Gloriana, as refracted by Alkaios

By: | Post date: 2019-02-21 | Comments: 1 Comment
Posted in categories: Culture, Modern Greek

Akis Alkaios was one of the great Greek lyricists of the past fifty years, in a culture which valued and cultivated the great lyricist. In his biggest hits, With a Canoe and Rosa, he was darkly allusive, yet still successfully universal and moving—like his great contemporary Manos Eleftheriou. (Alkaios had to insist against the record company on “the land of the Visigoths” being mentioned in a zeimbekiko pop song.) I’ve hyperlinked the translations by “Ross”, which are remarkably good by the standards of, the Greek lyrics database.

Those lyrics date from the endpoints of Alkaios’ mature period, 1982 and 1996. As Wikipedia notes, his youthful period was marked by leftist protest songs:

With his record Embargo (1982) the lyricist immediately marked out an identity apart from his politically engaged contemporaries, in that he also wrote as a citizen of the world, expressing the desire for world freedom with a theoretical Marxist grounding.

And in that period, it goes on to say, he was liberally influenced by Mayakovsky, Brecht, and Wolf Biermann.

As I was perusing to find decent translations (like those by “Ross”), I happened upon a poem by Alkaios from his protest period: it was published in his 1983 collection of poems also titled Embargo.

I am culturally Greek. I am culturally Anglo. I am not both at any given instant in time. Which is why I did a double take, when I saw a poem about Gloriana, as seen through the lens of Greek left populism. Elizabeth; or, Epithalamium, 1600 AD. This link is more stable than that on

Οι ρεβεράντζες οι αυλικές πολύ μ’ αρέσουν
Το βιργινάλι η ιερακοτροφία
Κι οι μενεστρέλλοι σαν στα πόδια μου θα πέσουν
Μα πιο πολύ αγαπάω την Αγγλία

Το νιτερέσα-μου φυλάνε οι φτωχοί
Σα να ‘τανε δικά- τους νιτερέσα
Μοιάζει η Αγγλία με ολόγιομο πουγγί
Μα πιο πολύ αγαπάω το που ‘χει μέσα

Language play is one of the things that gets sacrificed in translation; and language play—specifically, register play—is one of the things Alkaios excelled at. The final verse of With a Canoe is wrenching, with is comparison of the singer’s lovelorn body with “a cheap shooting range, / where foreign conscripts train, cursing”. It is all the more wrenching because the previous line speaks of Attica as a “pallid quarry”, violently juxtaposing an ancient Greek and a Turkish word (φαιό νταμάρι).

That gets lost here: the sneer of the low (Italian) word for “interests”, νιτερέσα, the awkward folksiness of the syntax in the final line and its bathetic rhyme, “what it contains” (το που ‘χει μέσα). What gets lost even more irreparably is how the Elizabethan cultural references sound in Greek. Curtsies, virginals, minstrels: these are familiar in English to generations bred on Shakespeare. In Greek, ρεβεράντζες, βιργινάλι, μενεστρέλλοι are utterly exotic and alien; he might as well be writing about the marvels of the Safavid court. That, you can’t communicate in English.

I’ll translate it anyway:

I love the curtsies of my court,
and hawking, and the virginal,
and minstrels playing for my sport.
And I love England best of all.

The paupers hold my interests close,
close as their own, each passing minute.
England is like a purse of groats;
And more than it, I love what’s in it.

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