This is one of the more perplexing translation problems I’ve run across lately. As I mentioned in this LH thread, I’ve long been interested in Stratis Tsirkas‘ trilogy Akyvernites polities (Ακυβέρνητες Πολιτείες), but having had only the second and third volumes and not being particularly fluent in Greek, I never got around to it. But I recently discovered that there was a one-volume translation (by Kay Cicellis), Drifting Cities, available for just a few dollars, I immediately ordered it, and now that it’s arrived I’ve begun reading it. It’s set in Cairo, Alexandria, and Jerusalem in 1942-44, exactly the setting of Olivia Manning’s superb Levant Trilogy (which I highly recommend, but do read the Balkan Trilogy first), which gives it an added interest for me. So far I’m enjoying it greatly; I like the technique of telling the story from the viewpoints of different characters and the close attention paid to geographical setting.
But now to the title. You notice that I quoted Jimmy Ho’s citation of it (from the earlier thread) as Akyvernites polities, a simple transliteration; what’s that in English? Good question. The phrase is difficult if not impossible to translate usefully in this context. Politia (πολιτεία) is the origin of English polity and is similarly multifaceted: it can mean ‘form of government,’ ‘state, nation, country,’ ‘conduct, behavior, adventures,’ or ‘town.’ The last is not as common a sense, but since the novel focuses on three cities and the title is taken from Seferis’s poem “Ο Στράτης Θαλασσινός στη Νεκρή Θάλασσα” [Stratis Thalassinos on the Dead Sea], which begins “Ιερουσαλήμ, ακυβέρνητη πολιτεία” [Jerusalem, akiverniti politia], it can safely be translated city here. Now, what about the first word? Basically, it means either ‘without government’ or ‘ungovernable’: it consists of the privative prefix α- [a-] plus the root of κυβέρνηση [kivernisi] ‘government.’ But! The word κυβέρνηση is based on κυβερνήτης [kivernitis] ‘leader, ruler, governor’ (the root of cybernetics), which in Ancient Greek originally meant ‘steersman,’ and it has not lost that basic sense, so that ακυβέρνητος can also mean ‘not being steered, rudderless, adrift.’ This is, of course, most common in conjunction with words like πλοίο [plio] ‘boat, ship,’ but Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, the much-praised (overpraised, in my view) translators of Cavafy and Seferis, have chosen to render the Seferis line “Jerusalem, drifting city,” whence the title Drifting Cities used for the translation of the trilogy. I can sort of see the reasoning—drifting is much more “poetic” than ungoverned or ungovernable, and the poem deals with refugees and migratory birds and ships—but it’s not the obvious reading (cf., for example, this Greek newspaper article, which calls Iraq “μια ακυβέρνητη πολιτεία” ‘an ungoverned/ungovernable polity/nation’), and it seems to me it softens and “poeticizes” Tsirkas’s title in much the way Scott Moncrieff’s Remembrance of Things Past does Proust’s. Tsirkas is very much concerned with politics, and it seems to me “ungovernable cities” would be more to the point. But the choice may well have been approved by Tsirkas himself, since the French version (Cités à la derive, translated by Catherine Lerouvre and Chrysa Prokopaki, Éditions du Seuil, 1971) takes it the same way, and for that matter Seferis may have approved the Keeley/Sherrard rendering. But I take comfort in the fact that Rex Warner, quoted in Ammiel Alcalay’s essay “My Mediterranean,” translated the Seferis as “the ungovernable city.”


  1. The same word is also the kappa in Phi Beta Kappa (for some reason, I can’t enter it in Greek and get it displayed properly in preview.)
    It seems to me that if one wanted a poetic translation, “adrift” would be more appropriate than “drifting”; I think it more clearly points up the implicit analogy to sailing.

  2. Good point. I agree.

  3. Sounds like we’re in “Alexandria Quartet” territory. I realize that Durrell’s series is flawed but I loved it both times I read it. The second time the affectations and pretentiousness of various of the the characters were more easily perceived; when I was youg I thought I was supposed to be taking them at face value.

  4. Unruly?

  5. “Unruly” is good too!

  6. Unruly?
    Yes, that is good, I think.
    The rudderless ship of state. Untamed towns. Unmalleable municipalites.

  7. Vassilis Papadimos says:

    Interesting post!
    A nit: ‘ungoverned’ is a valid translation for ‘akiverniti’, but I believe ‘ungovernable’ is not. The closest I can get to ‘governable’ is the awkward ‘kivernisimi’ (just 12 google hits, some of them in scare quotes), and I can’t think of a way to express ‘ungovernable’ with a single word.

  8. Thanks—I was hoping an actual Greek would come along, and I’m glad there weren’t any more serious objections. But my largest Greek-English dictionary gives “ungovernable” as a translation, with (λαός) to explain the context of that use; are you sure it couldn’t be translated that way when speaking of a people?

  9. It’s worth remembering that titles are not controlled, in general, by authors or translators, but by publishers: they are considered an element of marketing.
    There is a French novel, La Jalousie (not the Robbe-Grillet work — I forget the author); many years ago I read an essay the translator wrote about translating it. He says that he tried to get the title The Blind, capturing not only the narrator-cuckold’s blindness to what is happening with his wife, but also the literal window blinds that (half-)conceal the adultery from him. But the publisher insisted on Jealousy, presumably for fear the reading public would think it was a book about the visually impaired.

  10. Vassilis Papadimos says:

    I can’t be certain — it’s the way I understand it, but I’ve been away from Greece for years, and I have no linguistic training.
    In fact one out of the three dictionaries I could find at http://www.greek-language.gr , the Georgaka dictionary, does give ‘ungoverned, unruled or ungovernable; badly governed; difficult to govern’ as a sense. The usage samples it gives (starting with ‘akiverniti politeia: ungoverned city’ !) are not helpful though: None of them seems to me to convey the stricter ‘ungovernable’, beyond the more general ‘ungoverned’.
    I also don’t think there’s any general rule to guide us here: akse*xastos, formed in the same way as akivernitos, does mean both ‘unforgettable’ and ‘unforgotten’, and in fact the -able sense is the primary one.

  11. I am reminded of a Chinese slogan (song lyric?) from the cultural revolution era — “sailing the sea depends / on the helmsman, Chairman Mao.” it doesn’t refer to him as “chairman,” a political term, but relies on metaphor to get the point across. that’s why i prefer “rudderless” as a rendering of akivirnitis. arguably, poetry is more about metaphor than particular choice of words. :-)

  12. “Rudderless” is good too. Either that or “unruly” would be far superior to “drifting,” which doesn’t really connote anything at all except “vague poetic descriptive haze.”

  13. Actually, la derive is used quite a lot in a political context, although it does not exactly mean “ungoverned”.

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