But Not Untangle: An Interview with Translator Karen Emmerich on Eleni Vakalo’s Before Lyricism – conducted by Zach Savich

Karen Emmerich is a translator of Greek poetry and prose, and an Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at Princeton University. Her book Literary Translation and the Making of Originals was recently released by Bloomsbury Academic; her translations include books by Christos Ikonomou, Amanda Michalopoulou, Yannis Ritsos, Miltos Sachtouris, Ersi Sotiropoulou and others. Associate editor Zach Savich interviewed Emmerich about Before Lyricism (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2017), her translation of six poetic sequences by Eleni Vakalo (1921-2001), a prominent Greek poet, art critic, and art historian. They discuss the translation of grammatically ambiguous syntax, Vakalo’s relationship to setting, sequence, and genre, and how poets and translators can use all of the tools of a language, “even the ones we thought we’d left behind, the rusty ones, the broken ones, the ones overgrown by moss or ivy.”

Zach Savich: In your article on visual syntax in the poetry of Eleni Vakalo, you note how critics and scholars have addresseed Vakalo’s “non-standard linguistic syntax.” Some have seen this as simply unconventional word order. You counter that Vakalo’s poetry has a “fundamental undecidability that prevents the reader from settling on any single, stable, imaginable version of events.” How does your translation try to honor this “fundamental undecidability?” What kinds of phrases or syntactical patterns—or less directly lexical elements—helped you render Vakalo’s relationship to what you translator’s note calls “the particular forms of grammatical ambiguity available in Greek?”

Karen Emmerich: What a question to open with! This feels to me like the most difficult of challenges for an English translator of a Greek text, so you’ve brought us right to the very thing that left me floundering and uncertain for the decade or so I worked on these translations. English is a language in which word order determines the relationship between subject, object, and verb: the cat sat on the hat, or the hat sat on the cat, and never the twain shall meet. The same isn’t true for Greek, which is an inflected language, meaning that case endings clarify whether a noun is a subject or an object. A poet writing in Greek can order the words in a sentence any number of ways and still keep the relationship between the constituent parts clearly recognizable, if she wishes. There are limits to this, of course: many neuter nouns look the same in the nominative and the genitive, and if you stretch your syntax too far, or separate articles from the nouns they “belong” to (which no one really does, except for Vakalo), you can make it impossible for the reader to know for sure who did what to whom. Vakalo takes this to an extreme, particularly by using participles—the one Greek verbal form whose subject can’t be identified even as a singular or a plural—and of course by not using much punctuation at all, which means that there aren’t even sentences per se, or phrases that are syntactically distinct from one another. It’s like enjambment all over the place, in five directions at once. What this means is that the poems, in Greek, aren’t paraphraseable: you can offer interpretations of what the subject and object of a particular verb are, but you can’t in fact rearrange the pieces into some right answer. That’s the whole infuriating beauty of these poems.

Or perhaps infuriating only for the translator—and certainly endlessly fascinating. As to how I dealt with this, I’d say I tried most of all to recognize that what Vakalo is doing in this regard simply isn’t something that English can do. The languages aren’t the same. In many places, given the tyranny of word order in English, there are clear subjects or objects for my verbs, in places where there aren’t for hers. What I tried to do instead was just let other forms of ambiguity exist, syntactical, grammatical, interpretive. I wanted the reader not to be able to see things only one way. I wanted there not to be a clear image, always, but rather a sense of something, like the terribly complex tangle of discomfort that makes up “Digression about the spider” in “Diary of Age.” As I say in my translator’s note, it has no main verbs, six participles (again, very uncommon in Greek), three nouns in the nominative, and several other nouns that could be either nominative or accusative—all in a single “sentence.” What on earth was I supposed to do with that? Well, I just had to let myself go, mess with all the pieces and make something I thought was equally disturbing, mixing issues of innocence and guilt in a similar way by effacing the boundary between actor, action, and effect:


Striking the spider
The spasm as it falls
And its legs contract and tangle
In three closed corners
The whole spider shrinking
Death when it suddenly comes
With a swift pain from the strike
And that power you have in your hands
The image of these moments gathers
As passing you saw it on the wall
Creeping with its eight legs
In an odd rhythmic arrangement
The rapid change
In the scene, starting with the strike,
Transforms the innocent into intent.


For any of the pages of poetry by Vakalo that I’ve translated, if you lined them up across a spread with the Greek, you’d see that the word order of the two differs greatly. My version of this poem has five participles, and I suppose if you read obsessively enough they too would evade the ascription of subjects: the subject of “starting” could be “change” or “scene”; the implied subject of “striking” in the first line, “you,” only enters the poem in line eight, so in the meantime the reader is suspended in the midst of an actorless action. I also piled up phrases with different subjects, so that we keep starting again and again from the beginning: “The spasm as it falls... The whole spider shrinking / Death when it suddenly comes.” I’m glad that this feels similarly unparaphraseable. It’s just a pile of restarts, and the connections between the phrases are unclear—is “gather” transitive or intransitive? Is “power” the object of “gathers,” or a subject linked to “pain” and “death”? Yet the cumulative impression is somehow still comprehensible. There’s a point, a thing to understand but not untangle.

I suppose my ultimate goal was to make a poetry that seems fairly normal until you start to look more closely, in which case the syntax starts to unravel the grammar. This feels to me like what Vakalo is doing, though with drastically different tools.

ZS: As someone who doesn’t read Greek, I found the cumulative effect of Vakalo’s poetry, in your translation, not just comprehensible but exacting, coherent—even though the language resists paraphrase. Maybe I have this impression, in part, because there seems to be a coherent development (or play) of themes and moods throughout Before Lyricism. A lot of things contribute to this: the theatrical shifts in setting and genre, the recurrence of terms (notably, for me, “shape” and “shade”), the graphic use of the page, and phrases that offer orientation. These include moments of meta-commentary (“‘Prologue on the centaur pediment’ / Would perhaps be a more suitable title”) and lines that resemble stage directions, along with statements that can seem gorgeously epiphanic: “At moments it seemed as if everything on land were a flower.” Others recall occluded or fragmentary proverbs: “He who measures in the alphabet of the floating cry the people’s passage into the desert.” The meaning of that is abstruse (is “cry” a verb? what’s going on with “in?”), but the proverbial statements often are. It might be hard to generalize, but in the Greek, are moments like these relatively straight-forward? Or does something else help guide a reader? Does Vakalo’s style affiliate her with Greek poets who explore related sorts of “infuriating beauty?”

KE: Oh, there’s so much here to respond to. I’ll start with the development of themes and moods. Yes, this happens—which is probably why, midway through the publication of these books, Vakalo decided that they were all part of something longer, larger, a series she titled Before Lyricism. And the poems often seem to be talking almost explicitly about the way they build on one another, which dovetails with Vakalo’s preoccupation with layers of culture, history, storytelling, and lived experience. I’m thinking again of “Diary of Age,” and specifically of her description of the polyp, an underwater, ever-expanding structure that grows by absorbing the remains of other creatures. The piece is also a commentary on poetry itself, which I tried to signal by choosing words like “our works” and “print” and most of all “genre,” when I could have gone with “genus” or “class” or “figure” instead. “Genre” isn’t wrong, it’s a perfectly accurate translation, but it’s also an interpretive choice to make that link to poetry explicit throughout.

“Diary of Age” is one of my favorite of Vakalo’s poems. It’s set—if that phrase even makes sense—on Delos, the mythical birthplace of Apollo and Artemis, a barren island that used to be a major cult center, was subsequently the site of the treasury of the Delian League, and later conquered by the Romans. Vakalo explores that history, the interpenetration of layers of human life, of cultural life, in this one physical space. And she does so in a way that also refers us to her own moment of writing: 1958 is a time when many barren islands in Greece—Makronisos, Ai Stratis, Yiaros—were still home to exiled leftists, sent to prison camps for being on the wrong side of the civil war. If we read the poem in a historically situated manner, the themes of guilt and responsibility raised by the passage about the killing of a spider I referred to above take on a very poignant significance. It’s not allegory, exactly, and yet any discussion of personal responsibility for violence and death in a Greek poem written in 1958 that treats human and cultural ruins on a desert island—well, there’s no way that’s not political, in a very radical and again non-paraphraseable way. These issues keep coming up throughout her work, with the body in pleasure and pain in “Description of the Body,” and again in “Meaning of the Blind,” which weaves in references to courts and human systems of justice. Oh, and the birds. There are birds everywhere. I think the word “bird” appears about fifty times throughout these poems, and they’re so often both soothing and frightening at once.

But I’m getting away from myself. You also asked about what’s happening in the Greek at these moments of what you describe as occluded proverbs. If I’m understanding correctly, you wonder if these passages are more straightforward in Greek than in English. I’d say they’re probably not. I mean, there’s not some proverb hiding behind the phrase that I’m only translating part of. For instance, the phrase “alphabet of the floating cry” (or scream or shriek, it’s a noun, not a verb, but I liked that every word I could think to use there was both at once) is incredibly abstruse in Greek. It’s one of those lines that I kept bringing to coffee dates with friends for years, always hoping someone would know what it was getting at, and no one ever did. The poem that was the greatest challenge for me in this particular regard was “Our Way of Being in Danger,” the last in the series. There Vakalo seems to be moving increasingly toward a kind of coded language, one that draws on religious imagery, Christian mythology, and so on. I often felt, with that poem, that I was simply out of my depth. I still love the poem, and it has some of my favorite—what, scenes? images?—and I translated it in a way that felt right to me. But I do hope that someone else with a far greater sensitivity to the aspects of the poem that felt most foreign to me might want to translate it again, quite differently.

As far as other poets who are doing this sort of thing in Greek—hm. I just don’t think there are. I certainly haven’t read everything out there, but if I had to put Vakalo in the company of other Greek poets I would probably horrify people by stepping backward a hundred years to the utter bizarreness of some of Dionysios Solomos’s writings, for instance. There’s something so magically cerebral about her poetry, while it’s also so fully embodied, about the bodily experience of emotion—the way life happens on the inside, as if even objects have insides we need to think about, too. She’s also grasping hold of so many layers of Greek, so much history in the language itself, at a time when her peers and friends—Miltos Sachtouris, Takis Sinopoulos, Manolis Anagnostakis—were writing far more simply, and even about the political urgency behind the need to write simply, to call the wolf a wolf, as Anagnostakis wrote in one of my favorite of his poems. She simply wasn’t doing that. And I think her way of writing differently—her way of “being in danger” as a poet—can, for that reason, stand as a sort of inimitable example for others, both in Greek and in other languages. How do we dig into our language and find all the tools, even the ones we thought we’d left behind, the rusty ones, the broken ones, the ones overgrown by moss or ivy, “blackened where the dog once bit them”? How do we use those tools?

ZS: One of these tools, in Before Lyricism, seems to be a particular kind of humor, especially in “Plant Upbringing,” not least in a passage that is “against” humor:


I speak on this subject because I want to be



Personal consistency

The spirit

As understood by European civilization

This is our chief distinction from plants


Its humor connects to the types of ambiguity you’ve mention—I smile at the openness of “this,” in contrast with the resolute specificity of “chief distinction.” And whatever it’s saying about plants is wild. Could you tell us about this aspect of Vakalo? About translating humor in Vakalo or more generally?

KE: It’s interesting that you point to humor here—I agree, this is a place where I smile, too. In general, though, I wonder if what’s happening in Vakalo’s poetry is really humor or simply putting things side by side in ways that surprise us. It’s not just the syntactical and grammatical ambiguity that draws me to her work, it’s that I’m continually surprised, even by passages I more or less have memorized. I still never see it coming. But that surprise doesn’t seem lighthearted, though it’s also not dark humor, or irony, or satire, or parody, or even hyperbole. It’s just a way of taking the absolutely everyday and making it strange. I’m thinking of a passage in “Our Way of Being in Danger,” about the springs of cold fresh water running into the sea, “Where on fine days if you swim the water feels cooler / As stepping on a marble tile on a summer afternoon / You being hotter, the tile in shade, nestled in the grass / Some other breath seems to pass / And tugged by tranquility pushed by fear / Is how you feel when you encounter those currents.” That’s what all of reading Vakalo feels like to me: being in the sea in a moment of utter calm, and then finding that the water I’m standing in is so many more things than I thought—and the calm of the sea and of me becomes host to an undercurrent, if not of fear, then of astonishment at the unfamiliar. And yet that astonishment is itself somehow familiar, like endless other moments of astonishment we’ve experienced in the past. So not humor but uncanniness, in a way.

Is that enough to let me dodge the bullet on translating humor? I’m working on another book now, by Christos Ikonomou, which is probably the second most difficult book I’ve translated (after these poems), full of neologisms and slang and dialect and really dirty language and page-length puns and a brand of humor that doesn’t make you laugh but sort of makes you hurt, in a way, it’s that biting. The thing about humor is that it isn’t ever just one thing—and since humor in literature usually depends on linguistic tools, finding a combination that works in a different language is incredibly difficult for a translator. Sometimes it feels like, rather than work on a particular pun, you have to cultivate a similar mode of writing, of playing with language, and then just let loose. And then go back and rein it all in, if it all gets too out of hand.


Zach Savich
is an associate editor at Tupelo Quarterly. His sixth book of poetry, Daybed, was recently released by Black Ocean.