Monday, 20 October 2014

A Day in the Life of a Translator

I wrote the following piece seven years ago; it might still be of interest.
Translators from language A to language B need to spend time in the countries of both languages to keep abreast of sometimes quite rapid linguistic change. In my case A is Greek and B English, so much of the time I’m in a small Greek island, my arrival in which actually pre-dates my becoming a literary translator by a couple of years. When I first went out there it was just to get away from Thatcher’s Britain for a week or two, but I was promptly offered a job with a local builder and soon found myself learning the Greek for such important things as ‘Cement’, ‘Six-inch nail’, ‘Plank’, ‘Not like that you English idiot’ and ‘Time for an ouzo’. Nothing in particular was calling me back to England, so two weeks became two months, and the next year I was back, armed with a Greek-English dictionary and the complete poems of Cavafy. These, a Greek girlfriend, and necessary communication with employers and shop-keepers soon got me fluent in Greek, and then someone in England asked me to translate his Greek grandfather’s autobiography. It was a daunting task, but I enjoyed it, the final result was accepted and published, and lo and behold I could call myself – after joining the Translators Association – a professional translator.

            My day starts gently at 9 a.m., listening to the BBC World Service on an ancient valve-operated communications receiver – the only thing that can get it in these parts. Nothing to make me laugh today, except the usual extraordinary contortions of the Athens correspondent doing his best to mispronounce all Greek words. The Beeb evidently has a policy of employing foreign correspondents who are completely ignorant of the local language.

            Around ten I totter out of bed and go straight to my desk to check in the cold light of day how the last couple of lines of a poetry translation, completed late the night before with whisky glass to hand, looks now. It seems very good: there is something alarming about this; somehow one expects things written under such conditions not to stand later scrutiny, yet they often do.

            After breakfast – Marmite is a comfort for the Englishman abroad – I take one of the motorbikes down to the harbour. First stop is ‘Technokids’ where I catch up on e-mails. Someone is asking for 850 words on the life of a translator, to be delivered by yesterday if not sooner. There’s £50 in it so I say yes.

            Next stop the Post Office – deliveries to my village were abandoned after one day owing to the absence of street names and the unreadable – if you’re Greek – addressees names. Two packets for me, one large and one small, also a month old London Review of Books. Post in the Northern Sporades is like buses in London – nothing for ages, then a whole bunch. Hence the term ‘Sporadic’.

            Time for an ouzo and mezé, so I take my post to the waterfront café. The smaller packet is a thin book of Greek poetry, sent by the London Magazine, whose editor would like to see English translations of one or two poems. They look difficult and obscure, with many archaisms of vocabulary and grammar, but I’ll certainly give it a go; I’ve never forgotten the time a Greek poet wrote to thank me for ‘liberating’ his poetry ‘from the unbearable loneliness of Greek’ when some of my translations of his work appeared in another English literary magazine. The larger packet is four Greek novels sent on by an English publisher – would I read them and report on their suitability for translation? £35 a report, though with the odd proviso that I don’t bother to report on any that seem no good. To judge that I’d surely have to read the thing, but then not get paid for doing so. Oh, well; since most people don’t get paid at all to read novels I’ll do it, especially as one of the books is by the excellent Soti Triantaphyllou, who recently caused a stir by saying she was so fed up with the failure of English language publishers to commission translations that she was thinking of writing her next book in English.

            Back home in the afternoon I slog away – desk piled high with dictionaries – at the next chapter of a ‘novel’ – actually a thinly disguised autobiography – by the Greek poet/sailor Nikos Kavvadias. As usual, after three hours of this I have a list of a dozen doubtful or totally unknown words, so I stop and cook myself some dinner.

            After dinner, off to Panselinos – Full Moon – for a nightcap or two, not forgetting to take my list of strange words. There will be one or two ex-sailors among the local habitués, and in return for a whisky or two there’s a good chance they’ll enlighten me about Greek nautical slang. This is called ‘Doing research’ and is much the most enjoyable part of a literary translator’s otherwise lonely life.


©Simon Darragh 2007.

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