W&D should not be understood as a farming guide (it isn’t even composed in the Boeotian dialect, so of little use to local farmers in Hesiod’s time), but as a creative feat. Hesiod makes it clear early on that poets are in it for the competition, the good strife, to show off, as it were. I do think that the best way of conveying that a poem is a poem is meter and, even better, rhyme. Let’s face it, nothing says “poetry” in English like rhyme. The Greek original doesn’t rhyme, of course, except maybe accidentally a little at the beginning. But rhyme had other advantages to me. It helped me hone lines, especially ones that needed the zing of a proverb (as our “early to bed and early to rise/ makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise”). But I began to notice too that the load-bearing rhymes started to telescope the theme of the poem: work/shirk; toil/soil; neighbour/labour, and so on. I hope the meter and rhyme make the poem not only more readable and fun to read, but performable.
Some would perhaps see the formal style as rather limiting; do you sometimes chafe against its constraints, or, like a poet writing haiku, do you find that overcoming the constraints of form and medium is what allows you to produce something fresh and interesting?
Rhyming a translation is a bit different to rhyming your own poems. You are a bit more limited in what you are trying to say, and what words you want to land on. In my own work, I find constraints (rhyme, meter, stanzas, etc.) freeing, they free me from what I want to say, and help me to listen to something beyond myself. Translation is a bit of a different matter, although it is already a matter of listening beyond yourself — you are trying to understand another person, another language, another world. What I found, particularly with rhyme, was that it was clarifying. I had to really think a lot about the Greek to hear where the rhymes might be or go, I had to really understand not only what was being said, but what was meant to be conveyed. I do love the idea that rhyme does sound fresh and interesting now, especially in classical translation where we are used to a loose five-beat line, say, that often doesn’t really sound much different from prose.
Was the translation of Works and Days a very time-consuming process? Do you enjoy mulling over your choices and polishing the verse, or do the words come to you quite spontaneously?
It was much more time-consuming than it ought to have been. A few things slowed me down. For one, I was translating in Greece during a time of unrest concerning austerity measures and their crushing effects on people. A lot was going on, here in Athens—protests, strikes, riots; then elections, a referendum, Grexit in the air, capital controls. Then a startling influx of refugees which made Piraeus suddenly look like 1923 again. I was doing a fair amount of literary journalism at this time, and was often a witness to events. Another factor that slowed progress was a late decision by the publisher that I would do the scholarly introduction as well as the translator’s introduction, and that sent me deep into the library. I had been alone with Hesiod so long I had developed some unorthodox ideas about him, and I needed to go back and read the scholarship.
With metered/rhymed translations, a very good day (an amazing day) would be 20 or even 30 lines. A bad day is the same couplet over and over and over again, and still not getting it right.
What made you choose Hesiod? Were you attracted to the linguistic challenge, the humour, or the timelessness of some of the advice in ‘Works and Days’ – leading to a translation that was described by the TLS as ‘unsettlingly relevant’?
Maybe Hesiod chose me. There has to be some chemistry between translator and translated. I had turned down some other commissions (for a lyric poet, for instance). I think for one thing I have an interest in didactic epic (as Lucretius). And then I suppose I was surprised at Hesiod. He wasn’t what I thought he was. The Works and Days is a strange, uneven, charming, discursive, unique poem, with a huge influence. I started to see how critical Hesiod was to other authors. He is everywhere in Plato, for instance.
Your book about Hesiod is much more than a translation of the Works & Days. In your long introductory essay you look at Hesiod, his life, his background, from all angles – lovingly, or so it feels. Does that tell us that you feel a close bond with ‘Hesiod’, whoever he was, working in that remote period?
Perhaps having spent so long with the poem, and thus with Hesiod, I did come to feel a personal bond. He had a personality, a voice even, it seemed to me. (I realize not everyone feels that way at all about him; some have doubts he was even a real person.) His self-professed biography seems strangely contemporary: a Greek from Asia Minor whose family has come down in the world, an economic migrant settled in some hardscrabble village neither snug in winter, nice in summer, nor ever pleasant. And who is not in a lawsuit with a brother over an inheritance? And what could be more poet-y of him than to boast about winning a major prize?
Another venture of yours into translating ancient literature was with Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura – also a didactic work, somewhere between philosophy and science. Do these didactic poems have a special attraction for you?
Yes I think they do. It is a genre contemporary poetry is no longer interested in, but I think it is one that is relevant. De Rerum Natura is something of a self-help book, but one which also unveils the wonders of the universe, the wonders of this world as it is. I like the ethical nature of these works—they are partly about how to live in right relation to the world, to each other. And they are marvelous poetry.
What might we expect you to turn your attention to next, in ancient literature? Virgil’s Georgics? Aristophanes’ The Birds?
I’ve been wanting to try my hand at drama. In the meantime, I have a new book forthcoming—a translation—with illustrations—of the pseudo-Homeric epic “Battle of the Frogs and the Mice,” with Paul Dry books. It also has a learned introduction written by A. Nony Mouse.
Ancients apart, do you find inspiration, living as you do in Greece among Greeks, in any of the work by contemporary Greek poets? The collection published a few years ago in English under the title Austerity Measures showed that a large amount of poetry is being written in Greek today. Perhaps austerity is the condition that links our times with Hesiod’s?
Austerity does seem to be Hesiodic, that is, the quality of an Iron Age, harsh and unmerciful, and poetry seems to be a natural response to it. It was something of a shock to realize that the modern Greek for Austerity is Litotita, which is to say, Litotes. It has been interesting to me to see how contemporary Greek poets address (or do not) ancient Greek literature and history, and how they use that to bear upon the present. I think the struggles of the economic crisis and the refugee crisis have sent many poets back into the past to find strategies for confronting this historical moment. Lots of living Greek poets I admire, including Dimitra Kotoula, Panayotis Ioannidis, Katerina Iliopoulou, Katerina Anghelaki Rooke, Kiki Dimoula, Orfeas Apergis, Phoebe Giannisi, and many others.
There is consciousness of layers of history, of the diachronic, so that a poem about the present crisis, might also nod to the Civil War or World War II and then plunge back to classical Greece. There’s a poem by Stamatis Polenakis, “Small Poem in Memory of Suicide Victim Dimitris Christoulas, Retired Pharmacist.” This event, which happened in Syntagma in 2012 on a morning I was also nearby, was something of a lightning rod, as the pharmacist had committed suicide for economic reasons, and likened the Greek government in the suicide note to Greek collaborators during the Nazi Occupation. The poem shockingly ends, however, “And that’s how it ended the third year/ Of this terrible war recounted by Thucydides.” Chloe Kotsoumbeli writes poems about modern Greek life through a dark lens of mythology (Charon comes in a yellow taxi). And you go back to poems by Ritsos that are dated to show he was imprisoned on Leros, or Seferis poems where dates again pin them to a historical moment.
Although your style is regarded as formal, you have been described as writing poetry for the age of rap, i.e. ‘strikingly modern’. What value is there for the modern world in having an awareness of ancient Greece and its literature?
I do like thinking of Hesiod as something of a rapper. He seems to have chanted his work holding a stick rather than playing a lyre, and his work is kind of edgy (being against human authority), rhythmic, and competitive. Poets exist in competition with each other.
We are facing very difficult times, all of us on this earth, but it is useful to remember that the world has been going to hell in a hand-basket for a long time. For Hesiod, things had already gone from a Golden Age to an Iron Age. But as with many prophets (for Hesiod is a prophet as well as a proto-philosopher and proto-scientist and proto-economist), Hesiod’s warnings are about what could happen if people continue down a certain path. The world he warns against, where there is no law and society breaks down entirely, is not the inevitable world. And he also sings praises of nature and the timeliness of the seasons. Debt, justice, honest toil, right relationships with our neighbors, right relationship with natural world and its rhythms—these aren’t ancient concerns but timeless and highly topical ones.