Robert Shannan Peckham
Italy is heroic, but Greece is godlike or devilish—I am not sure which, and in either case absolutely out of our suburban focus.
(Forster 1908, 197)
‘Of all books’, wrote Alphonse de Lamartine in his Travels in the East (1835), ‘the most difficult, in my opinion, is a translation. Now, to travel is to translate’ (Lamartine 1850, 82). Lamartine’s reflection, inspired by the Parthenon’s sublime ‘chaos of marble’, stands as a fitting epigraph for contemporary concerns that have focused on the relationship between translation and travel. In particular, attention has been paid across a broad range of disciplines to the processes through which unfamiliar cultures are translated in terms of the familiar; on the manner in which the exotic is deciphered and rendered intelligible by deploying recognizable conventions (see Boon 1982; Pratt 1992). The relations between travel and translation are further underlined by the etymology of ‘translation’, meaning ‘carried from one place to another’, which echoes the etymology of ‘metaphor’, a Greek word signifying ‘that which is transported’ (Hillis Miller 1995, 316; Butor 1974). If travel is a metaphoric practice, then it may be thought of as a form of writing, just as writing may reciprocally be conceived as a form of travel. As James Clifford has recently observed, if ‘travel were untethered [and] seen as a complex and pervasive spectrum of human experience’, then ‘practices of displacement might emerge as constitutive of cultural meanings rather than as their simple transfer or extension’ (1997, 3).
Travelling around the Kingdom of Greece some three decades after his compatriot Lamartine, Henri Belle, who served as First Secretary in the French Embassy between 1861 and 1863, visited Sparta, the capital of Laconia in the Peloponnese, which had been designed along neo-classical lines soon after independence from the Ottomans in the 1830s. The city had, the Frenchman noted, ‘the aspect of a German spa town’ (1881, 297). Commenting elsewhere on the rural inhabitants of mainland Greece, Belle remarked that in their hardiness