In reviewing a new translation of Greek poet Eleni Vakalo in 1973, Kimon Friar followed four paragraphs of rhapsodic praise and grand claims—he asserts, for instance, that “the creator must ruthlessly kill off his accumulated self and strip himself to essential bone”—with a quick dismissal of the volume under review. “Unfortunately,” Friar wrote, “Paul Merchant’s translation is not up to the high standard he set for himself.” Friar also translated Vakalo, so his respect for this “high standard” had a lot to do with his admiration for her “cauterizing imagination.” But his complaint, which distinguishes between Vakalo and Vakalo-via-Merchant, points to a broader problem in writing about translation: it can be hard to follow John Updike’s advice to “review the book, not the reputation,” because part of what gets translated, in translation, is a sense of, well, the “essential bone” of a writer’s importance, which a reader sees through the “accumulated self” that forms when languages meet.

Fortunately, Karen Emmerich’s new translation of Vakalo, Before Lyricism, which collects six linked sequences in a stylish edition, is not just up to the high standard of Emmerich’s past translations but to a standard for translation that would often be unrealistic: one doesn’t need to choose between reviewing the book or the reputation, because the poetry itself aptly and inspiringly conveys Vakalo’s significance. After reading it, you shouldn’t be surprised to learn, in Emmerich’s afterword, that Vakalo “intensifies the particular forms of grammatical ambiguity available in Greek by recasting its syntax in unexpected ways” or that the sequences in Before Lyricism, originally published between 1954 and 1966, which “display sprawling yet deliberate assortments of prose, free verse, and even rhymed and metered lines,” reflect Vakalo’s interest in postwar art and aesthetics.

Read the full review here: