Wild Court

An international poetry journal based in the English Department of King’s College London

Translations of Theodorakis by Gail Holst-Warhaft


The below translations are taken from The House with the Scorpions: Selected Poems and Song-Lyrics of Mikis Theodorakis (Fomite, 2020), translated by Gail Holst-Warhaft. The book presents Theodorakis’s poems and lyrics in Greek and English.


In Greece Mikis Theodorakis is a national icon. He is the country’s most famous composer, and a figure who has spent his life struggling against injustice and oppression in his own country and elsewhere. He has been jailed and tortured for his beliefs, continuing to produce a stream of music and poetry despite his suffering. Gail Holst-Warhaft, who has spent many years working with the composer as a musician, biographer and translator, has translated all of the composer’s lyrics and combined them with Theodorakis’s virtually unknown poems.



    Three sections from The Sun and Time



In the dry soil of my heart
a cactus has grown.
It’s been more than twenty centuries
since I dreamed of jasmine
my hair smelled of jasmine
my voice had taken something
of its delicate perfume
my clothes smelled of jasmine
my life had taken something
of its delicate perfume.
But the cactus is not bad;
it simply doesn’t know it and is afraid.
Sadly I look at the cactus;
where did all those centuries go?
I will live as many again
listening to the roots
as they grow steadily
in the dry soil of my heart.

In the paradise gardens of my skull
a yellow sun travels on the wings of time.
Birds with wooden wings follow
angels lead the way on jets

a grand procession
above the banana trees, eucalyptus and pines
that cover the left side of my brain;

on the right, nymphs and heavenly whores
covered in jasmine
red lizards listen to the waterfalls
that disappear into the sewers of my spine
where the Earth begins
and the Universe ends.

Suddenly the grand procession stands still
six in the afternoon
exactly six o’clock
the procession Time, the Sun stops

only the birds fly on
beating their wooden wings
and even the jets lament like angels.

I have a private labyrinth
a private twelve horsepower Minotaur.
I seek a second-hand Theseus at a good price
I will exchange a Japanese radio
for Ariadne if possible a widow
under forty,
income above five figures,
time limit
a tenth of a second
in a tenth of a second
I will be dead.


Note: This sequence of poems was written in prison during the military dictatorship of 1967-74. Theodorakis was arrested in August, 1967 and kept in solitary confinement, believing he would be tortured or executed. In exile, after his release, he set a number of the sections to music.



    The Slaughterhouse


from 'Songs for Andreas'


At noon they beat someone in the office
I count the blows, I measure the blood

I am the fattened beast, they’ve shut me in the slaughterhouse
today you, tomorrow, me.

They beat Andreas on the terrace
I count the blows, I measure the pain.
We’ll meet again behind the wall;
tap-tap, you, tap-tap, me

which means,
in this dumb language,
I’m holding on, I’m holding on well.

In our hearts the feast begins:
tap-tap you, tap-tap, me.

Our slaughterhouse smelled of thyme
and our cell, red sky.


Note: Like The Sun and Time, these poems, that became song-texts, were written by Theodorakis about his imprisonment at the beginning of the 1967-74 dictatorship. The songs are dedicated to Andreas Lentakis, a fellow-member of the left wing organization Lambrakis Youth, who was severely tortured. The two prisoners communicated with each other in a code they tapped out on the walls of their adjoining cells.