Byzantine poem appears in English through professor's 'labor of love'
An allegorical poem written more than six centuries ago in
vernacular Greek is now available in English for the first time, thanks to
13 years of devoted attention from a math professor at SUNY Oswego.
Columbia University Press last year published An Entertaining Tale
of Quadrupeds: Translation and Commentary by Oswego's George Baloglou and
his partner in the project for the last eight years, Nick Nicholas of the
University of Melbourne in Australia.
The poem was written around 1370 in the waning era of the
Byzantine Empire, probably in Constantinople itself. "Behind the
Quadrupeds' coarse dialogues and self-exalting monologues, one can observe
the poet looking decline and death in the eye," Baloglou has written.
Baloglou's engagement in the project began when he happened upon
an anthology of medieval Greek poetry in a used bookstore on the Greek
island of Crete in 1990, where he had traveled for a computer science
In the anthology, this "strange, allegorical poem about a certain
animal conference stood out thanks to an obliquely subversive style of
writing blended with sarcasm and a powerful language combining elements of
both ancient and modern Greek," Baloglou explains on his Web site.
Finding a collaborator
The Internet was to play a notable role in the journey of the
medieval Greek work to its publication in English. By 1993, Baloglou, who
is a native speaker of Greek, had found a complete version of the Greek
text. By 1994, he had made a stab at a complete English translation and
posted it on usenet online, asking questions and welcoming comments.
That is how he found Nicholas, his collaborator, in 1995. A
linguist raised in Australia by Greek parents, Nicholas helped transform
Baloglou's rough translation into the blank verse translation with
extensive introduction and commentary and six appendices that is now in
"It was a huge job," Baloglou said of the joint project. During
three years of the collaboration, he was also writing a book in his
acknowledged field of mathematics.
Much of their work was done online or by telephone at odd hours.
They didn't meet in person until 1996, in Greece. "It was a situation
where the word moonlighting is used literally," Baloglou said. "The
intensity of the collaboration -- it was really something."
The two debated the anonymous author's point in writing the work,
which ends in a fierce battle in which the herbivores overthrow their
carnivore oppressors. "Was he just writing a funny story or sending a
political message?" Baloglou said. "We lean toward the latter possibility.
He probably needed to protest something."
Over the years, Baloglou and Nicholas presented aspects of their
work at scholarly conferences on three continents, including the 26th
Byzantine Studies Conference at Harvard University in 2000.
Still, publication was a long shot. "It was an uphill battle,"
Baloglou said. As a mathematician and a linguist, "we were outsiders" in
the specialized world of Byzantine studies, he explained.
A professor at King's College London, Roderick Beaton, "was
foremost among the few specialists who trusted us initially," Baloglou
said. A lengthy promotional blurb by Beaton now appears on the Columbia
University Press Web page for An Entertaining Tale of Quadrupeds, praising
the "wonderful job" and "stupendous labour of love" that the book
Baloglou's goal was to get the poem to a general audience. In
1997, he recorded a CD of the poem in Greek.
"I always had this playful view of the poem," he said. "Nicholas
was more serious." In the foreword, the two write, "This book has not
ended up as either of us envisioned it -- and is probably all the better
Support from three sources -- Oswego's Office of Research and
Sponsored Programs, the Australian Academy of the Humanities, and the
Kalypso and Grigorios Grigoriadis Foundation -- assisted in publication.
The book is available at the River's End Bookstore and online from
Columbia University Press for $54.50 in hardcover and $27.50 in trade
paperback. Excerpts are available through Baloglou's Web site,
Julie Harrison Blissert
Campus Update (SUNY Oswego), February 25, 2004