05.03.03, Kornaros, Erotokritos

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Anthony Hirst

The Medieval Review baj9928.0503.003


Kornaros, Vitsentzos. Gavin Betts, Stathis Gauntlett, and Thanasis Spilias, transs.. Erotokritos. Series: Byzantina Australiensia vol. 14. Melbourne:Australian Association for Byzantine Studies, 2004. Pp. xxxvii, 220. ISBN: 1-876503-1228.

Reviewed by:

Anthony Hirst
Queen's University Belfast

Ruled by the Venetians from 1204 to 1669, Crete was one of the few parts of the Greek-speaking world not absorbed into the Ottoman Empire during the Renaissance period, and the only part to experience a significant if slightly belated flowering of Renaissance culture, the so-called "Cretan Renaissance," whose most famous son was Domenikos Theotokopoulous, better known as El Greco. It is generally recognized that Kornaros' Erotokritos is the greatest literary masterpiece of the Cretan Renaissance, and it has always been popular among Greek readers--and not only readers, for it was absorbed into the oral culture of Crete. It is a verse romance composed around 1600, first published in Venice in 1713, and surviving in only one pre-publication manuscript, of 1710, now in the British Library. Written in a Cretan variety of demotic Greek, it consists of about 5,000 rhyming couplets in the fifteen-syllable iambic line known as politikos stichos ("political verse"). As a narrative poem it is more than halfway towards becoming a verse drama, since the greater part of it consists of the speeches of the story's characters, with the speakers' names preceding the speeches, as in a play script. But there is a narrator (whose contributions are headed "Poet"), who introduces the characters' speeches more in the style of a novel, the narrative passage regularly ending "he/she said."

Erotokritos has a typical romance plot, in which love is thwarted but ultimately triumphs. It is modeled on the French romance Paris et Vienne, but Kornaros freely adapted and perhaps improved upon the model. Although Erotokritos is imbued with medieval or post-medieval ideas of chivalry, it is explicitly located in pre-Christian Greece (1, A19-20). The heroine, Aretusa, is the daughter of the King of Athens. The hero, Erotokritos, referred to throughout in the abbreviated forms Rotokritos and (occasionally) Rokritos, is a member of the court and the son of the King's adviser, Pezostratos. Aretusa and Rotokritos fall in love. Cupid (Erotas in the Greek text) is repeatedly invoked as the agent who has brought about this state of affairs. The love is impossible because of the difference in status of the two lovers, and at first it is a secret known only to Aretusa's nurse, Frosini, and Rotokritos' friend and confidant, Polidoros, though the undiagnosed symptoms of their love-sickness perplex and distress their families. Eventually Rotokritos also confides in his father and persuades him to approach the king on his behalf. The result is that Pezostratos is dismissed from the court and Rotokritos banished. Before he leaves, he and Aretousa enter into a secret betrothal. The King fearing that Aretousa loves Rotokritos tries to force her to marry the King of Byzantium. She refuses and is callously imprisoned by her angry parents in the most degrading physical conditions, together with her nurse Frosini. Years pass; the King of Vlachia lays siege to Athens, and Rotokritos decides to return in disguise (his face blackened and coarsened by a potion to which he also has the antidote) to fight for Athens. It is the superhuman strength and prowess of this mysterious dark-skinned knight which turns the tide of the war. The King of Vlachia proposes that matters be settled by single combat, thinking he has an invincible champion in his newly arrived nephew, Aristos. The King of Athens is in despair until the still unidentified Rotokritos offers to fight with Aristos. Rotokritos is victorious and the king makes him his heir. Still disguised, Rotokritos asks for Aretusa's hand in marriage and is allowed to visit her in her dungeon. He keeps her in ignorance of his identity far longer than necessary, testing her fidelity, even letting her think that Rotokritos, whom he claims to have met, is dead. The tale ends with multiple reunions and reconciliations. Rotokritos and Aretusa are married, Rotokitos becomes king, and they live happily ever after.

There is only one earlier English translation of the complete text of Erotokritos. Made by Theodore Stephanides, mentor of both Lawrence and Gerald Durrell, it was published in Athens in 1984 by Papazissis Publishers, and is still available. Stephanides' translation and the new translation under review could hardly be more different. Each has its virtues but they are quite different virtues. The Australian translators give some indications of their aims and translation strategies in the Preface. They clearly share the hope expressed by some of "the scholars whose assistance [they] sought" that their new translation "will contribute to a broader appreciation of the importance of Erotokritos." Their translation is intended, they tell us, both for "those with little or no knowledge of Renaissance Cretan literature" and for "specialists who need to refer to a reliable English translation." As to the kind of translation this is, their purpose was "to produce an accurate version [...] in clear modern English, while keeping as close as possible to the original" (ix). They explain that "Kornaros's idiom"--meaning the particular form of the Greek language that he uses--"would have appeared normal for a verse romance" to its original readers. "For this reason," they assert, "the natural register to choose today is standard modern English" (x). But, surely, there cannot be any "natural register" for a verse romance in the twenty-first century, and the real problem of translating a work like Erotokritos has been neither addressed in the Preface nor solved in the translation.

The translators explain that they "have used prose rather than verse because on the one hand an artificial reproduction in English of the rhymed fifteen-syllable line of the Greek would sound wooden in the extreme and on the other hand [they] did not want to sacrifice accuracy to form." This, of course, begs the question of what "accuracy" really means. They have already made the point that in Stephanides' translation "the rendering into rhyming couplets frequently did considerable violence to the literal meaning of the original" (and this is undeniable), but Stephanides himself dismissed the fifteen-syllable line as unsuitable for extended use in English, and chose instead iambic pentameter. Stephanides' choice is just one of many possible strategies between the two extremes of slavish imitation of the Greek metre and standard modern English prose (the only alternatives the new translators seem to have considered).

The problem with the sort of "plain prose" translation at which Betts, Gauntlet and Spilias were aiming is that the matter of the poem is for the most part so intrinsically poetic that it cannot be convincingly rendered in prose. The language, particularly in the speeches of the two lovers, is extravagant, and rich in hyperbole and metaphor. The new prose translation is most nearly successful in the narrative passages (the Poet's voice) and in the speeches of the more down-to-earth characters such as Aretusa's nurse Frosini and the Rotokritos' friend Polidoros, who both represent the anti-romantic forces in the poem as they attempt to persuade the lovers to abandon their "folly." The one great virtue of this translation is its faithful representation of "the literal meaning of the original," but often it is simply too literal to make comfortable and convincing English. To take an example more or less at random, the King of Athens, considering Pezostratos' temerity in suggesting that his son Rotokritos might marry the princess, declares, "It is not possible that of his own accord he would have been willing to come so insanely and speak to me of the proposal" (115, D10-11). The strange and strangely placed "so insanely" is a literal translation of etsi zava; and "that he would have been willing" is a literal--but by no means necessary (and here inappropriate)-- translation of na thelisi, which is in fact translated twice, its significance being better represented by the phrase "of his own accord," i.e. unprompted by his son. To take another example, in the single combat between the disguised Rotokritos and the champion of the Vlachs, we read that "Rotokritos raised his sword high, aiming at the head, and brought it down with much valour" (145, D1693-4). While "valour" would, more often than not, be a suitable translation of andreia, here it simply won't do.

Judged against their intention to produce standard modern English prose the translators have frequently lapsed, not only into excessively literal renderings bordering on "translationese," but also, in the other direction, into verse, as though they could not always resist the poetic pull of the Greek text. The translation opens with a promising iambic tetrameter which matches the first line of the original, "The circles turns that rise and fall," but the immediate continuation is more typical--a little awkward, a little too detached and analytical in tone: "and those of the wheel that now mount high and now plummet to the depths, time's changes that never rest but advance and speed to good and evil, the turmoil of arms, hostilities, suffering ...". The final items in this list form an iambic pentameter, "the power of Cupid and the charm of friendship," and then the sentence concludes "--all these have today moved me to tell the story of what they caused and brought for a maid and a youth who were enmeshed in a pure and blameless love" (1, A1-10). This indeed tells us what the Greek says, but it gives us very little sense of how it says it. Stephanides' translation of the opening ten lines gives more of the feel and less of the meaning, though it is seriously marred by the link/slink rhyme in lines 9-10, both words being inappropriate in the context:Stephanides' versification is generally competent, sometimes inspired, and only occasionally lame, while the occasional versification of the new translation is, presumably, accidental, and should perhaps have been edited out for consistency of style. Let me give a few more examples.

Still on the first page, after we have heard of the childlessness of the King and Queen of Athens, we are told, in an iambic tetrameter, followed by a rhyming couplet in iambic pentameter, in which the second line cries out for the pronunciation "ap-proach-ed" (three syllables): "The queen fell pregnant and the king / was freed of his anxiety and care. / Slowly the time approached for an heir / to be born and for the city to rejoice" (1, A47-50). Later, the Poet responds in anapaests to the ill effects of love on the hero: "But a curse | on the joy | which Rotok-| ritos felt | at that time!" (15, A821), while a metaphorical tree planted in the heart of the heroine is treated to an irregular and undignified trochaic rhyming couplet: "It has harmful leaves, a poisonous crop, / and is laden with thorns from its root to its top" (3, A177-8). Another couplet with a near-rhyme (iambic this time, provided we read "befall'n") comes from the mouth of a knight wounded in the tournament which occupies the second part of the romance: "What has befallen me does not grieve me much, / nor do I fell my arm so badly crushed" (72, B1727-8). Even one of the Frosini's speeches to Aretusa ends with three rhyming sentences: "You [...] have gone off into such a forest that you have lost your way. Leave the woods today. Extricate yourself and never repeat what I have heard you say" (13, A728-30).

Not only does the prose keep lapsing into poetry, but it also keeps losing its grip on "standard modern English" and resorting to archaisms and inversions. Immediately after the first ten lines of the poem which were quoted above, we find this: "So whoever has at some time been a slave to passion, let him come and hearken to what is here written" (1, A11-12).

One could add many more examples of archaisms and lapses into verse or almost-verse; and they are disconcerting to the reader who is trying to come to terms with the otherwise prosaic style. But it is the basic style, prosaic and often ungainly, which is the more disconcerting. Take for example the dramatic moment when, after Aretusa had refused to marry the King of Byzantium, the queen became so angry that "she reached out with her hands and tried to strangle her." The Poet, in commenting on this, sounds rather like a social worker making a public statement about a difficult case: "I regard it as appalling, as do all others, that a mother should show such terrible heartlessness to her child" (125, D572-4). This does, on one level, accurately translate the Greek couplet,but we need Stephanides' paraphrase to take us into an appropriate realm of feeling, an appropriate register of English:The real challenge which Erotokritos poses to translators has still to be met, and it is this: to achieve a degree of semantic accuracy not less than that of the new translation, while at the same time finding an effective rhythmical and poetic prose (or, say, irregular iambic verse) which will constantly charm its readers and carry them along as the verse of the original does. In the meantime, the only solution is to read the two translations side by side, for, though neither is satisfactory, each can add to the appreciation of the other.

This new translation succeeds for only one of the two groups for whom it is intended, the "specialists who want to refer to a reliable English version," for it is reliable in providing the literal meaning of the Greek text (though how much this leaves out I have tried to suggest); and I would add another group: those who have enough Greek to make some headway with the original but need some more efficient help than a dictionary can provide. However, the other target group, "those with little or no knowledge of the Cretan Renaissance" are not so well served. I am afraid that this translation will not "contribute to a broader appreciation of the importance of Erotokritos." It tells us "everything about the elephant except why," and with a text as intrinsically poetic as Erotokritos, the "why" (or the "how") is essential to an appreciation of the value, the importance and the pleasure of the text.

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Anthony Hirst

Queen's University Belfast