Yorgos Seferis, “Thrush” – 2

You can find Seferis’s “Thrush” in Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard’s translation here.

The first part of the second section is beautifully translated in a way that generally sticks very close to the literal meanings of the Greek but achieves a natural fluency and force in English that I find quite remarkable. How many writers could set a scene as vividly and economically, with such sensitive use of line endings to space and pace things out as that first paragraph does? And it’s not just a matter of setting the scene with maximum clarity; we already begin to feel something of that breathless urgency that dominates the direct speech of Elpenor in the rush towards some of those line endings, and the faint stumbling at them, as if the speaker has to pause a moment to catch up with himself. At the end of the paragraph the stanza-break doesn’t just suggest the yawning gulf between the narrative voice and the young man’s babbling ardour; it allows us space to prepare ourselves for the very different note sounded by the sudden shift of tone. Two utterly different worlds seem to collide: a bald world of cigarette butts, failed pick-ups, gramophones and frying fish, against the magical world of the young man’s speech with its intense sensuality and its elusive shimmering between callowness and vision.

Disaster comes in the rhymed second half of the section, which I find very hard to read in Keeley and Sherrard’s version. We’re suddenly plunged into phrasing that’s twisted by syntactical inversions, that’s sometimes grotesquely elaborate and sometimes grossly bathetic, apparently largely for the sake of keeping the rhyming structure of this part of the original. All right, in suddenly switching to regular rhyme Seferis is (I think) trying to suggest something of what he saw as the glibness and triteness of commercial popular song, and I think he does create a sense of something rather desperately brittle in the attempt to keep threatening realities at bay. But he doesn’t do so crudely or to an extent that overwhelms other elements. I can’t say exactly how the tone would strike a Greek speaker, but the language of the Greek is certainly much more straightforward than that of the English. To take one small example, “yineka pooh ehases to fos” literally means “Woman who lost / has lost the light”. That is simple in a way that may be meant to strike us as simplistic when we read it simply as a song in itself, but that also opens out into the larger ideas of “Thrush” as a whole, with the blind Oedipus and the wonderful passage on the light in the final section. In fact I don’t think we need to read that section to find the ideas suggested by “yineka pooh ehases to fos” suddenly haunting and disturbing despite the glibness surrounding it, and I’d say the same for the penultimate lines of all the stanzas in the song. In fact my feeling  is that in the Greek the poet and the parodist entwine throughout this section, but that the parodist virtually stifles the poet in the English version.


(Apologies for the clumsy transliteration: I’ve spent half an hour trying but can’t find how to carry Greek letters over from Word to WordPress.)

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