Found in Translation: the poetry in The Road to Sparta

the-road-to-sparta-poster-35x50In the documentary film The Road to Sparta, we took the slightly off-beam decision to turn to poetry to help us tell the story of the ancient Greek runner whose run from Athens to Sparta to ask for reinforcements to fight the Persians is the inspiration for the modern Spartathlon.

We had considered other options. Dressing up my co-director and camera guru Roddy Gibson in a chiton and making him run through the olive groves had its attractions and, as it turned out, he did make himself busy and a touch more slimline with several bounding runs – camera on shoulder – through the undergrowth of the Peloponnese. 

We also looked at the possibility of breaking out of documentary into drama and using actors to tell that element of the tale.

But that idea never took flight. It didn’t feel right for what we were doing. And so we landed on poetry. This would help us on several levels, partly because a runner is so much in his or her own head during a run that the internalisation offered by poetry with its rhythms and repetitions would help us fill some of those long passages between checkpoints. Secondly, I knew the poet that we needed. Her husband had given me a job at the Athens News some years before.

a-e-stallingsAnd so it fell that the American poet Alicia “AE” Stallings (right) came on board and delivered a series of sonnets. Some slotted straight into the action; others we allowed to lead and cut the images around the words.

These poems are crucial to the feel of the film; I was delighted for Alicia when that was recognised at the Motion Picture Film Festival in Lagos last year where we won the Best Poetry award.

In order to screen the film at the Peloponnese International Documentary Film Festival in January, however, I realised that we needed proper poetic translations into Greek rather than a literal translation.  So, after discussion with Alicia, I commissioned another poet Orfeas Apergis to do the honours.

Born in Athens in 1974, Orfeas has been publishing in Greek journals since 2006. A volume of his collected poetry appeared in late 2011, under the title Y and he has recently published a new collection called Η γλώσσα τους which translates as Their Tongue.

Here he talks about the task of translating the poetry of AE Stallings.

Orfeas Apergis
Orfeas Apergis translated AE Stallings’ sonnets into Greek

Barney Spender: First of all Orfeas, many thanks indeed for helping us out. I am not a Greek speaker but the feedback I have had from those that saw the film in Kalamata and in Sparta was that you had done a great job rendering the spirit and sense and poetry of the originals.

Orfeas Apergis: That is very kind and nice to hear. Thank you.

Barney: What was your initial feeling about translating the sonnets of AE Stallings for The Road to Sparta?

Orfeas: Well, I was familiar with Alicia’s poetry about contemporary Greece, as seen through the eyes of a person coming from the West and thus steeped in the Graeco-Roman classics. However, I knew she was trying to dissect and lay bare such pre-conceptions of Greece, so I was really looking forward to translating her poetry.

Barney: Did you connect with the poems straightaway?

Orfeas: Alicia’s new poems confirmed my expectations in terms of their unfettered view of Greece. Plus, they were very rewarding poetically speaking, ie in terms of literary technical sophistication and finesse.

Barney: You obviously have a high regard for her as a poet.

Orfeas: I can only say that Alicia Stallings is a master craftswoman of the old art of Poesy. Hers is a strong, classical voice in the grand manner. She never shirks away from using traditional poetic devices like the iambic line or intricate rhyme schemes. However, these stylistic fireworks that she uses with such aplomb and virtuosity are never put to ordinary use.

Barney: What do you mean by that?

Orfeas; Well, she is always striving to say something about the current state of things. She is searching for understanding and perhaps, through that, some solace. See for example, in The Road to Sparta how she focuses her poetic gaze on the graffitied walls of Athens-in-crisis in her poem Billboards (see box) and uses rhyme and rhythm to monumentalise, somehow, the explosion of street art brought on by the crisis. That extracts a philosophically sobering, if not stoically dispassionate, conclusion about what has been going on in Greece over the past two, ten or for that matter 2,000 years.


“Ragged, disused billboards advertise
The warnings of street-prophets, whose alphabet
Is characters a fathom high, the void

Malamatenia Gotsi voices Billboards

Filled by a single word, in Greek:  Mistake.
Or else in Lingua franca English, Wake
Up!  As if just opening our eyes
Would stop the nightmare, history’s recursions,
And give us back the future unalloyed.
Austerity digs deeper into debt,
We borrow days as fast as Time will lend them,
And vote on Freedom’s blighted referendum.
Yet we are always quarrelling when the Persians
Mass on the plain. The odds were always harsh
On the field of fennel near the brackish marsh.”

AE Stallings

Barney: Do the poems work in a narrative sense?

Orfeas: The poems seem to have been done, as the French would say: sur mésure. They give one the impression that they were tailor-made for the film, expertly woven into it, given their rhythm—which matches the very rhythmical activity of strenuous running involved in the Spartathlon—and their themes or imagery. For example, the poem The Spartans say No talks about the circumstances in which the original Spartathlon came to be, and Heraclitus’ musings about the nature of coursing through this Earth – “The road up is the same as the road down” and “You cannot step in the same river twice” – as presented and updated by Alicia Stallings, explore the philosophical underpinnings of the Greeks’ running exploits.

Orfeas Apergis’ new book Η γλώσσα τους (Their Tongue)

Barney: I was keen that you have a free hand in translating them, making them work in Greek as poems in their own right rather than simply line for line translations and it looks as though you did that very well.

Orfeas: From where I stand, translation is a whole big chapter in the creative writing arts. It’s writing but it’s always already creative and arty. In other words, it’s a craft, and beyond that it must be crafty, by being creative in a destroy-and-reassemble kind of way.

Barney: So, how did you go about putting them into Greek?

Orfeas: I thought it would be worth a try to preserve, as far as possible, Alicia’s intricate rhythms and rhyme schemes. They are as much a part of her poems’ potency as the apparent themes. Indeed, her dazzling technique, employed in the grand old manner, forms an integral part of the poems’ content.


Κουρελιασμένες, εγκαταλειμμένες πινακίδες διαφημίζουνε
τις προφητείες προφητών του δρόμου, των οποίων η αλφάβητος
αποτελείται από γράμματα, καθένα μια οργιά, το κενό
γεμίζεται με μία μόνο λέξη στα Ελληνικά: το «Λάθως».
Ή στην κοινή της εποχής που είναι τα Αγγλικά, «Wake
Up!» (Ξυπνάτε, αυτό σημαίνει).

Ωσάν ανοίγοντας τα μάτια
να σταματούσαμε τους εφιάλτες της ιστορίας τις αναδρομές,
και να επιστρέφονταν σε μας το μέλλον αμιγές.
Σκάβει η λιτότης πιο βαθιά την τρύπα αυτού του χρέους,
τις μέρες δανειζόμαστε όσο πιο γρήγορα ο Χρόνος τις δανείζει,
και ρίχνουμε μια ψήφο στης Ελευθερίας το σημαδεμένο δημοψήφισμα.
Και όμως, πάντα καβγαδίζουμε όταν οι Πέρσες
συγκεντρώνουνε δυνάμεις στην πεδιάδα.

Οι πιθανότητες ήτανε πάντα εναντίον μας
μέσα στα μάραθα, μες στα γλυφά βαλτόνερα, που είναι το πεδίον μας.

Orfeas Apergis (translated from the original by AE Stallings)

Barney: Does poetry still matter?

Orfeas: I’ve slowly developed the notion that poetry should move away from the fragmentation of form introduced by modernism and become something closer to what I call “fluxional poetry”. That is a narrative flow which recounts real-sounding stories, with beginning, middle and end, stories which are accretions of a lot of detail seemingly – but not really – superfluous or incongruous. I see poetry as a DIY sort of refuge, made out of the refuse of a technological age fast becoming post-technological and thus very, very anxious, existentially speaking.

The Road to Sparta won Best Poetry at MOPIFF 2018

Barney: Does it have a place in the 21st century?

Orfeas: Poetry is an old, hallowed art, with clunky, age-old mechanisms. But hey, they still work and we’re lucky to have them, from the comfort – or discomfort – of one’s sitting room, even when there’s a power cut and you’re in the dark and you’ve only got a couple of matches left and an old poetry book you used to love when you were in love and young beyond belief…

A volume featuring the AE Stallings’ sonnets for The Road to Sparta and their translations by Orfeas Apergis will be published later this year.

Anyone looking to buy a copy of Η γλώσσα τους can order via Fair Book Store or through Politeia

©Barney Spender 2019