Why does Greek criticism have a problem with translations of new Greek poetry?

The arrival on my desk of yet another brand new anthology shows that international interest in Greek poetry continues to develop in several languages. Translations appear now regularly in magazines, books, festivals, performances, and other fora. They take the form of anthologies, compilations, special sections, or individual selections.

This broad dissemination, which has not happened to Greek poetry since the era of the 1970s, is treated unsurprisingly in Greece (only!) with (at best) silence or (at worst) scorn. In public and in private, in print and social media, journalists and scholars express their nervousness over this multilingual circulation, invoking one and the same predictable reason: Current global interest in Greek culture, they argue, can only be explained by the ongoing economic crisis, and therefore it has an exoticizing, if not colonizing, function; once the crisis recedes, it will evaporate. Yet this argument is little more than a defensive and isolationist reservation coming from media and academic domains that until now have paid very little attention to new writing and continue to favor poets who are over 75 years old, aesthetically modernist, morally avuncular, and nationally defiant.

A close look at the introductions of recent anthologies of translations from Greek into several languages shows that, apart from the reference to the crisis in some of their titles/subtitles, their criteria of selection are far from uniform: For example, Theodoros Chiotis (English, 2015) uses “public discourse,” Nathalie Karagiannis (Spanish and Catalan, 2016) the “South,” Marie-Laure Coulmin Koutsaftis (French, 2013) the generation of the 1970s, Dinos Siotis (English, 2014) the life of “every poet,” Karen van Dyck (Enlish, 2016) a “cross-cultural” view, and Pavel Nattsol Zarutskiy (Russian, 2016) the “Underground.” Each anthology offers a different view of the current landscape. I have not seen a single editor claim that their anthology was meant to reflect the crisis, and most of them say explicitly that it does not.

It is therefore both unfair and misleading for eponymous and anonymous commentators writing this year in print publications like Kathimerini, Vima, and Athens Review of Books as well as electronic ones to criticize these valuable projects for exploiting the crisis. On the contrary, introverted and old-fashioned Greek criticism can learn a lot from the innovative approaches of translators and editors to the new and exciting Greek writing that it still ignores.

My pianist self, Pantelis Polychronidis, might recommend to critics a simple exercise in discernment: Compare these beginnings of Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto:

August 10, 2016

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