Creative Writing Student Nicole Miller Attends Princeton's 2011 Summer Translation Workshop in Greece

by Nicole Miller, edited by Richard Zauft

September 16, 2011

Nicole Miller
Creative Writing graduate student Nicole Miller

In April, I met with a post-doctoral fellow at Princeton and translator of Modern Greek, Dr. Karen Emmerich, in New York City.  Karen explained Princeton’s desire to bring early career translators from outside Princeton to their 2011 Summer Translation Workshop in Paros, Greece. Among the early career candidates being considered, I was the only applicant proposing to work on poems from the canon of Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933). With an eye towards balancing the presence of scholars with creative writers and in the spirit of extending their program to include participants from other institutions, the Princeton Committee selected me to attend their 2011 Summer Translation Workshop as a representative of Emerson’s M.F.A. Program in Creative Writing.

Summer Travel Grant

In his Fall 2010 graduate translation workshop, Professor Pablo Medina offered a tour of foreign literatures and cultures to creative writing students at Emerson.  Armed with theories and approaches spun by Goethe, Benjamin, Pound and Borges, students translated poetry, prose and film scripts from French, Spanish, German, Greek, and Korean.  For my translation project, I chose eight poems from the canon of Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933), an Alexandrian-Greek who lived in bureaucratic obscurity as a clerk in the Third Circle of Irrigation for the Egyptian government, but distinguished himself by publishing poems in literary magazines and broadsheets that were recognized in mainland Greece and throughout Europe at the turn of the twentieth century and after.  Cavafy’s poetry was disseminated in England by friend E.M. Forster, and translated into English from 1919 onwards, to growing praise and an international audience.  Of the three categories that Cavafy used to subdivide his poetry ( “historical”, on subjects and figures of Ancient Greek History, “hedonistic, ” often addressed to or involving romantic encounters with men, and philosophical/ “thought-provoking”), I concentrated on the shorter historical poems written between 1903-1930, including the well-known “God Abandons Antony” and “Alexandrian Kings.”

Professor Medina encouraged all of us to make contact with a native speaker and ask for feedback on our translations (“Take them out to dinner!” he said, “That should do the trick!”) The person I wish I could have gone to with this assignment was my grandmother, Katherine Tsacoyeanes, who grew up in a remote mountain village in Arcadia, Greece between the two World Wars.  She was ninety-four at the time I took Professor Medina’s course, and drifting in and out of consciousness for most of the term, in the final stages of vascular dementia one hundred miles away in the Farmington Valley of Connecticut.  She would have been gratified to learn that I was working on my Greek language again (spoken at home during the twenty years my grandmother lived with my family in New York and Florida) and that I was reaching out into the Greek community of Boston, which was also her community upon immigrating to the US during the Great Depression. 

With Professor Medina’s prompting, I contacted a friend who teaches Classics, and he in turn put me in touch with Professor Vassiliki Rapti, preceptor of Modern Greek at Harvard.  Professor Rapti took a special interest in my rough translations and invited me to give a presentation on Cavafy to her intermediate Modern Greek class at Harvard.   In between our meetings, I received tutorials from Cypriot graduate student of Comparative Literature at Harvard, Simos Zenios; Simos was able to correct my misprisions as well as point me towards important critics and translators of Modern Greek.  Within three months, I had familiarized myself with the canon of 154 poems, read the biographies and accounts of Cavafy’s Alexandria, and joined the Modern Greek Film Society at Harvard in order to see Stelios Charalambopoulos’s The Night Fernando Pessoa Met Constantine Cavafy (2008), a fantasy-cum-documentary about an imaginary meeting between Portugal and Greece’s two most celebrated modern poets on a ship headed to America (Note: Cavafy never visited America).  While my project of eight translated poems for Professor Medina’s translation workshop was complete by mid-December, I had discovered dozens of other poems that I wanted to try my hand at, outside of class. 

Both Professor Medina and Professor Rapti stayed in touch and continued to send me notices related to conferences and prizes for translation.  One of these was a call for applicants to the Princeton Hellenic Studies Summer Translation Workshop held at the House of Literature and sponsored by EKEMEL (the European Translation Centre for Literature and Human Sciences) in Paros, Greece.  The notice came around the time that my grandmother died, and while family visits and memorial services stirred an emotional undertow, the poem “Ithaka,” included in the funeral program, caught the attention of Father Cleopas Strongylis at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Boston.  Father Strongylis asked about my translations of Cavafy and mentioned a friend of his at Suffolk University, Dr. Peter Jeffreys, who had written books on Cavafy’s prose and connections to Forster.   I turned to Cavafy for solace at this time, met with Cavafy scholars and reestablished contact with my grandmother’s relatives—although grief splayed my focus, staying close to things Greek gave me some comfort. I sent off my application to Princeton at the end of March, knowing that actually getting admitted to the workshop was a long shot.

Thanks to the generous assistance of a travel grant made possible by the Dean of the School of the Arts, Daniel Tobin, and Dean of Graduate Studies, Richard Zauft, I set off for Athens on the 29th of June.  In Athens, I joined eight other workshop participants for a three-hour ferry ride to the island of Paros, located at the half-way point between Greece and Turkey.

Our group spent a week together at the House of Literature in Lefkes, workshopping translations of Modern Greek authors from 9-5pm every day.  In the evenings, we took rambles along the ancient mountain trails of the island and dined in tavernas on a magnificent sampling of local fare.    The conveners of the workshop—Karen Emmerich and Peter Constantine— were professional translators who aimed to help participants prepare their translations for publication.   The workshop was also intended to enhance our connections within the world of literary translation and broaden awareness of contemporary Greek authors who still need to be translated into English. 

Through my participation in Princeton’s Summer Translation Workshop, my appreciation for the labor of the literary translator has deepened.  Literary translation can only be conducted in isolation to a point.  The activity thrives on the checks and balances of native speakers, readers and other translators—weighing up multiple interpretations of a passage, line or word, and recognizing that every text which makes the journey from one language to another is a “choose your own adventure” story for the translator, are two important steps in a long and winding process.

Although I had prepared months for this journey with dialogue cassettes and nightly viewings of “SKAI” TV online, stock phrases didn’t sum up a panoramic view of the powdery rock and parched land or the lapis lazuli basin of the Aegean. And I still can’t describe—not in Greek or in English— the taste of the apricots a local shopkeeper brought in a box for our breakfast the first morning.

Upon returning from the Paros workshop, I possessed a toolbox of new angles and perspectives to use on Cavafy’s poetry.  I have been forced to go back to the drawing board with a number of the poems I translated this June, before the workshop took place.  Because I discovered where to find the original punctuation and layout for Cavafy’s texts from my island cohorts, I now fully grasp that it is my responsibility to refer to archival records rather than modernized editions of the works.  After I have emended my translations, I would like to submit to journals in the hope of getting a handful of the poems published.  Over the next several years, I intend to continue translating Cavafy in batches, perhaps collecting the poetry by theme rather than chronology.  In the bigger picture, and as a writer of fiction and memoir, I can now see that being Greek is part of my literary heritage as well as my literary future.  I’m committed to learning the language of my grandmother well enough to speak and read Greek without a dictionary in my pocket, and to writing about the culture, values, and lessons she brought to my family in a series of personal essays that will someday form a book.

Read more about Nicole Miller's time at Princeton's 2011 Summer Translation Workshop »