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Martin Johnston

Translations of Greek Folk Songs

This file is about four printed pages long.
You can read Martin’s essay Greek Folk Poetry in Jacket 11.


Dhiyenis On The Beach

To the beach he went, to the beach he goes;
he found the fine sand and played with it.
He ran it through his hands and his mind counted the grains
and when he’d counted them he got up to go.


Fire in the Garden

Who was it who set fire to the garden,
and the vine-fence burned and the garden burned
and the two trees burned that were united?
One was burned and fell, one was burned and stood.
And the one that fell has no more cares,
but the one that stood has much to suffer.
The north wind will blow, the south will rain,
dry ice will fall and burn its heart.


The Witch

Black swallows from the wilderness,
white pigeons from the seashore,
as you fly high past my place,
nest in the apple-tree in my yard
and tell my dearest wife:
Let her marry, let her become a nun,
let her dye her clothes, let her wear black,
let her not wait for me or expect me.
For they’ve married me off here in Armenia
to an Armenian girl, a witch’s daughter,
who enchants the stars and the sky,
enchants the birds so they don’t fly,
enchants the rivers so they don’t flow,
enchants the sea so it doesn’t surge,
enchants the boats so they don’t float
and enchants me so I don’t come home.
I set off there’s rain and snow,
I turn back, clear skies and sun.
I saddle my horse and it’s unsaddled,
I gird on my sword and it’s ungirded,
I start to write and it’s unwritten.

Shane, Greek priest, Martin, Hydra, 1957









l to r:
Shane, Greek priest, Martin

Hydra, 1957


The Foreigner

Now it’s May and spring, and now it’s summer,
now the branches bud and the flowers bloom.
Now the foreigner wants to go back to his place.
At night he saddles his horse, at night he shoes it,
makes silver shoes and golden nails,
puts on his spurs, puts on his sword.
And the girl who loves him holds a candle to light him,
the candle in one hand, the glass in the other,
and each drink she serves him, so often she says:
“Take me, master, take me with you,
let me cook for you to eat, make the bed for you to sleep,
become earth for you to tread, a bridge for you to cross,
a silver cup for you to drink your wine,
to drink your wine while I shine inside it.”
“Where I’m going, maiden, no woman can pass.
There are wolves in the mountains, brigands in the passes,
they’d take you, girl, and make a slave of me.”


The Murderess Mother

Andronikos set off deer-hunting,
and Konstantis to meet his teacher,
but forgot his pen and returned to get it.
He found the door open, the door wide open,
he found his mother in a stranger’s arms.
“Very well, mother, if Idon’t tell,
don’t tell my father, may I die young.”
“What did you see, fool, what will you tell?”
“If I saw good I’ll tell of good;
if I saw evil I’ll tell of evil.”

She led him astray with musk and sweetmeats,
in the cellar slaughtered him like a lamb,
like a true butcher took out his liver.
Nine times she washed it; it wouldn’t wash;
she washed it again; it still dripped blood.
And she put it in the pan to fry it.

And here’s Andronikos riding on the plain,
his armour thundering, his weapons gleaming,
bringing live deer, bringing tamed ibex,
bringing a fawn for Konstantis to play with.
He pulls up his black horse and greets her:
“Health and joy, dearest; where’s Konstantis?”
“I washed and dressed him and sent him to school.”

He spurs his horse and goes to the school.
“Where’s Konstantis, teacher, where’s my son?”
“I saw him two days ago and taught him three.”
He spurs his horse and goes to his house.
“Where’s Konstantis, wife, where is our son?”
“With my mother-in-law, and he’ll be back soon.”
He spurs his horse and goes to his mother.
“Where’s Konstantis, mother, where is my son?”
“I saw him two days ago and kissed him three,
and I’ll go mad if I don’t see him.”
He spurs his horse and goes to his house.
“Where’s Konstantis, bitch, little Konstantis?”
“He’s found some game; he’s somewhere playing.”
“Woman, serve dinner, let me eat my fill,
I’ll take to the mountains, take to the ridges,
to find Konstantis, the flower of my heart.”

She put the liver on a silver plate.
At the first bite he took, the liver quickened,
the liver spoke, the liver said:
“If you’re a dog, eat me; a Jew, discard me;
if you’re my father, lean down and kiss me.”
He spat out the morsel and looked around him,
his heart seized up, his eyesight darkened,
tears flowed in rivers, he almost fell,
but his strength came back and he drew his sword,
set it to her throat and cut her head off.
He chopped her up small, spread her in the sun,
from the sun to the sack, from the sack to the mill.
And the mill ground and the sails sang:
“Grind, mill, grind a bad bitch’s head,
make the flour red and the juices black,
for the learned to come for ink,
for the fair to come for rouge.”


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