Christina Crăiuţu







Translating Modernity through Antiquity in the philosophical poetry of Manolis Pratikakis




“Greece in Translation” Conference, Oxford University

October 6, 2012



Freelance Translator, Modern Greek

Bloomington, Indiana US




Introduction (8)

In his set of 108 fragments entitled Σταγόνες” (“Drops”) from his collection of poems entitled Το νερό (Water) published in 2002 by Μεταίχμιο press, contemporary Cretan-born poet Manolis Pratikakis invites his translator into Pratikakis’ own remarkably sophisticated philosophical-poetic universe and simultaneously into the philosophical-poetic universe of the Ancient Archaic Greeks—particularly that of Homer and the Presocratics.  Pratikakis artfully intersperses his own highly stylized modern fragments with quotations of ancient fragments which serve as “oracles,” as he himself explains in his afterward on “Drops.” His fragments are variations; combinations of different verses; language games. Seen through a kaleidoscope, the fragments become a distinct work of art, a unified object of Greek culture both Ancient and Modern.  And the “Greece in Translation” that emerges for the contemporary translator is that very place where the culture of poetry and philosophy are thriving as they did in the spring of their early antique origin.

Pratikakis shares his fascination with water with Modernists Iorgos Seferis and Odysseus Elytis. Seferis’ “flowering sea,” water, and wells in the parched land of Greece are everywhere in his poetry-in familiar poems such « Denial, » « The King of Asine, » « Our Country is Closed in, »  and in “Sketches for a Summer” in which he writes: “The warm water reminds me each morning/that I have nothing else alive near me.”  And “Stop looking for the sea and the wave’s fleece pushing the caïques along/under the sky we are the fish and the trees are the seaweed.”




The sea and waters are fundamental in the poetry of Elytis, especially in the gem « Of the Aegean. »  In Τὸ Νεροστάγονα, “The Water Drop” from Maria Nephele he writes:


“Everything a drop of beauty

trembling on the eyelashes;

a transparent sadness like Athos hanging from the sky

Alone vigorous the waterdrop above the chasms.”


Ὅλα μία σταγόνα

ὀμορφιᾶς τρεμάμενη στὰ τσίνορα∙

μία λύπη διάφανη σάν Ἄθως κρεμάμενος ἀπὸ τὸν οὐρανό

Μόνη της ἡ σταγόνα σθεναρὴ πάνω ἀπ΄ τὰ βάραθρα.


And there is “The Poet of Clouds and Waves” in the Passion of Axion Esti, and in Prosanatolismoi, where we are “Descendants of perishable tears. » In Helios o Protos” the poet is “drinking the sun of Corinth and…striding through the vineyard sea.”

Pratikakis reflects upon what exactly it was that he found so enchanting about water when writing this poetry. “That which makes it unpredictable and so the precise essence of Becoming… The way it moves together letters in a grammar (as yet) incomprehensible… The unspoken and unrevealable that will forever veil one remain… the principle matter from which dreams are formed.”

Pratikakis’ reflections lead us to shared insights and poetic expressions of  Modern Greek poets, but also to many ancient poets and philosophers who contemplated the nature of the element water in particular. Pratikakis’ connection with these authors is the focus of my current study.

According to Aristotle in the Metaphysics,Thales thought that the single material substance of the originating principle of the universe, the αρχή, was water.

For Heraclitus, water is one of the three world masses on par with fire and earth. His famous river image emphasizes the absolute continuity of change in every single thing: everything is in perpetual flux like a river. “Upon those that step into

the same rivers different and different waters flow…They scatter and…gather…come together and flow away…approach and depart.” Ποταμοĩσι τοĩσιν αὐτοισĩν ἐμβαίνουσιν ἕτερα καὶ ἕτερα ὕδατα ἐπιρρεĩ…σκίδνησι καὶ…συνάγει…συνίσταται καὶ ἀπολείπει… πρόσεισι καὶ ἄπεισι.

For Empedocles, one of the four elemental roots of Being is Water, which he personifies in the preface to his hexameter poem “On Nature” as weeping Nestis. Nestis, who with her tears waters mortal springs. Nestis, the speakable name for the maiden Persephone, who also ruled the underworld. Pratikakis’ water is also at times weeping, awful, full of the death and deep wounds. Empedocles sought the origin of the “sea of many waves,” the sea that comes into being when the earth is heated. Sea, the salty sweat of the earth. “The heart dwelling in the sea of blood which surges back and forth is what is called thought by men; for the blood around men’s hearts is their thought.” (fr. 392)  Human thought is water. Water is a primary element of the universe. Man and universe are inexplicably bound.

In the epic world of Homer, the nature of water, sea, and seafaring and the metaphors used to describe water infuse the entirety of the Iliad and Odyssey, and Pratikakis draws from these early epics as well.  The individual Odysseus is a traveler on the open sea. Achilles’ mother is the sea nymph Thetis, wife of the old man of the sea.

And Pratikakis, born on the coast of the Libyan sea in Ierapetra, Crete, also joins Sappho and Alcaeus of Lesbos in celebrating the pure lyrical beauty of water and it’s sounds. Water defined so many moments for the poet Pratikakis as a child. His expression of the ephemerality of the element can only come from an individual in Greece, with the sea branded in his heart.





This morning we only have time to look at 11 of the 108 fragments from Σταγόνες.  These provide examples of Pratikakis’ rather playful and clever style of quoting and integrating ancient fragments into his own well-crafted fragments. Some of the fragments have very particular styles which lends the reader a subtle connotation or meaning as a result of that style. By identifying the quoted original fragments and their context, we can gain a better insight into what the poet was seeing in his own mind when he was writing, and what literature informed his choices.


In Part 1, Example A, Fragment 5 is actually a genuine fragment of a Theogony attributed to Orpheus. When Pratikakis writes an “oracle” of an existing ancient fragment, he doesn’t tell us what the fragment is or where it came from. And the ancient fragments aren’t marked by italics or quotation marks. If in the course of translating I do recognize or identify a real fragment, then I put that fragment in quotation marks to give the lines a type of oracular distance from the other poetry.

In example B, Fragment 11, Pratikakis inserts the Empedocles’ fragment dealing metempsychosis within his own fragment. Again only the Empedocles fragment itself is in parenthesis.

In example C, Fragment 78, Pratikakis quotes a Heraclitus fragment and then qualifies it with his own idea that the soul does indeed need water in order to bloom. He clearly opposes Heraclitus’ idea that the element water brings death to human souls.

In example D, Fragment 24, Pratikakis quotes from Homer’s Odyssey 4.385-6 when Menelaos recounts his wanderings and his dialogue with Eidotheia, daughter of Proteus, the Old Man of the Sea. Eidotheia tells Menelaos about her father, “who knows all the depths of the sea. The adjective ολοόφρονος is used in the Odyssey to connote a sagacious, crafy wisdom. (It can also mean “baleful” or “threatening” in other contexts). The first meaning holds well here, as Eidotheia is talking about the difficultly of actually catching the transformative Old Man of the Sea.

In example E. Fragment 95, Pratikakis quotes 2 full lines from book 10 of Homer’s Odyssey. (This is when Odysseus is told by Circe that he must make the journey down into the underworld to consult the prophet Tieresias). This second reference to the Odyssey underscores the significance of the figure of the wanderer at sea.

In example F, Fragment 101 is a fragment of a fragment from Odyssey book 19 when Eurykleia recalls Autolykos giving the name Odysseus to his newly born grandson. The name of this seafarer brings with it difficulty, hate and suffering.

Poseidon of the sea himself hates Odysseus.


On the next page, Part II, these three fragments are reminiscent of ancient fragments but are Pratikakis’ own creations.

In example A, Pratikakis’ preface to his whole collection, he labels the hymn as Orphic, even though there isn’t a single Orphic hymn devoted to both Ocean and Tethys.

Similarly in example B, fragment 10 combines a hymn to both Poseidon and Proteus. (Not found in the Homeric or Orphic corpus).

Example C. fragment  30, was remarkably difficult to translate. The images and adjectives are very much something we would find in the Iliad, but the lines are certainly not dactylic hexameter.


On the next page, Part 3, we have two very lovely lyrical oracles. Stylistically the inclusion of these fragments also reminds us of the true delicacy and fragility of some of the real extant fragments we have of the ancient lyricists.

In example A, Fragment 21 is a fragment of a fragment of Alcaeus. Translating, it was a pure delight to recognize. If you look at the wider context for the fragment Pratikakis gives, you see even more lyric about the loveliness of the most beautiful of rivers, the Maritsa, flowing into a turbid sea and surging through the land of Thrace.

In example B, Fragment 49 seems to me one of Pratikakis own fragments written with a very Sapphic style and vocabulary. As you can see I compare it to an extant fragment of Sappho which includes the same cool water that rushes along (ύδωρ ψυχρόν κελάδει).

The photocopy on the top of the page is there just to give a sense of what it is like to look at a reconstructed text (in this case of Empedocles) again to see the delicacy and uncertainty of some of these precious fragments. Similarly on the cover page of the handout, the photo of assembled fragments of an Empedocles papyrus is a visual representation of how fragments can sometimes be restored and understood as a unity of writing.





Translating the Ancient and Modern Greek in these poems is like taking journey through a landscape of fragmented marble sculpture, bronze, bits and pieces of vases, bones of the dead, sections of scaffolding, remnants of a shipwreck, and of course scrolls of papyrus. Some from Archaic Greece, and some newly created. After the journey of translating these deliberate fragments, what emerges is a remarkable conceptual unity in Pratikakis own thinking. As you have seen in the handout, these playful and rather difficult fragments connect him stylistically to the form in which his predecessor’s work has come down to us, but they also coalesce into a philosophical perspective which links Pratikakis above all to Empedocles.

For Empedocles “the δαίμων in each of us is actually a fragment of a Sphere which is the totally of universal elements. Each individual is currently subject to strife among the elements, one day to be united with all its other fragments…” (KRS 321). For Empedocles and Pratikakis, the “I” (the person narrating and writing the poetry) is tossed from element to element and is in constant transformation.

But that I survives this transformation and the poet writing never truly disappear s into a universal element.


Pratikakis writes in fragment 105, near the end of the collection:


In the end he is a person who sets off incessantly

for sea. Who incessantly returns from sea.

A person who is always drowning. Who is always

Saved from drowning.


Τελικά είν΄ένας άνθρωπος που πηγαίνει αδιάκοπα

στη θάλασσα. Που αδιάκοπα έρχεται απ΄τη θάλασσα.

Ένας άνθρωπος που ολοένα πνίγεται. Που ολοένα

Σώζεται από πνιγμό.


Both philosophical poets are contemplating the nature of the four fundamental elements which comprise the enduring landscape of Greece. Its sun, its earth, its sky, and its great blue sea. (Pratikakis initially set out to write a collection devoted to each of these elements).

By attempting to craft language from a rather difficult language, the translator is a poet. And the poet is a translator of his very own existence when he lets “the oracles” of his thoughts surface like drops from an ocean wave which inevitably rejoin their primordial element. Like a drop of blood for Empedocles that rejoins the flowing river of blood that is thought for man. As Pratikakis writes in his own oracular style:

“One drop that out of the text sprang

later as many drops merged together into the immensity of the one.”


His fragments merged together into the unity of a poem.  If we remember that we are looking through the eyes of a young boy who sees and hears and feels the water of the Libyan sea as it washes up to his childhood home, we know that poet himself will never be subsumed in the element, he himself has absorbed the element of water into his own being. Perhaps the next element he writes about will be light—the sun of Greece. As Pratikakis writes in Fragement 104:

The sea breeze that permeated all of

childhood years. This salty taste which gave

its own dew air to consciousness. The sea light.


Εκείνη η θαλασσινή αύρα που διαπέρασε όλα τα

παιδικά του χρόνια. Αυτή η υφάλμυρη γεύση που έδωσε

τη δική της υγρασία στη συνείδηση. Το θαλασσινό φως.











 Christina Crăiuţu, a member of the American Literary Translators Association and the Modern Greek Studies Association, is a writer and freelance translator of Modern Greek. She lives in Bloomington, Indiana with husband Aurelian and daughter Sophia Alexandra, and has taught Modern Greek as Assistant Lecturer in the West European Studies Program at Indiana University, Bloomington. Christina received an honors B.A. in Classics/History/Philosophy from the Colorado College with a thesis on the ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy from Parmenides through Aristotle, and an M.A. in Ancient Greek from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a text/emendation, translation and commentary on Pindar’s Eighth Pythian Ode. Christina is also an alumna of the College Year in Athens /International Center for Hellenic and Mediterranean Studies. Her particular literary interests include Early Ancient Greek poetry and philosophy, and Modern Greek surrealist poetry and prose. Christina’s first full length translation is of Eugenia Fakinou’s magical realist novel Η Μεγάλη Πράσινη, and she is currently translation Fakinou’s Το Τρένο των Νεφών.

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