© Copyright 1998 Sophia Papaioannou
"Translating Homer in 20th century Greece: the 'Silent' Voice of a Revolution"

Presenter:  Sophia Papaioannou, University of Texas, Austin.

Draft of Paper:

I. Introduction: Greek Society and the Significance of Homer

     The burden of the past, the glories of classical antiquity haunted Greece even before the official political existence of the Greek nation.(1)  As early as the mid-eighteenth century, at a time when the movement for Greek independence was first taking shape among the Greeks of the Diaspora, the construction of a link with Greek antiquity appeared as an imminent necessity.  The earliest attempts to bridge the gap between the Greek nation that was emerging from a four-century long period of slavery and the legendary ancients could be best summarized by the sketch that not surprisingly decorated the title page of Adamantios Korais' (for many the intellectual forefather of the Greek nation) nationalist pamphlet, Martial Trumpet-Blast (1803): a picture of Hellas as a woman in torn clothes—her slave status prominently expressed by the nearby presence of a sword-wielding Turk—with a piece of parchment beneath her feet labeled "HOMER."  Moreover, the whole picture was captioned by a cento of two Homeric verses.

     Homer: among other things, the forefather of "everyone who know reads and writes in the West,"(2)  the ultimate poetic ancestor and model for the poetry of Greece since the times of  Foscolo, Kalvos and Solomos, a source equally of nationalist propaganda and of protest against the status quo. Yet these numerous expressions and the fuller dimensions of the Homeric presence in Greece have by and large been neglected.
    Only a few years ago (1989), David Ricks, responding to a long-standing need for an examination of Homer's presence in Greece, discussed in an acute and highly readable study the influence of Homeric poetry and the worlds and heroes of the Iliad and the Odyssey on Greek poetry of the 19th and 20th centuries, focusing on certain distinguished Greek poets that could be characterized in one way or another as representative of the poetic trends and intellectual currents of their times: Kalvos, Solomos, Palamas, Sicelianos, and Seferis.(3)

II. Translating Homer

     The associations between political and historical circumstances and the several attempts of translating Homer were indeed strong, and followed a general pattern of Greek literature according to
which major political events influenced contemporary literary interests and ways of expression.  The seriousness of this statement and its impact for 20th-century Greece has not yet received its due attention.  There is a huge difference between adapting or alluding to the Homeric text in poetry or prose and producing a verbatim translation of it.  In general terms, the translation of any text from the language in which it was originally composed to a different one implies that the readers whom this translation addresses either can not read this first language at all, or find it easier to read this text in translation rather than the original.  Moreover, the undertaking of any translation is usually motivated either by popular demand, or by the translator's intuition that such a translation is needed and once it is available to the public it will become an object of wide demand.  Yet these two factors often function as merely the pretext, the proschema, the real aphorme residing elsewhere in reasons related to the translator's political opinions and his or her desire to use the translation project as an indirect, yet explicit personal statement or declaration.

     Centering only on a small part of Greek intellectual dialogue with its illustrious and often intimidating past, this paper addresses the social and political situations that motivated the production of the two most important and widely known translations of the Homeric epics in 20th-century Greece; specifically, the translations of the Iliad by A. Pallis in 1904, and by I. Kakridis and N. Kazantzakis in 1942 (published several revisions later in 1953).  As we shall see, for Pallis, Kazantzakis, and Kakridis, the translation of the Iliad was a means to communicate certain ideas that were quite revolutionary, given the historical circumstances of the time.  The questions that I plan to address can be roughly expressed as follows:


III. Pallis' Iliad (1904), the Expansion of the new Greek Nation, and the Birth of Demoticism.

     For the student of the political and intellectual history of the independent Greek nation, it is hard not to notice the extremely sensitive balance in the relation of the Greek language to the language of Homeric and Classical times.  As a result, the very task of translating not only Homer but any text written from an earlier stage of the Greek language, involves a great deal more than producing a text readable for the translator's contemporary audience.  It is by and large a political move, the results of which extend far beyond the Homeric text to contemporary Greek society, its intellect and perception of national identity.  As I mentioned above, the fact that Homer needs to be translated in order to be accessible to the broader Greek audience implies that the text in its original language is not so.  This linguistic alienation of the Greek audience from the Ancient Greek language (if not heritage) was a hard reality, which nevertheless the Greek intellectuals of the 18th and 19th century were unwilling to accept, seeing it rather as a temporary, yet curable, weakness resulting from the long period of illiteracy during the Turkish occupation.

     Alexandros Pallis' translation of the Iliad came as a triumphant victory of demotic Greek in the fervent debate between demotic (everyday spoken) Greek and kathareuousa ("purist"), the official language of written and oral speech.  The conflict between demotiki and kathareuousa, the so-called "language problem," preceded even the declaration of Greek independence and the foundation of the Greek nation in 1832, and appeared to have been one of the most important causes of literary argument among the Greek intellectuals and the principal cause for the late flourishing of Greek prose.  At the turn of the nineteenth century, literary prose written in demotiki was almost non-existent—the exception rather than the rule.(4)

     The movement of demoticism demonstrated particular vigor in the last two decades of the 19th century, following the territorial expansion of Greece in 1881, the national aggrandizement and the increasing popularity of the "Great Idea" policy that presented as a demand the building of a strong national identity.  In the intellectual sphere it was marked by the arrival in Greece of the French literary movements of realism and, especially, naturalism, and the increasing popularity of folklorism.  The publication in 1888 of Psicharis' book My Journey, is considered the conventional starting point of demotic literary prose.  Psicharis' book is a passionate defense of spoken Greek, which he sees as the sole means of spoken and written expression.  The radicalism of Psicharis' work centers not only on his defense of the pure, and often dialectic, demotic, but also on his "corrected" orthography, such as substitution of diphthongs by their phonetic equivalents.  Psicharis' demoticism in fact was consistent with his ideas of historical continuity of the Greek nation.  He separated himself from the other demoticists of the late 19th century by the fact that he did not refuse to see Greece as culturally distinct from its ancient heritage;  on the contrary, he embraced all aspects of the ancient past—including the ancient texts.  Psicharis and his followers claimed that to demonstrate that the Greek language had changed from ancient times—far from undermining the idea of a continuous history of Greece—offered persuasive arguments in favor of it.  Since change is the natural evolution in all living languages, Psicharis argued, the existence of a strong and vital demotic Greek language is the strongest argument in favor of the continuity of the Ancient Greek language—and therefore, the Greek nation.

     Pallis was among the first who embraced Psicharis' ideas.  He has studied classics at the University of Athens and his publications include among others a critical edition of Antigone and books 18 and 21 of the Iliad.  After the publication of the Journey he became one of the most loyal advocates of Psicharis' linguistic ideas, which he prominently advertised in his numerous demotic translations that include Euripides, Shakespeare, Thucydides, Kant, but above all the Gospels (the publication of which, in 1901, caused violent riots in Athens) and the Iliad (1904)—his masterpiece.

     Indeed, Pallis' revolutionary decision to select the New Testament and the Iliad as the two texts to be translated in demotic Greek was far from accidental.  The former was the most popular text in Greece at the turn of the century, and the quintessential expression of Orthodox Christianity, the link of modern Greek with the Byzantine Empire.(5)   The latter was the cornerstone of the much-adored ancient Greek civilization, the model of linguistic purists, who aimed—at least in the early stages of the movement—to eventually "upgrade" the language of the "reborn" Greek nation from kathareuousa to Classical Greek.  By translating the Iliad, the earliest Greek literary work, into demotiki Pallis declared in his way the intellectual rebirth of the Greek nation: Greece should respect and study the celebrated ancient literary heritage, without pathological adoration or nostalgic hopes for return to the Golden Past.

     Pallis declared his devotion to Psicharis' linguistic and cultural theories by dedicating to the latter his translation of the Iliad.  The language that Pallis adopted for his translation throughout was the one of the demotic (especially klephtic) folk songs; his choice was consonant with his Psicharis' beliefs on the composition of the Homeric poems, which had been seminally influenced by the theories of Augustus Wolf on the oral transmission of the Homeric poems and the presence of more than one bard-narrator.  Psicharis was persuaded that the Homeric epics were the ancient analog of demotic folk songs, a result of the coalescence of various smaller oral heroic songs composed by bards from different parts of Greece.  In accordance with these ideas that denied the historical existence of Homer and concluded with the expectation that some day a new Iliad might emerge from the different regional folk songs of the new Independent Greece of 19th century, Pallis omitted the name of Homer from the title-page of his translation and "treated the poem as a collection of ballads,"(6)  by attempting to duplicate the style, meter and language of these folk songs.  Thus he employed as his verse the 15-syllable line, the standard metric form of Greek folk songs; used a great deal of dialect (especially that of central Greece-Roumeli), and proceeded, among other things, to substitute terms remote from contemporary reality (such as those for pieces of ancient armor), and even to adapt the form of Iliadic proper names to their klephtic equivalents.  Thus Helen becomes Lenió; Eurymedon, Agamemnon, Odysseus and Idomeneus become respectively Vrimédos, Agamémnos, Dysséas and Domeniás.

     Although Pallis often exaggerated in his attempt to produce a klephtic-sounding Iliad, leaving several lines of the ancient original untranslated, his project was remarkable.  First, he overruled the arguments of the purists that demotic Greek was not a language rich enough to be used as a means of expression for literary masterpieces and intellectual expression.  Secondly, through Pallis' translation, the Iliad was for the first time after several centuries accessible and comprehensible to the entire people of Greece—the ordinary readers—and not just an educated elite.(7)  At the same time, the poetic value of the translation was also a product of quality, and rightly became the preferred translation of the Iliad for most of our century—the translation first selected by the Ministry of Education for high-school use, after the abolition of kathareuousa in 1976, and until the early 1980s, when it was replaced by the second famous translation of the century, the result of the collaboration of Classics Professor Ioannes Kakridis and the famous novelist Nikos Kazantzakis.

IV.  Kazantzakis, Kakridis, and their translation of the Iliad during WW II.

     The social and political circumstances that produced the second most celebrated translation of Homer in twentieth century Greece were similar and, at the same time, quite different.  To begin with the similarities, Kazantzakis and Kakridis' translation was also motivated by another major political event that affected directly the definition of Greece as a nation, and of Hellenism as a dynamic and independent culture: the first draft of the work was completed during WW II, specifically during the German occupation of Greece.  The period of the occupation was among the hardest times for Greece, especially for the population of Athens: more than 200,000 Athenians died from famine and malnutrition during the winters of 1942 and 1943.  In an environment of physical and mental abuse, a project centered on translating Homer was a refuge and a consolation, a way to keep the mind of an intellectual productive and occupied.  The translator's choice to focus on Homer rather than any other ancient author signifies a recourse to Homer and, more generally, to epic poetry in a time of crisis.  Kazantzakis and Kakridis desired to communicate through their translation of the ancient epic a part of their own contemporary epic, the Greece's struggle for liberation in WW II, and also to describe the erga as well as the algea of Greece during the forties.

     At the same time, the translation project of the Iliad became for Kazantzakis and Kakridis, as it had also served for Pallis, the means to publicize the translators' opinions on the Greek language and its proper use.  Because both Kakridis and especially Kazantzakis were among the most fervent opponents of uncompromising demotiki, both expressed extreme views and caused strong reactions.

     Kazantzakis took a unique stand in the linguistic problem of 20th century Greece, as can be seem in his publications, especially those composed between 1922 (the defeat of Greece by Turkey and the subsequent tragic expulsion of the Greece population of Asia Minor, which dramatically and irrevocably ended the Great Idea-policy) and 1940 (the entrance of Greece in WW II, the unexpected victory of Greece against Italy and the heroic resistance against Germany).(8)  The congruence and parallel development between his demoticism and national pride in the first two decades of the century entered a new direction after the electoral defeat and political exile of premier Venizelos (1920) and the national humiliation of 1922.  Kazantzakis was leaning now toward international communism, and his political pugnaciousness led him to extremes in his views on demoticism, too.

     Although he admired Pallis, whom he acknowledged as his predecessor and teacher, his views on the structure of demotiki were more extreme.  Unlike Pallis who used folksong-type demotic in the translation of the Iliad alone, because he believed that the Iliad was the folk epic of the ancients, Kazantzakis believed that one should include in one's dynamic vocabulary as many dialectic words as possible; he recommended the examination and study of all local Greek dialects followed by the collection and recording of as many words as possible.  These words should be communicated and eventually used on a Panhellenic basis.  Kazantzakis' extreme views are best expressed in his Odyssey, which, in addition to its grave intellectual content, constitutes also a thesaurus of demotic the way Kazantzakis saw it.

     For his part, Kakridis—one of most important classicists of twentieth century Greece, a Homer scholar and university professor for almost half a century—also held pioneering views on Greek language.  Following the example of Kazantzakis' Odyssey, Kakridis, upon republishing a lecture he had delivered a few years earlier, was the first among the professorial elite of Greece to introduce the monotonic system (which comprises abolition of all breathings and accents, save for the use of the acute on the stressed syllable).  The faculty of the University of Athens denounced the publication (which was, needless to say, written in demotic as well) and sought Kakridis' punishment.  Certainly the anomaly of the political situation of the times (1941, the first months of the occupation, and naturally a time of crisis and immediate need for strengthening the national identity and pride of the defeated Greek people) led to exaggerations.  In any case, the so-called "Trial of Accents" (Winter 1941-Spring 1942) led to Kakridis' suspension and, later, dismissal from the faculty of the University of Athens.(9)

     The translation of the Iliad (and later the Odyssey), emerged at the right time and furnished for both Kazantzakis and Kakridis proof for their deep concerns about, and devotion to, Greece and the Greek language.(10)   At the same time, Kazantzakis' linguistic zeal was appropriately controlled and directed by Kakridis' knowledge as a specialist on Homer.  Kazantzakis would compose his translation independently (a task which he accomplished within three and a half months during 1942), and Kakridis would compare it with his own and would note the points of disagreement—a list that eventually expanded over 2,000 pages.  The translation was eventually published, several drafts later, in 1955, and it was dedicated to Alexandros Pallis.

     The primary goal of both translators was to produce a translation-model of demotic Greek, a work that would exploit all available linguistic resources.  At the same time, Kakridis' stature guaranteed deep and accurate knowledge of Homeric style and language.  As a result they approached the Iliad as an epic poem that belonged inside a particular time and reflected its contemporary civilization and heroic morality.  The translation would make the society and ideals of the Homeric world accessible to the 20th century Greek audience.  Kazantzakis and Kakridis, in fact, aimed at producing a real "translation" of the epic, and not an "adaptation" as Pallis had done.  To this end they selected as their verse the 17-syllable line, which is closer to the ancient dactylic hexameter, restored to their original forms the ancient proper names of the epic heroes, and provided literary translations in the place of Pallis' folkloric adaptations.  They also translated the entire poem, including the 3,000 lines that Pallis had omitted.  At the same time, the pure demotic of the translation was further highlighted by the extensive use of compound adjectives and verbs, a characteristic that occurs in much greater frequency in demotic Greek, and constitutes a standard feature of folk songs and dialectic language.

     Kakridis' and Kazantzakis' translation of the Iliad was not only a major literary project but also a demonstration of acute foresight (behind which one should see Kakridis rather than Kazantzakis).  Although the project was not greeted with great enthusiasm in the first two decades after its publication, the transformation of Greece from a predominantly agricultural economy to a largely middle-class society, and the rapid urbanization followed by the desertion of the mountainous villages resulted in the disappearance, to the degree almost of extinction, of several local dialects, vocabularies and idioms, particularly in the last quarter of our century.  Pallis' vocabulary of folk songs sounds to the 1990s Athenian high-school student as alien and incomprehensible as the kathareuousa of Korais.  Kazantzakis' literary genius, and Kakridis' linguistic sensitivity and educational foresight offered a long-lasting translation of Homer for the Greek public both of the fifties and sixties and of the eighties and nineties.

  1.  In this essay every reference to "Greece" and "Greek" refers respectively to the modern Greek state and the historical events that have taken place since the War of Independence in 1821.  When the discussion touches upon the Greek heritage of earlier times, I employ the term "Ancient Greece" and "Ancient  Greek."
  2.  H. Bloom, A Map of Misreading  (New York 1975) 33.
  3.   D. Ricks, The Shade of Homer: A Study in Modern Greek Poetry (Cambridge 1989).
  4.  For detailed surveys of the historical background of the Language Question in Greece, especially among the circles of the Greek Diaspora in the pre-revolutionary period (among others, the relation of the Greek language to the ideals of European Humanism, Korais and his "purified koine") and in the generations of Atticizers that dominated the intellectual environment of the newly independent Greek state in the last two generations of the 19th century, see P. Bien, Kazantzakis and the Linguistic Revolution in Greek Literature (Princeton 1972) 13-90.  Most recent comprehensive overview of the so-called Greek "language Question" from the birth of the Greek nation state until the most recent constitutional Acts on language, in 1982 and 1985, see Beaton, An Introduction to Modern Greek Literature (Oxford 1994) Chapter 6 (with notes and bibliography).
  5.   The most eloquent proof for the revolutionary character of Pallis' undertaking to translate the Gospels is reflected on the fact that the first demotic translation of the New Testament, approved by the Patriarchate and the Church of Greece, was published only in the early 1980s.  At this point a demotic translation for the holy texts appeared as necessity, motivated by two sweeping educational reforms that declared demotic Greek as the official language of the Hellenic Republic, and restricted the compulsory instruction of Ancient Greek to only two grades of high school.
  6.  Bien, Kazantzakis ..., 108.
  7.  According to Linos Politis (A History of Modern Greek Literature [Oxford 1972] 173), "[Pallis'] translation of the Iliad is perhaps the most significant achievement of the generation of the first demoticists.  One might call it the symbol of faith of that generation."
  8.  On Kazantzakis' demoticism, form the beginning of his literary career, see the excellent study of Bien, Kazantzakis ..., 149-264.
  9.  On the "Trial of Accents," K. Th. Demaras, A History of Modern Greek Literature, tranls. by Mary Gianos (London 1974) ii. 193-97.
  10.  A unique source for Kazantzakis-Kakridis' translation of the Iliad is furnished by the Chronicle of the project, kept by Kakridis himself, and which describes the course of their collaboration since the very first moment of their accidental encounter in the hallway outside the office of the former Minister of Education, G. Papandreou, in January 1942; See, I.Th. Kakridis, "To Chroniko mias Sunergasias," Nea Estia (Christmas 1959) 115-20; also, ibid., "I Metaphrasi tis Iliadas," Kainouria Epochi (Winter 1956) 17-64.


    Copyright © Sophia Papaioannou.