Rae Dalven: Between Hellenism and Judaism in America

by Gregory Jusdanis

Rae Dalven (1904-1992)
Courtesy of the Photographic Archive of the Jewish Museum of Greece

It was October 1987, and I could not believe I was in New York City for the second time in my life. At a reception in the Greek Consulate, following a conference at Queens College, I came out for a moment to get a sense of the city. Feeling somehow outside of myself, I did not notice the other guests until someone tapped me on the shoulder and whispered, “There goes Rae Dalven.” And I, looking on helplessly as a dark figure stepped into a yellow taxi and disappeared into the darkness, cried out, “What! Now you are telling me!”

This was my only glimpse of Dalven. Her name was legendary in Modern Greek Studies circles as the person who introduced the poetry of C. P. Cavafy in the United States. And I, having just published a book on Cavafy, wanted to meet her and express my admiration of her work. Though not his first English translator, she was the most influential and for many people his most insightful.

Since that autumn evening, I came to read her translations of other Greek poets. But I had not really thought of her as a real person until early January, 2024 when she featured prominently in a lecture on the Jews of Greece by Zanet I. Battinou, the Director of the Jewish Museum of Athens, which I helped organize in Columbus. As I listened to Battinou’s talk and looked at her slides, I was abruptly confronted with a photograph of Dalven for the first time—full gray hair, an open, joyful expression, with a lively smile. I finally put a face to that hazy figure I had spotted 35 years earlier.

After her presentation, Battinou told me that, as a young girl, she met Dalven in 1970 when Dalven had come to Ioannina to conduct research on the Romaniote Jews, one of the oldest branches of Judaism that goes back to the fourth century BCE. The resulting book, The Jews of Ioannina (1990a), is a comprehensive study of the history, ethnography, and culture of this ancient community, which thrived until WWII and nearly disappeared in the Holocaust.

Intrigued by Battinou’s lecture, I got out all of Dalven’s books from the library and discovered her epic effort to bring together the antitheses of her life—the Hellenic and the Hebraic, the Romaniotes and mainstream Judaism, the Greek and the American. As a Romaniote herself and an immigrant, she fought for more accommodating versions of Judaism, Hellenism, and American identity, for in each of these she felt marginalized. In a short essay on her “unsought for calling” as a translator, she wrote that her life-long goal was to “bring about better and closer cultural relations between modern Greece and the United States.”1

Born in Preveza, western Greece in 1904, Dalven emigrated to the United States five years later on account of poverty. Although her family faced economic challenges in New York, she graduated from Hunter College in 1920. And despite the barriers she experienced as a Jewish-Greek immigrant and woman, she got an MA in English from NYU in 1928, an MFA from the Yale Drama School in 1938 and finally a PhD in 1961 at NYU. Financially insecure during these years, she often worked as a substitute teacher. She found some measure of stability after her appointment at Fisk University, Nashville TN, one of the oldest African American institutes of higher education, just as the Civil Rights era was beginning. At Fisk she became acquainted with the racial politics of the time which came to coincide with her leftist beliefs and her commitment to marginalized peoples.2 To be sure, her own ambivalent position within the Hellenic diaspora and Jewish community in the United States made her receptive to the plight of the oppressed.

In terms of her own career, however, she saw herself as a playwright. Indeed, she wrote four plays which she attempted to stage. However, as her biographer Adam J. Goldwyn says, “her dream of success as a playwright eluded her in life.” And she suffered from her own sense of failure. Poignantly, in the summer of 1992, months before she died, she told a friend of her wish to see the production of one of her plays. In a despairing letter she had written in 1948, she summed up her all-consuming commitment to her craft: “I will perish if I don’t arrive as a playwright, an original writer of my own.”3

Although her plays never won wide appreciation, she received much acclaim for her translations. And this change of direction occurred by chance. In 1928 she discovered that a relative in Greece, Joseph Eliyia, was a young poet. To be sure, Eliyia, a socialist, Hellenist, and Zionist, was the first “Jewish person to write secular poetry in Greek.”4 Born in Ioannina in 1901, he, like Dalven, struggled to make a living, write poetry and gain acceptance for his work. Gradually, however, he managed to publish a considerable number of poems and was soon recognized as an innovative and promising poet. Unfortunately, he died of typhus in 1931, his poetic talents never coming into full bloom. He remains in Greek literature “a Marcellus of our tongue,” as John Dryden (1631-1708) said of John Oldham, a young and talented writer who also perished too young.5

Dalven saw in Eliyia’s work something grander than poetry, his commitment to the idea “that Jews and Greeks might find harmony in the two oldest civilizations,” a goal she would also strive for all her life. She thus promised Eliyia’s mother to render his poetry into English. But little did she realize the impossible task of publishing translations of Modern Greek in the United States. Indeed, as she discovered to her horror, an anthology of world poetry that appeared in 1944 contained no entries for Modern Greek poets. She was so outraged by this omission that she located the editor and phoned him to complain. In response, he encouraged her to publish Eliyia. But, when she began to look for publishers, she encountered their sneer—“A Jew and a Greek.”6 To her dismay, she also found indifference among American Jews, who did not know or did not believe there were Greek Jews.7 Eventually, with the financial assistance of fellow Ioannina Jews in New York, the book appeared in 1944. In her introduction, she wrote poignantly of Eliyia what could be said of herself, “he loved Greece more than the Greeks and all his writing are a defense of the oppressed. His mission was to bring about a deep bond between the Hellenic and Hebrew civilization.”8

After Eliyia’s book, she came to believe that the translation of Modern Greek was her new mission. As she noted in a letter to a friend, “I hope I have served Greek writers well. This was my aim. As a Jew, I take great pride in the service I’m offering Greek poets.”9 Her commitment to this objective was so strong that she traveled to Greece in 1947—a perilous time since the country was still in the throes of the horrible civil war—in order get to know contemporary poets. By meeting George Seferis, Angelos Sikelianos, Nikos Kazantzakis, Myrtiotissa, Odysseas Elytis, Yannis Ritsos, Zoe Karelli, Kostas Ouranis and many other writers, she hoped to “to bring about better and closer cultural relations between modern Greece and the United States.”10 The project eventually developed into a comprehensive anthology of Greek poetry, starting with folk songs and the Renaissance epic Erotokritos by Vincenzos Kornaros to the poetry of her day. When published in 1949, as the first such anthology of Greek poetry in the United States, it received much recognition after being reviewed in the New York Times by W. H. Auden.11

The glow of this extraordinary accomplishment did not last long, however, as her publisher folded the following year and the book was remaindered. In her despair, she swore never to translate another line of Greek verse. But a couple of years later a Greek friend sent her a volume of Cavafy. Completely mesmerized by his poetry, she began to translate him, working on the poems at night after her day’s teaching at Fairleigh Dickinson University. The book was published in 1961 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich with a preface by W. H. Auden, a remarkable achievement. It enjoyed immediate success and was selected by the New York Times as one of the ten best books of the year, an extraordinary honor for a translation from a minor language. Celebrated by many as the best translation of Cavafy into English, it played a major role in the transmission of the poet’s work for the next few decades. A revised edition, which included Cavafy’s posthumous poems, appeared in 1974 and has been in print ever since.

It is not surprising that she found in Cavafy a kindred spirit of diaspora. She fell in love with his poetry upon first sight, she claimed, having had the sensation that he was “conversing directly” with her.12 They had much in common, after all. As Romaniote, woman, and Greek immigrant, she not only straddled many identities but also resided at the margins of her respective communities. She saw in Cavafy, therefore, a gay man who wrote on the Hellenic dispersion while residing outside of Greece. She too used her plays and her translations as a way of understanding her fragmented existence. Literature had become for her a means by which to process and compensate for the absence of home. This is why she felt she would “perish” if she could not have her plays produced. They served for her as both an asylum of familiarity and recognition and a means of communicating with the outside world.

She continued promoting Greek poetry and her political causes by translating the poetry of the Marxist writer, Yannis Ritsos (The Fourth Dimension) in 1977 and an anthology of Greek women poets, The Daughters of Sappho, which appeared after her death in 1994. Two years before she died she wondered if The Daughters of Sappho would be her last translation. “I doubt it. All I can say for sure is that I feel at home with modern Greek.”13 Even in her early 90’s, she had many plans. Indeed, she told an interviewer that she wanted to return to Greece “to say good-bye to all my poets … then I want to concentrate on writing my plays.”14 Unfortunately, the trip never materialized and she died a year later.

Although she never found recognition as a playwright, her translations of Greek poetry are read and appreciated by many. If translation, in the words of Walter Benjamin, promotes the afterlife of a work, it also ensures the continuance of the translator. Dalven’s almost messianic mission to render into English Eliyia, Cavafy, Ritsos and so many women poets, guarantees that she will be celebrated as one of the earliest and foremost translators of Modern Greek poetry in the United States.

February 17, 2024

Gregory Jusdanis teaches Modern Greek and Comparative Literature at the Ohio State University. His Alexandrian Sphinx: The Life of C. P. Cavafy (co-written with Peter Jeffreys) will appear in 2025 with Farrar Strauss and Giroux.


1. Dalven 1990b, 311
2. Goldwyn 2022, 73.
3. ibid., 83, 75, 46.
4. ibid., 31.
5. The lines from Dryden’s marvelous poem, “To the Memory of Mr. Oldham,” go like this: “Once more, hail and farewell; farewell thou young/ But uh too short, Marcelus of our tongue.” Dryden is referring here to Marcus Claudius Marcellus (42-22 BCE), adopted son and presumed heir of the Emperor Augustus. He held much promise as future leader but died before his own ambitions and the expectations of others could be realized. In Vergil’s Aeneid, he comes to stand for unfulfilled dreams.
6. Dalven 1990b, 308.
7. Eliygia 1944, 204. As Goldwyn notes, all her life Dalven felt that she was “overlooked,” “underestimated” and pushed aside in Greece and the United States (76). In this, her fate is similar to that of Helen Lowe Porter, the first translator of Thomas Mann into English, who was shoved to the margins by powerful men but whose life now has been turned into a novel.
8. Eliyia 1944, 204.
9. Goldwyn 2022, 46.
10. Dalven 1990b, 311.
11. Interestingly, she dedicated the book to the memory of her father, “from whom I heard my first Greek folk songs.” Dalven 1949.
12. Dalven 1990b, 312.
13. ibid., 315.
14. Goldwyn 2022, 77.

Works Cited

Dalven, Rae. 1949. Modern Greek Poetry. Translated by Rae Dalven. New York: Gaer Associates.

––––––. 1977. The Fourth Dimension. Selected Poems by Yannis Ritsos. Translated by Rae Dalven. New York: D. R. Godine.

––––––. 1990a. The Jews of Ioannina. Philadelphia: Cadmus Press.

––––––. 1990b. “An Unsought for Calling: My Life as a Translator from Modern Greek.” Journal of Modern Greek Studies. 8.2: 307–15.

––––––. 1994. Daughters of Sappho: Contemporary Greek Women Poets. Edited and Translated by Rae Dalven. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

Eliyia, Joseph. 1944. Poems. Translated by Rae Dalven. New York: Anatolia Press.

Goldwyn, Adam. J. 2022. Rae Dalven: The Life of a Greek-Jewish American. Ioannina: Isnafi.