Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Lost Translations

Here's another piece, also written about the same time as yesterday's, and an expansion of some of the things I said there.
Lost Translations


Tavernas offering ‘Kokovan’, tomato paste labelled ‘Oleaginous product’, supermarkets with ‘Incredible Prices’ and – my favourite – a neon sign in Piraeus above a ‘Bar for Semen’. These are some of the little things that persuaded me to become a translator. A much larger thing was a love of Modern Greek poetry. The greats – Cavafy, Seferis, Elytis – had already been done, very well, by Keeley, Sherard, and Connolly, but when I found the fascinating sailor-poet Kavvadias, Alan Ross of London Magazine was enthusiastic. Incidentally the London Magazine remains, under its present editor Sebastian Barker, hospitable to Greek writing in translation. Having published a few of my translations in the magazine, Alan asked for an article about Kavvadias for a special Greek issue, and went on to suggest a volume of his writings in my translations. No money of course, and publication would be dependent on a grant. When it came to permission, I was met by a stone wall: the Greek publisher, after ignoring several letters, finally referred me to the author’s niece, who held the copyright. I went to see her, several times. Each time she claimed to be enthusiastic, and each time she came up with some strange new difficulty. Her trump card was insistence on publication by Faber: ‘After all, they publish T.S. Eliot, and my uncle was at least as good as him.’ Finally Alan lost patience and went ahead anyway. The book got a short review in the TLS, cribbed almost entirely from my introduction, then sank like a drowned sailor-poet, though it’s still available from Enitharmon, London Magazine Editions having died with Alan.

            But I now considered myself a literary translator, joined the Translators Association, handed out business cards, and waited for commissions. I’m still waiting. The only time I’ve been paid for my translations was when the magazine ‘Agenda’ did a Greek issue. This was very pleasing for the contemporary Greek poets involved, one of whom wrote thanking me for ‘liberating’ his poems ‘from the unbearable loneliness of Greek.’

            The last time I checked the figures, the proportion of books published in England that were translations from other languages was about 2%. The corresponding figure in other European countries is 10 or even 20%. Now and again an English publisher will send me a parcel of recent Greek literary fiction, asking my opinion. A few of these books turn out to be very good, so I recommend that the publisher commission a translation, not necessarily by me. I get paid about £50 a book for giving my opinion, and then hear no more. Often when I get in touch to find out what has happened, the person who sent the books has moved on, and no-one knows anything about it.

            Yet Greek writers themselves are clamouring for English publication. If I hadn’t already known this, it was brought home to me very firmly indeed during a three day conference in Athens, when the Greek Ministry of Culture wined and dined assorted English publishers, even taking them on a cruise of the nearest islands. I went as representative of London Magazine. I was even given a badge saying so, which badge I had eventually to remove for my own safety: I was besieged by Greek writers – at least some of them good writers – trying to thrust their manuscripts into my arms. They’d all been published in Greece, but felt like big fish in a small pond.

            Publication in English is the holy grail for Greek authors. The excellent Soti Triantaphyllou went so far as to write one of her novels in English simply to achieve this, yet her great work ‘The Pencil Factory’ remains, in spite of my earnest recommendation to Harper Collins when they sent it to me, unavailable in English. I have often translated work published in Greek simply because I thought it good, and then been unable to interest any English publisher.

            So what is a translator to do? Well, first of all, he or she will need another, paying, job. I have earned my living as a plumber and electrician, and occasionally as a go-between for English speakers who can’t understand Greece, Greek, or Greeks. But whereas people will eventually pay for plumbing and electrical work, they are reluctant to pay someone working his archidia (that’s a Greek word) off translating, interpreting, and being a cultural intermediary, even though I spend many long hours talking to Greeks over glasses of ouzo. (This is called ‘research’; essential if one is to keep up with the rapidly evolving vernacular.)

            Something is wrong somewhere. English publishers are wary of translations; ‘They don’t sell.’ Well, no, not if they represent only 2% of output… Yes, of course, publishers are in the business of selling books, so must give the public what it wants. They might perhaps reflect that it’s unlikely to want what isn’t available.

© 2007 Simon Darragh.

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