by Christine Georghiades
As published in In Focus Vol. 10, No. 1, March 2013
Some years ago I was asked to translate a poem, and after I had handed over my translation to the author and we had discussed it and she had expressed her satisfaction, she added “Of course it’s not the same poem.” How could it be “the same”? At its very best a translation can only be a version of the original and if you ask several people to translate the same text, there will differences, great or small, between the versions.
But here is the challenge: to capture the meaning, spirit, style and feel of the original and also produce a text which is accurate and reads well. The author of the original has something to say to his or her readers and the task of the translator is to do justice to that. The translation should be a piece of good writing in its own right and something its potential readers will be happy to read.
We become translators the moment we start to learn a foreign language. How do we say this in French? What does this mean in English? Reading a menu in Germany or Italy. But in England, in my day, it was the study of Latin, and later Ancient Greek, that taught me some basic principles of the technique – or dare I say art? – of translating. While we were busily translating Caesar, Cicero and Demosthenes into English and also attempting to turn words of Churchill into Ciceronian Latin, we had to pay attention to at least four important things: accuracy (one wanted marks!), understanding and respect for the structure of the language of the original and the differences with English, the careful and proper use of the dictionary and the avoidance of “translationese”. These lessons learnt early on continue to serve me well: method, discipline and a stubborn refusal to be easily satisfied.
How, then, do I go about translating a text into English? And by a text I mean an article or essay or a short story.
First I read the text through quickly to find out the subject matter. This first read will also reveal obvious problems and difficulties: idioms for which no English equivalent comes readily to mind, specialised vocabulary – for example the terminology of literary and art criticism, foreign names transliterated into Greek and not recognisable and the presence of quotations.
This first read is also important for something else – my response to the text. Do I find it interesting? Do I feel empathy for the subject matter and the style? This response is of vital importance because it affects my approach to the task. It can produce a smile and feeling of relief “I can do this” – or a groan if the subject or the views expressed or the style are unappealing. In such a case it is doubly hard to do justice. Quite often, of course, the text is interesting but so difficult that immediate recourse to strong coffee and vitamin pills is required. I would say that literary criticism and especially art criticism are almost always very difficult because of new terminology which keeps appearing and one is often not familiar with the work being discussed.
I then take pen and paper and work fast to produce a first draft, not stopping to worry over choices of words – I often write down several alternatives, underlying particular difficulties and leaving in Greek words for which I cannot immediately find a meaning. At this point I have identified not only the obvious difficulties but also the hidden ones so that I can move on to the next stage, which I will call research.
Out come the dictionaries: 2 Greek to English, 2 Greek to Greek, English to English and often my Ancient Greek Lexicon, Liddell and Scott. The search for the right word, to find the word or expression which will give the right shade of meaning and nuance (as far as one understands what the author intends) can take a lot of time and thought. This applies especially to short stories and to dialogue in particular, where just one word can make all the difference to whether something sounds natural or not. It is often the little words and daily expressions which cause difficulty. Let me give some examples: ρε, τέλος πάντων and Κυρία Χριστίνα, that so useful compromise between formality and familiarity and for which, alas, English has no equivalent.
Then there are cases where the Greeks have a single word for something that English does not – προβληματίζω and προβληματισμός immediately spring to mind as being particularly awkward, and of course where English offers a range of possible meanings for a Greek word. Sometimes the context helps, but not always. Μια ωραία γυναίκα for example. Is “beautiful” too strong? Is “good-looking” not strong enough? Τραυματίστηκε στο πόδι: he was wounded (or injured according to the context) in the leg – or was it the foot? Style described as λιτός is plain, simple or unadorned? Easy enough, perhaps, if you are familiar with the author being discussed but it is difficult to make a choice if you are not.
Sometimes I feel the need to do some research into the subject of the text. For example, I was asked to translate a paper on Kazantzakis and Bergson. I knew something about Kazantzakis but nothing about Bergson. Thank goodness for the Internet! I accessed articles on Bergson so that I could understand something of his thought and, importantly for the translation, find the correct and generally accepted vocabulary to express it.
Another difficulty which occurs quite frequently is that of foreign names transliterated into Greek and, when put back into Roman letters, if not unrecognisable, do not look right. Inspired guesswork and then recourse to the internet usually solve the problem. It would help the translator if the original forms of names were also in the text. This also applies to foreign words or terminology incorporated into the text in transliterated form. It is not always easy to ascertain the correct original.
Quotations are a serious problem where the original has been translated into Greek. One cannot translate from a translation and put the result into quotation marks. One option is to give a paraphrase but very often one feels this is not good enough because the impact of the original words is lost. So the original should be found if possible. This can be quite a task but it is one I always attempt. Even where Ancient Greek has been translated into Modern Greek I prefer to go back to the original, spending an hour perhaps tracking down a fragment by a Pre-Socratic philosopher in my Lexicon or old text books. “Why bother?” you may ask. I suppose there are several issues here: the pleasure of the hunt and the enjoyment of recalling past studies, but also to make sure I use words whose perhaps specialised meaning will be familiar to readers with a background in the Classics. When translating an essay on the French “cursed poets”, I was faced with Greek versions of poems by Edgar Allan Poe and Baudelaire. I did not have the original of either in my own library. Once again, after a long and sometimes frustrating search, I succeeded in finding the original poems on the internet, a truly remarkable tool.
Having dealt with as many of the problems as possible, I embark on the next stage, the polishing of the translation. This quite likely includes some restructuring of sentences and maybe dividing very long sentences into shorter ones. No two languages work in exactly the same way. An inflected language like Greek can be more flexible than English in the positioning of the subject in a sentence, for example. Sometimes clauses need to be arranged in a different order to make the meaning clear. I might take the liberty of adding a footnote to explain a reference to an event or tradition which would not be familiar to a foreign reader. A reference to the Evangelika, for example, or to the more homely flaouna.
In short stories use is often made of the historic present for the sake of vividness and the text often moves between the present tense and the past tense. This rarely sounds natural in English and I usually decide to keep to a past tense. Similarly in a table of historical events English uses the past tense. This also applies to biographical notes. The present tense is used for current situations.
When at last the translation has been typed up, a phone call made to my very good friend Costas Hadjigeorgiou for his help in solving the knottiest of problems, it’s time for the final test: Does the translation read well? Does it do justice to the original? If it is a short story and contains dialogue, as is usual, it must sound natural in English, even if considerable liberties have to be taken to achieve this. Sometimes one feels there is something not quite right. Is a word out of place or is it a expression that is at fault? At this point one needs to set it aside, to come back to it afresh after a week, if possible, and allow the subconscious to come up with the answer.
As a translator I inevitably have to make choices and these choices will be affected by personal preferences for certain words and phrases and by my own educational and cultural background, however objective I try to be. I think it is also true to say that the quality and success of a translation depends to a great extent on the quality of the original text. Obscure vocabulary and elaborate syntax or a rambling style can only with difficulty be translated into something readily intelligible and pleasant to read.
I’ve talked a lot about the difficulties, the “hardships” of translating. Is there any pleasure in it? Are there “joys”?
I believe the answer is “Yes”.
First of all it is always a pleasure to acquire knowledge. Over the years I have translated texts on a huge variety of subjects: traditional breads, costumes and crafts, music, literature, history, philosophy, advertising, travel and the theatre to name just some. I have also got to know the work of a large number of writers and scholars which I may never have come across otherwise.
Not least there is a sense of achievement if your version reads well, flows, seems to capture the feel of the original and when, perhaps a few years later, you read your work again and get a strong feeling of satisfaction about a job well done.
As a final point, I would like to say something about translationese, the trap to be avoided at all costs. Translationese is a wily creature, a corrupting influence, mostly seizing its chance when one has failed to “get away from” the original word order and syntax. In its most blatant form it is usually the result of a wrong use of the dictionary (“Never take the first meaning without question, girls!”), combined with disregard for context.
I shall close with an example of translationese at its worst, or possibly best.
It comes from a recipe.
Χτυπάτε τους κρόκους με τη ζάχαρη και βάζετε το μείγμα στη φωτιά was rendered
“Hit the crocuses with the sugar and set the mixture on fire.”