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The Stephen Spender Prize 2015 for poetry in translation
in association with the Guardian

Open category, second prize

Read the judges’ comments
Email to request a free hard copy of the booklet (UK addresses only)
Read the winning entries from previous years

Francisca Gale

Long-Distance Conversation

Last night my father
called me.

Send me some bottles of ouzo,
he told me, and one or two
cartons of strong cigarettes,
so I can sit of an evening and think of you all.

And – before I forget – five or six records
with those old Pontic songs, you know,
the sad ones.

Over here the days pass by so slowly,
and where are you supposed to find
cigarettes, ouzo, and songs from home,
in the shops of heaven.

Translated from the Greek by Francisca Gale

The original Greek may not display properly in older browsers or on computers running non-unicode-compliant operating systems. To view an image file of the poem and commentary, click here (opens in new window).

Υπεραστική συνδιάλεξη

Εχτές το βράδυ μου τηλεφώνησε
ο πατέρας μου.

Στείλε μου μερικά
πενηνταράκια ούζο, μου είπε,
και καναδυό κούτες τσιγάρα
σέρτικα, να κάθουμαι τα βράδια
να σας συλλογιέμαι.

Και – να μην
το ξεχάσω – και πεντέξι δίσκους
φωναγράφου μ`εκείνα τα παλιά, ξέρεις,
ποντιακά τραγούδια, τα λυπητερά.

Εδώ στα ξένα δύσκολα περνούν οι μέρες
και που να βρεις τσιγάρα, ούζο και τραγούδια
της πατρίδας, στα μαγαζάκια τ`ουρανού.

Anestis Evangelou

Translation commentary

I first came across this poem (which has not, as far as I know, been translated into English before) during a seminar on death in modern Greek literature. The reason for the poem's inclusion in such a course is not apparent at first; it's only in the final line of verse that it becomes clear that the father is not simply working abroad, but is in fact dead. The degree to which this comes as a surprise could have been heightened in my translation: the title of the poem could also be rendered 'long-distance phonecall', and the father could have 'phoned' the son. Instead I chose the more ambiguous 'conversation' and 'called', so that the effect was not too jarring. In turn, it is worth noting that the word for heaven in Greek, ουρανός, is also used for the sky, so my choice of 'heaven' is a decision for less ambiguity in the final line.

What particularly attracted me to the poem is the father's voice – very informal and colloquial, somewhat reminiscent of the voices of rebetika, the Greek blues. This was, however, perhaps the most difficult aspect of the poem to represent in English. The distinct rhythm of the father's speech is created through the positioning of the lines within the stanzas of free verse, so I sought to replicate this rhythm in the same way in English.

In many respects, the poem is distinctly Greek, and so sometimes it was not possible to translate directly into English. For instance, πενηνταράκι is a specific measure used for spirits in Greece, which would have made a clumsy translation, so I decided simply to describe them as bottles of ouzo. Nevertheless, I think the 'Greekness' of the poem is retained in translation, and this cultural specificity makes the poem's universal themes – homesickness, death, family – all the more poignant.

Francisca Gale