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Graffiti, January 14, 2010–a conversation with Peter Constantine

January 14, 2010

The Greek Poets: Homer to the Present

Peter Constantine and the publication of the book.


In the introduction to “The Greek Poets: Homer to the Present”, Robert Hass writes:

So this anthology is not only fundamental because it places before English-language readers the crucial texts of early greek poetry but also because in every generation the translation of that poetry is a fundamental part of contemporary literature–so this fresh gathering of work done in translation in the last half century is also a reading of the present state of our poetry.

Translation fascinates me. When I think of it, the craft of translation, I reflect on the story Gail Holst Warhaft told me when we spoke about her book of poetry “Penelope’s Confession”. At the time she was preparing a Greek edition of the book. Being fluent in Greek, and not wanting to impose on her friends, she was doing most of the translation herself but felt there were a few poems she’d ask some of her Greek colleagues to tackle. A few days before we had our conversation she’d called one of them and when she asked how the translation was going he replied: “I wrote a beautiful poem today…to bad it wasn’t mine.”

On tonight’s program I’ll be speaking to Peter Constantine one of the editors of the massive and much needed: The Greek Poets: Homer to the Present published this year by W.W. Norton.

Peter’s Wikipedia entry is daunting. Right off the bat it lists nine languages, including modern and ancient Greek, that Peter has used to translate literary works. If that isn’t enough to give one pause you then look at the list of authors he’s translated: Thomas Mann, Chekhov, Dostoevsky, and Babel. Then you hit the section that lists honors and awards.

I should have stopped there, e-mailed Rebecca Carlisle, the publicist at Norton who arranged for me to speak to Peter, and begged off due to this all being way out of my league. Three things stopped me: First this book is monumental. Not only in size–over 650 pages, consisting of more than 1,000 poems by 185 poets; but in scope–more than 3,000 years of poetry is covered here. Think of it. Three thousand years! It also points to the monumental importance of the book. Second, I love talking about translation with masters of the craft. The levels of creativity involved in translation are so deep and intricate. It is art and craft combined. Third, I wanted to thank Peter for not only for his on work this volume but for his toils on “A Century of Greek Poetry: 1900-2000”–to me one of the most important books published in the last decade.

There is actually a fourth thing I’d like to ask him about. In the biographical section of the Wikipedia entry it mentions that his first translations were entitled: “Japanese Street Slang” and “Japanese Slang: Uncensored” in which he, and here I quote: “explored Japanese slang and criminal jargons in their many varieties, focusing on aspects of the Japanese language that had been traditionally marginalized. ‘Previously unprintable things that will inform, amuse, shock and maybe even disgust’ (Joseph LaPenta: Daily Yomiuri Newspaper, December 6, 1992).” I feel there is a sense of adventure here that needs to be explored.

Please click here to listen to my interview with Peter Constantine that took place on January 14, 2010.

Click here to listen to Peter reading his translation of “Bronze Age” by Yannis Kondos.

You might also want to read Peter’s article in the recent “Quarterly Conversation”.

Viktor Koen will be joining me on the next “Graffiti” scheduled for Thursday, January 28, 2010. We’ll be talking about his photographic exhibition: “Sylvia” AUSCHWITZ, BIRKENAU, MAJDANEK, TREBLINKA at the CONSULATE GENERAL OF GREECE IN NEW YORK. It will be there from the 28th of January through February 12.

Don’t forget to check out my other blogs: Just So… and Things We Need (to make it thru the day).

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