Modern Greek Literature and Culture
Artemis Leontis, University of Michigan

Literary Translation and Politics in Moments of Greek Crisis


One of the first books of Modern Greek poetry to appear in English in the US is the Akritan Songs (1944), the translation of Angelos Sikelianos’s Akritika (1941–1942) published in New York on the eve of the Cold War. A book about liminality that circulated illegally in 100 hand-written copies in German-occupied Athens during the Great Famine, the Akritika changed media and crossed geopolitical borders several times to appear in English, self-published with a card-stock cover as a kind of political tract. Before appearing in New York, it went from a hand-copied manuscript with beautiful woodcut illustrations to a Photostat copy to a copy of that Photostat copy. Additionally, it clandestinely crossed several European borders, two major bodies of water, three continents, and the hands of diplomats in three capital cities: Geneva, Cairo, and Washington. In the process, it acquired semiotic force as a desirable underground object that was maneuvering its way “from slavery to freedom,” in the words of George Seferis, the agent who secretly sent the Photostat from the Cairo Greek Government to Eva Palmer Sikelianos, first wife of Angelos, who was living in the US at the time. Adding another layer of complexity was the secretive stance, for different reasons, of both Seferis and Eva Sikelianos. As the object moved through space to free itself from the restrictive forces of the Nazi occupation late in the war, when the priorities of the Allies were shifting and alliances were breaking down, it took on marks of the transition from a document of resistance to a thing caught in the subterfuge and maneuvering that anticipated the Greek Civil War.

Building on original research in the archives of Eva Palmer Sikelianos and George Seferis, the paper takes a translation studies approach to reconstruct the story of the US publication and consider the intersection of political forces and the translation of Modern Greek texts at liminal moments, from the Cold War to the dictatorship of 1967-1974 to the present crisis.