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 conference.

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 print.

"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."

Getting published

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 represents.

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 for it."

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