NEW YORK – At the moment the life of Edmund Keeley, the author and award-winning translator of modern Greek literature, is a mix of the poetic and the prosaic – with a touch of Greek spice.
The Diaries of Exile by Yannis Ritsos, which Keeley and Karen Emmerich translated, has just been honored with the 2014 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation. But he is mired in the post-crisis Greek real estate market trying to sell his nice apartment in Athens’ Kolonaki district.
It’s frustrating, but what is painful is watching the suffering of the Greek people. “The situation is dire. People don’t have money to buy things and people need to sell property to pay the new taxes.” One could almost feel a sigh over the phone when he said “the general malaise is shown in the failure of Kefi that used to be there all the time – it’s still there, but it takes a little ouzo to raise it.”
When words like “stability” and “progress” were tossed into the conversation he responded, “I’m not sure whether it is or isn’t getting worse. Some people think it’s going to get better and being Greeks” or a philhellene in his case, “we grasp for what hope we can.”
Hellenism took root when he was eight in 1936. His father was U.S. Consul in Thessaloniki and he learned his fluent Greek at the American Farm School.
“Greece came into my psyche very strongly. I fell in love with it in a way that was abiding.” He loved the country, the climate and the people.
Edmund was the middle boy of three and learned Greek the best, notwithstanding that Robert, the youngest, eventually became U.S. Ambassador to Greece.
Keeley majored in English at Princeton. He regrets not also majoring in classics, and the modern Greek program he helped build was still a gleam in the eyes of benefactors Aristotle Onassis and Stanley Seeger.
Seeger was persuaded by Robert Keeley, his friend at Princeton, to go to Greece, and he too fell in love with the country.
Keeley met his future wife, Mary Stathatos-Kyris at Oxford. He was studying English literature but after joining the delightful and resourceful Greek community there – postwar rationing put a hard edge on campus life – he shifted his dissertation topic from W.B. Yeats to Cavafy, Seferis and Elitis, then relatively unknown.
When his conversation with TNH shifted to the translation, Keeley said “I want to honor Karen Emmerich,” just hired by Princeton as an Asst. Professor, whom he called a gifted translator.
“She persuaded me to try my hand again at Ritsos, whom I always loved.”
He said the poems are difficult because they constitute both a diary and a historical account.
The works explores “the psychology, the soul’s experience of exile that Ritsos went through,” Keeley said.
The diaries were written between 1948 and 1950 when the poet was exiled to Limnos and Makronissos because he was a communist.
“These poems offer glimpses into the daily routine of life in exile, the violence that Ritsos and his fellow prisoners endured…and the struggle to maintain their humanity through language,” according to the publisher’s release.
Keeley called the work “one of the great expressions of what was happening to the artists and intellectuals at that time.”
The translation was a collaboration, which is the way he usually worked. He previously worked on Ritsos on his own, however, because he could not find people to work with. “There was a real prejudice that had to be countered, even among those who should know better,” he said.
When he worked with Emmerich, they divided up poems in Ritsos’ three volumes arbitrarily. “That is a good thing because you don’t go in with any prejudice.”
They looked at each other’s work and commented through the internet. “That’s a very profitable way of doing translations, having an involved and knowledgeable critic going over your work,” he said. They also worked on and recited the poems to each other in person.
It is a process that worked well in the past with Philip Sherrard and George Savidis.
“We started with separate versions but gradually ended up with a single voice. We hope it’s… equivalent to his complicated voice.”
Regarding those who believe translation is a mechanical process, Keeley agreed that especially with poetry, the writers are creating new poems.
“You should end up with a poem that can stand in English.. but I believe you have more of a responsibility to the original poet than to your own voice…and if you are not yourself a poet there is a little more humility,” which is necessary.
He has written little poetry and that early on in Princeton. Keeley has published eight novels, however, most recently The Megabuilders of Queenston Park. It’s about the devastating effect of developers on the landscape of America, which he witnessed firsthand at Princeton University.