The art of translation

RICHARD PINE 14.12.2018

How clever of the Romans to have pushed “translation” into pole position in our vocabulary, superseding the Greek “metaphrasi.” So much so that few today recognize “metaphor” as the equivalent of “translation,” the carrying across of meaning from one language, one mind-set, one culture to another.

“Something must have got lost in translation” is a euphemism for “Our attempt at diplomacy was a failure.” When we cannot establish a common meaning and understanding, we go to war. How disastrous it is when a slip of the tongue in a war of words exaggerates a casus belli. As Lawrence Durrell wrote, “Two paces east or west and the whole picture is changed.” From where I stand, it looks like a Greek island. From where you stand, it looks as if it ought to be Turkish. Result? Rhetoric followed by aggression.

When I lecture to students of translation, I use the analogy of a river full of crocodiles. The translator’s job is to carry meaning safely across this river by establishing a bridge, a metaphor, so that it arrives safely on the other side. One slip in nuance or inflection, and the meaning is lost, snapped up by the crocodiles.

There are crocodiles everywhere, whose purpose in life seems to be the destruction of meaning, the sowing of misunderstanding and the creation of discord. Politicians are the worst. Even when they are smiling, earnest, good-looking and not wearing a tie, they can be saying one thing and thinking another, pushing meaning into a labyrinth of insecurity, ambivalence or just plain deliberate confusion.

The problem of translation/metaphor is not confined to politics. More than ever, Greek writers need their translators, their metaphoriki, to courier their stories, their visions, their ideas, into other languages, other cultures, other mind-sets. Yet one of the casualties of the austerity program has been the drastic reduction of funding for translation of Greek writers.

As a xenos who needs to read Greek literature in translation, I am starved of material. I have read almost everything available in English, but this is only a fraction of what I need to read – both the older works and the contemporary.

Ironically, it seems that a Greek writer is more likely to be available in French translation than English: Only one book by Sophia Nikolaidou (“The Scapegoat”) is available in English, whereas several have been translated into seven other languages. Only the crime writers have succeeded en bloc – chiefly because charismatic investigators like Petros Markaris’s Kostas Charitos or Leo Kanaris’s George Zafiris are, literally, in a class of their own – satisfying our craving for a vicarious search for truth, which we cannot get by listening to politicians or observing their crocodile tears.

I once asked a Greek friend why there are so few translated books celebrating happiness, girls, chocolate, dancing. The answer? “Oh, there are, but they don’t get translated. Only disaster travels well.” So we have a huge library of Greek novels in English about war and greed and despair and little that lets the sunshine into life. Durrell also wrote, “I am hunting for metaphors which might convey something of the piercing happiness too seldom granted to those who love.” Metaphors for love – not a bad idea.

Translation is not only about words. Images, too, carry meaning, for example from screenplay into film. It’s no surprise that two of the most talked-about film directors in the world today are Greek: Athina Rachel Tsangari (“Chevalier”) and Yorgos Lanthimos. They are true descendants of Theo Angelopoulos, carrying a sense of Greece and Greekness onto the screen. And not just Greek subjects. Lanthimos, with “The Lobster,” “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” and now “The Favorite,” is finding ways of carrying meaning to the screen in ways that are, essentially, Greek in spirit: the sense of tragedy, of vulnerability, of values and mutuality.

And then, food. One of the most moving films I have seen is Tassos Boulmetis’s “Politiki Kouzina / A Touch of Spice,” showing the translation of Greek cuisine from Anatolia. “Our cuisine is tinged with politics. It’s made by people who left their dinner unfinished somewhere else.” The central character “carries his grandfather’s cuisine as his way of clinging to memory.” It need not be quite so redolent of tragedy or displacement, of course, but it expresses the centrality of our foodstuffs and our way of preparing and presenting to the table as a vital part of our culture. The heroes who are today carrying across Greek food and wine products from the domestic vineyard, olive grove or kitchen to the world’s shop windows and restaurants are also translators, metaphoriki. Again, they get little support at home for their endeavors, which present to a wider public a Greek narrative about the values of life.

Translation is more than ever essential, and more than ever vulnerable, in a world deluged by meaningless media and globalization. Whether in politics, literature, film or the kitchen, it is more than ever necessary to ensure that the Greek narrative reaches into other worlds, and safely.


Richard Pine was voted “Critic of the Year” in the 2018 Irish Journalism Awards. He lives and works in Corfu, and is the author of “Greece Through Irish Eyes.”

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