THE ODYSSEY OF YIORYOS PSYCHOUNTAKIS AND
OTHER GREEK TRANSLATORS
Yioryos Psychountakis became known to the English-reading public in 1955
through "The Cretan Runner", Patrick Leigh Fermor's translation of his
"O Kritikos Mantatoforos", an autobiographical book about Greek and
British resistance in German-occupied Crete during World War II. Twenty
four years later, moonlighting from his duties as caretaker of Crete's
German military cemetery, he published a rhymed translation of the
Odyssey into Modern Greek; that translation was republished by the
University of Crete Press in 1996, following their publication of
Psychountakis' translation of the Iliad in 1995.
Psychountakis, a man of minimal formal education, grew up with
"rizitika" (rebel) songs, oral stories about Byzantium, "mantinades"
(witty rhymed distichs often composed during fairs) and, above all,
the lyrics of "Erotokritos" ("Tried by Love"). Erotokritos is a rhymed,
adventurous love poem of 10,010 lines composed about four centuries
ago, during Venetian rule and the pre-Ottoman burst that came to be
known as "Cretan Renaissance". Erotokritos was apparently written by
Vitsentsos Kornaros, a Hellenized nobleman of Venetian extraction.
Quite likely inspired by the French novel "Paris et Vienne" (1432),
Erotokritos became very popular among Greeks, both in the Ottoman
Empire and the Diaspora; its first printed version appeared in Venice
in 1713. Nowadays Erotokritos still remains popular mostly in Crete.
Just like Erotokritos, Psychountakis' translation is written in the
Cretan dialect (akin to contemporary Greek) using the traditional Modern
Greek 15-syllable meter (iambic heptameter), and it consists of rhymed
pairs of lines. Additional structural similarities may be pointed out;
for example, in both works the percentage of lines ending in a verb is
very near or above 50%. It seems that Psychountakis, living representative
of a vibrant yet endangered oral tradition, opted for a poem that, just
like Erotokritos, could become an integral part of that tradition. He is
certainly a people's poet who usually translates in a manner attempting to
"explain" the story to the reader, often at the expense of faithfulness or
even accuracy; his melodic translation is very liberal indeed, in fact
beyond the degree required by the rhymed distichs. It is probably too much
to expect Psychountakis' Odyssey to be recited at Cretan fairs, but its
very existence in an era marked by dialect death is rather remarkable.
How did Psychountakis translate the Odyssey? Due to history's and
geography's accidents and eventualities, Homer ceased to be a part of
the Greek oral tradition many centuries ago. Greek-speaking scholars
could always read the Epics, but Psychountakis is certainly not a
traditional scholar educated in Homeric syntax, grammar and vocabulary.
So, it is almost certain that he has consulted other translations; this
is also indicated by his "unexpected" renderings of certain words common
to Homeric and Modern Greek.
It would be tempting to conjecture that Psychountakis based his 1979
translation on the one co-authored by renowned author Nikos Kazantzakis,
also a son of Crete, and eminent philologist I. Kakridis (1965); after all,
that translation is dominated by Kazantzakis' temper and "post-demotic"
language, which Kakridis' scholarship failed to tame. This is not the
case at all. Psychountakis' translation is, relatively speaking, more
conservative linguistically or even refined than the one by Kazantzakis
and Kakridis, and his solutions rather original and different in style;
furthermore, while Kazantzakis and Kakridis produced a 17-syllable,
line-to-line translation, Psychountakis' translation exceeds the original
by an average of 25%, ranging from 15% (book 24) to 41% (book 12).
Just like the Cretans, all other Greek translators faced the same central
problem: how to render a text written in a language that they cannot
directly understand and yet is unmistakably identifiable as no other
than the mother tongue? Due to its relative proximity to Homeric Greek,
Modern Greek may often offer, or at least suggest, novel interpretations
and renderings; at the same time, it can easily block the translator's
mind or lead to solutions poetic in theory but exotic in practice.
This is an example-oriented report on a project in progress that departs
from Psychountakis' translation in order to visit a few versed Modern
Greek translations of the Odyssey, ranging from the classic one by Iakovos
Polylas (1881) to an underrated one by Pantazis Kontomihis (1972); the
ongoing translation by Professor Maronitis (books 1-12 published in 1995)
is also consulted. The translators' struggle with Homer's swiftness,
smoothness and power, together with other potential solutions, is discussed
in detail. The discussion includes situations where Modern Greek is, or
could have been, at least as capable as the original of portraying a world
ancient yet young and sweetly familiar to the Greek translator.
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