Biography and History

Today Kimon Friar is remembered as one of the first and most prolific translators of modern Greek poetry into English. Beginning in the early 1950s – when his translations of Kazantzakis, Cavafy and Elytēs, and several others first appeared in the leading American journals of the day – Friar's work helped bring modern Greek literature to the attention of the international public.

Friar's close relationship to prominent American writers, editors, and critics in the 1940s and 1950s, and his familiarity with American literary periodicals and publishers of the period, allowed him to introduce the Greek poets in translation almost immediately after he met them in 1946, when he first traveled to Greece. Friar became part of the literary world in New York as first director of the Young Men's Hebrew Association (YMHA) Poetry Center (today the 92nd Street Y) in the 1940s, and as chairman of the Circle-in-the-Square Theatre in the early 1950s.

Of the dozens of American poets, playwrights, artists and performers with whom he worked in his lifetime, Friar befriended John Brinnin, James Merrill, Lawrence Durrell, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Anais Nin, and Maya Deren. In Greece, he was closely acquainted with George Katsimbalis, Nikos Kazantzakis, Nikos Chatzēkyriakos-Ghika, and Vassilis Vassilikos, while maintaining a steady link to almost all the Greek poets publishing work from the 1950s through the 1980s.

Kimon Friar was born to Greek parents in Emirali, Turkey, on November 18, 1911. His parents emigrated to Chicago in 1915, and the family's name was changed from "Kalogeropoulos" to "Friar." Kimon Friar attended the Experimental College at the University of Chicago from 1929 to 1931, the Yale Drama School from 1931 to 1932, and the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he received a B.A. in English literature and drama in 1934. He worked for the Works Progress Administration' s Federal Writer's Project from 1935 to 1936, and as a play reader for the Detroit Federal Theatre Project from 1936 to 1937. In 1937, he published an adaptation of The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe, and directed several performances of the play in Detroit and Chicago. He served as editor at New Writers, which ran from 1936 to 1938, and joined the editorial board of the literary magazine Signatures in 1937. In 1938, he was appointed University Scholar and later Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where he received an M.A. in English literature in 1940. His M.A. thesis on Yeats's A Vision received the prestigious Hopwood Award in 1939.

He taught English literature at the University of Iowa (1939-1940), at Adelphi College (1940-1944), at the Cummington School (summer 1942), at the Mills School in New York City (1944-45), and at Amherst College (1944-1947). His publications in these years included the essay "The Medusa Mask," published in Poetry magazine in 1942.

In 1943, Kimon Friar and John Brinnin were named editors of the New Poems, 1944 anthology, edited by Oscar Williams. However, after a personal dispute in early 1945, Williams retracted his offer, reclaimed rights over the anthology, and refused to acknowledge Brinnin and Friar in the published edition, though he allowed them to retain most of the material they had collected. Scheduled for publication under the title The Borzoi Book of Modern Verse (Knopf), the contract was nullified in 1945 and the Brinnin-Friar anthology was not published until 1951, when it appeared under the title Modern Poetry: American and British, published by Appleton, Century, Crofts.

Kimon Friar began giving poetry courses at the YMHA in 1943 and was named first director of the YMHA Poetry Center in 1944, a post he held until 1948. His celebrated reading series consisted in "presenting excellent poets to the New York Public," as Mary Owings Miller, editor of Contemporary Poetry, said in 1945. These poets included W. H. Auden, Louise Bogan, Marianne Moore, Anais Nin, Dorothy Parker, Theodore Roethke, Wallace Stevens, Robert Penn Warren, and Tennessee Williams. Many of these authors became personal friends.

In 1945, while teaching at Amherst, he made the acquaintance of James Merrill, who had just returned from active duty. Impressed by Merrill’s poetry, Friar introduced him to the highest literary circles of New York and published his first book of poems in Athens in 1946. In return, Merrill helped finance Friar's first efforts at translation from the Greek. Friar made his first trip to Greece in 1946, and in 1948, he moved to Athens. By 1949, he had translated a selection of the works of George Seferis, Angelos Sikelianos, Dēmētrēs Antōniou, and Nikos Gatsos, and had begun to translate the 33,333 line poem The Odyssey by Kazantzakis. His book Contemporary Greek Poetry was published by the University of Minnesota Press in 1954.

In 1951, he returned to New York and briefly took up residence in James Merrill’s East midtown apartment with Mina Diamantopoulos, a Greek heiress with an estate on the island of Poros, where Friar had lived from1949. In 1951, he gave a poetry class at the YMHA Poetry Center, and taught verse writing at New York University. He also began a weekly poetry broadcast on WABF radio, and served briefly as director of the De Lys Theatre on Christopher Street. In 1952, he assumed the post of director of the Circle-in-the-Square Theatre in New York, where he presented a series of performances and dramatic readings by Lillian Hellman, Archibald MacLeish, Dylan Thomas, and Tennesee Williams, among others, and produced plays directed by Herbert Mahiz (associated with John Myers and the Poet’s Theatre). He gave lectures on Greek poetry at many universities in and around New York and spoke before the New York Teachers Association and members of the United Nations (organized by Royal Greek Embassy). He contributed book reviews to the New Republic and Poetry magazine from 1951, and judged a poetry contest with Dylan Thomas at the YMHA Poetry Center in 1952. His personal friends at this time included Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Dylan Thomas, who passed away shortly after, in the fall of 1953.

In 1953, Friar taught in the English department of the University of Minnesota, Duluth. In 1954, he received a Fulbright grant to continue work on his translation of Kazantzakis’s Odyssey, and in 1954, he joined Nikos Kazantsakis in Antibes.

Friar acted as the editor, from 1960 to 1962, of The Charioteer, and from 1963 to 1965, of Greek Heritage, two magazines dealing with Greek culture. Friar had been translating poetry from Greek into English, learning both languages fluently and gaining a perspective on modern Greek poetry. He wrote, translated, and edited innumerable works, including Modern Poetry: American and British (with John Malcolm Brinnin) in 1951, the 1960 translation of Saviors of God and the 1963 translation of Sodom and Gomorrah by Nikos Kazantzakis, and the 1973 anthology Modern Greek Poetry: from Cavafis to Elytēs. However, Friar is best known for his translation of Kazantzakis' epic poem The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel. Friar completed this work in 1958 after several years of close collaboration with the author. Some critics declared that Friar lost his way in the double adjectives and complex language of the original (Kazantzakis used ancient vocabulary that is generally unknown to metropolitan scholars), and others agreed that Friar was at his best when he chose the prosaic word over the contrived or archaic. A Time magazine reviewer regarded The Odyssey as "a masterpiece." Kimon Friar received from Kazantzakis the ultimate praise: that his translation was as good as the original.

In 1978, Friar received the Greek World Award. Then, in 1986, he won both a Ford Foundation Grant and a National Foundation of the Arts Grant. He maintained "that the poet in a translation should be heard, but the translator should be overheard." He died in 1993.

Source: From the finding aid for C0713

  • Kimon Friar Papers. 1926-1993 (inclusive).

    Call Number: C0713

    The collection consists of personal papers of Kimon Friar, one of the first and most prolific translators of modern Greek poetry into English. His work helped bring modern Greek literature to the attention of the international public.

  • Antōnēs Dekavalles Papers. 1935-2008 (inclusive).

    Call Number: C0833

    This collection consists of papers of Antōnēs Dekavalles, a Greek poet, professor at Fairleigh Dickenson University, and editor of The Charioteer, A Review of Modern Greek Culture. Included are: correspondence, autograph manuscripts and typescripts, drafts, miscellaneous notes, and files related to his affiliated organizations.

  • Nikos Stangos Papers. 1953-2009 (inclusive).

    Call Number: C1375

    Consists of personal papers of Nikos Stangos, a prolific Modern Greek poet and one of the most influential figures in British art publishing. For more than 30 years he was responsible for some of the most important art books of the late 20th century. As a result, in his modest way, he helped shape the discipline of art history in Britain and the United States.