Literal Translation by Frank Wynne

Mind the gap [1]

Gilles Ortlieb


After the mountains of Albania glimpsed through the window(2), as downy  and spongy(3) as cultures(4) in the eyepiece of a microscope, and the mercury pools of distant lakes, here, at last, are the mountains of Greece  and its jagged(5) shores, (6) before the plane(7) lands on the July tarmac as one might open an furnace(8) door. Return to the country where lemons blossom, and anyone(9) who walks across a carpet rustling with cicadas while Hymettus,(10) its crest(11) bristling with antennae(12) – or banderillas(13) – is preparing to darken in the gathering dusk until(14) it is the colour(15) of a ripe fig. The screams of kids(16) rising from a park:(17) a chirruping of shadows amongst the column shafts of the ancient logos,(18) voices of  long ago(19) and of now calling to each other in the devastated(20) city. Plato now trades(21) in used cars, Euripides behind his bar, sells iced coffee to take away, marble from [Mount] Pentelicus lines the pavements(22) and the meanders of the [river] Ilissos run dry, vanished in the grass and beneath the cars,(23) decorates the manhole covers. And yet, they say, an onion is still enough to lay a table, (24) what is most important is knowing who to share it with:  poverty(25) takes responsibility for teaching art (26) and manners. Mind the gap, I read on the train to Pireas,(27)  between the train and the platform, between the other and the self, the East and the West, the Greek of Homer or of Sappho and that of interjections all around. (28) Two ears and two eyes for a single mouth, here it will be less a matter of speaking than of looking, listening and, like Goethe sheltering from the cannonades of Empire, (29) of Théophile Gautier(30) disregarding the storm lashing against his closed windows, (31) of seeking refuge and homeland in this language learned, mumbled in the markets and chanted in the churches – alphabet echoing(32) in a bottomless well. He who is not satisfied with a little (but that little, here, is a thousand years old (33) is satisfied with nothing. (34)



References (for the translator) (35)

Κι ενα κρεμμυδι να ειχαμε, στρωναμε τραπεζι

Even with an onion, we would set the table (« Poverty does not destroy virtue »)


Η πεινα διδασκει τροπους  (« Poverty teaches manners »)

Antiphanes (36)


Πενια τεχνας κατεργαζεται (« Poverty devises skills »)

Α πενια τας τεχνας εγειρει  (« Poverty is the mother of the arts »(37)


Οποιος δεν βρισκει το λιγο αρκετο, δεν θα βρει ποτε τιποτε αρκετο

(« He who doesn’t find a little enough, will find nothing enough »)



[1] Both the title and its repetition in the text are in English and italics in the original

[2] hublot – a porthole and by extension a window in an airplane

[3] soft/yielding

[4] literally culture fluids

[5] though dentelé means jagged/denticulate, it is close to dentelle (lace)

[6] bord can also mean edge

[7] carlingue actually refers to the fuselage/body of the plane

[8] four can also be a domestic oven

[9] et qui – and (s/he) who

[10] a mountain range overlooking Athens

[11] ridge

[12] aerials / masts

[13] banderille specifically refers to the colorfully decorated,  barbed sticks used in bullfighting

[14] jusqu’à coïncider – until it  matches

[15] teint also has the sense of complexion

[16] gosses – kids (slang) rather than children)

[17] jardin publique – public garden

[18] in Greek and italic in the original

[19] jadis yesteryear/days gone by

[20]sinistrée – disaster-stricken/devastated

[21] negcocier – is to sell or trade, but also to haggle/negotiate

[22] bordure – a noun meaning a kerb/curb – here used as a verb, to line/edge, form a copestone

[23] traffic

[24] from the Greek proverb Κι ενα κρεμμυδι να ειχαμε, στρωναμε τραπεζι If we had (only) an onion, we would set the table (« Poverty does not destroy virtue »)  – akin to Julia Child’s quote “It’s hard to imagine civilization without onions.”

[25] Dénuement – destitution

[26] art in this sense refers to les arts de la table : the art of  preparing and presenting food

[27] a port city near Athens,  of major importance in ancient times, fortified by Hippias in 511 BC when it became the home of the Athenian fleet

[28] apostrophes has several meanings – both the rhetorical term apostrophe (an exclamatory passage), but more colloquially “rude remarks” (lancer des apostrophes is to hurl abuse)

[29] Goethe was present at the Battle of Valmy (a decisive battle in French Revolutionary Wars, where the French defeat of the forces of Prussia and the Holy Roman Empire led to the end of the monarchy and the establishment of the First French Republic) .  Having  been previously positive about the course of the war,  after the “cannonade of Valmy” on September 20, 1792, he became despondent, and remarked  to his men “A new epoch of world history begins from this place and time, and you can say that you were present.”,

[30] 19th century French poet, dramatist, novelist

[31] the reference is to  a line the poem Emaux et Camées: “Sans prendre garde à l’ouragan/Qui fouettait mes vitres fermées/Moi, j’ai fait Emaux et Camées.” –  “paying no attention to hurricane/That lashed against my closed windows/I created Enamels and Cameos. Ortlieb here says ignorant (ignoring/disregarding/unaware of) rather than sans prendre garde and  tempête (storm) rather than ouragan (hurricane) so the allusion is oblique rather than being a direct quote. Enamels and Cameos is the title of the collection of poems in which it appears, and marks the beginning of the Parnassian poets, a French literary style focusing on classical subjects, treated with rigidity of form and emotional detachment.

[32] Résonnant – echoing, reverberating, resounding

[33] millénaire – ancient/millenial/a thousand years old

[34] quoting Epicurus Οποιος δεν βρισκει το λιγο αρκετο, δεν θα βρει ποτε τιποτε αρκετο. I am using the standard English translation from the Greek.

[35] These are added by Ortlieb to indicate references alluded to in the poem, the English translations are  from this webpage . They reference the virtues of the Bucolics

[36] Middle Comedy poet, 4th century BC, he also said Wealth is a cloak of Evil/while poverty makes one humble, but proud.

[37] the quote original comes from Theocritus’ Piscatoribus (The Fishermen) “Poverty alone, Diophantus, awakens the arts/she is the teach of toil, the mistress of studies””

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