Reflections of a Literary Translator

by Mata Salogianni

There was a time when I was certain that the riot police would break down my door, search my home and drag me out in handcuffs. I was translating Michelangelo’s Notebook, by Paul Christopher and, given that military service is not mandatory for women in Greece, every now and then I only had a vague idea what the book was talking about. For example, I did not know that the AK47 was the assault rifle commonly known in Greece as a “Kalashnikov”, the name of its developer. So I looked it up online. As did I for a number of other weapons and ammunition and in numerous other occasions, in particular when the CIA was referenced. Influenced by the plot, which is a very cloak-and-dagger adventure, and where someone even discovers a character’s identity merely by his accent, I was convinced ropes would drop outside my window and dark-clad agents would come looking for my computer.

Luckily, the delivery deadline came and went and I emerged from it unscathed. Still, the opportunity for me to search online for illegal stuff arose again, when I was translating the book Adultério, by Paulo Coelho. After deciding that she would like to buy drugs, the heroine (pun unintended) of the book sets out to find some; being completely new to the game, she is faced with a torrent of street names for various products, which of course were in Portuguese. So there was I, looking up all the alternatives for “crack” both in Greek and in the source language, while wondering what on earth someone going through my browsing history would think if something were to suddenly befall me.

Still, not all literary translations are a printed version of CSI: The Translator Chronicles. Sometimes they involve translating a lot of witty humour, such as is the case with Il giorno in più, by Fabio Volo. It’s a love story, but a love story so sweet and funny that sometimes I didn’t want to stop reading in order to go on translating. The main character, Giacomo, reminds you of your favourite cousin, the one you grew up sharing dirty jokes and getting into all kind of troubles with, always trying not to get grounded forever by your parents.

Illustration by Cirodelia

Other books are often full of history, which can be gripping as well as sad. A good example of that is Brida, by Paulo Coelho. The heroine’s spiritual journey takes the reader to the time of the Albigensian Crusade and can cause a lot of sentiment, especially knowing in advance the horrible end that awaited the Cathars. And of course there is his latest, The Spy, where we find out that maybe Mata Hari was not the unscrupulous femme fatale we all thought she was, all the while going back to World War I Europe. In books such as this, one never fails to wonder why people never saw how war and conflict was not a good answer to their problems and draw parallels between those times and current events.

Time and again, a book can be a captivating journey in a country’s culture or, in some cases, food. This I found out when working on Piraye, by Canan Tan. Not only did I revisit some of Nazim Hikmet’s work, but through the book’s pages I visited Diyarbakir. Where the book’s main character gets married. To a bey. As in, an Ottoman-era type bey. You see, in some parts of Eastern Turkey, there is still an informal feudal system in place, where villages pay poll tax to the local lord, and where the Turkish Criminal Code provisions on the prohibition on bigamy are in practice violated frequently. This book could serve as a study on pragmatics: there were many cultural elements lacking an equivalent in Greek, which made the book a wonderful expedition into some of Turkey’s local customs. And food. I said that before, I know, but I still vividly remember the time when, translating the wedding feast descriptions late at night, I was fighting the urge to raid my kitchen, especially since I could hardly whip up a kaburga dolma there and then.

Interesting as it all sounds, it was also quite a challenge to translate.

There seems to be a common misconception that literary translation is easy, or at least easier than technical translation such as legal or medical. However, it is not. The only thing that makes it different than technical translation is the degree of liability: other than financial loss that may be caused to the editor in the process, a bad literary translation can be redone and it will not affect the mental or physical well-being of someone else, as will a bad technical translation. This, however, does not mean that the task should be taken lightly.

I find that literary translators are first and foremost responsible towards the author. It is the translators’ job to pull the book apart and bring it back together in the target language without appearing to have done so and, most importantly, resisting the urge to intervene with their own words.

Illustration by Sarah Mazzetti
Illustration by Sarah Mazzetti

I have seen many a test of aspiring translators who thought that a literary text leaves more room for interpretation and therefore for changes that the translator thought were necessary. They were not, and the outcome was a text very different than the original – reminding me of the first edition of Kundera’s The Joke in French, where the author’s writing style was altered to such a degree that he saw himself forced to undertake the review of his translations himself.

Extensive translator interventions may only be excused in the case of famous writers, such as Nikos Kazantzakis or Papadiamantis, with the caveat that such a translation should be regarded as a wholly independent work, having its own literary value. Think of it as the Guns N’ Roses version of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”: the song is still Bob Dylan’s, but it is also now a different piece.

It can therefore be said that translation is seldom easy. It may appear to be, but only when the translator has years of training and experience. Literary translation sometimes takes the task to a whole new level.

In a previous article, I wrote about the book Orfeo, by Richard Powers, and the beauty I found hidden in it. Now, I would like to talk about what it took to translate it.

You see, this book is difficult. It is difficult even for English speakers because, as book critics have remarked, it is mostly a book about music. The author, who is a musician and composer himself, writes about his passion in a language in which musical terms cannot be avoided.

For this book, dictionaries and other similar resources were not enough. So, I enlisted everyone I could think of who knew about music: my friends and colleagues with whom I talk every day. My friend who is a vocal coach; her husband, who is a bass and cello player. My other friend’s sister, who is a pianist. Sometimes, however, not even they could help out. So I cast a wider net: I reached out to a cellist with the City of Athens Symphony Orchestra, who very obligingly agreed to help. Still, some of my questions went unanswered until he very helpfully relayed them to his conductor. It was then that I realised that this was the only solution that would help me find of the terms I was seeking, since the conductor has a bird-eye view of the entire orchestra and could better understand what I was looking for.

Illustration by Krimzoya
Illustration by Krimzoya

Then came another obstacle: English.

Greek, like many other languages, often has a very high inflow of English words that are used as loans in many areas: finance, economics, the graphic arts and yes, music. Terms in Greek are generated, but sometimes they can be pedantic or nontransparent or simply too long to incorporate in everyday speech. So, musicians use the words in English.

As many a frustrated translator knows, this is often a problem: when loan words are not included in dictionaries, most publishers’ style guide would see them thrown out of the text and replaced with their Greek equivalent; this, however, would require quite an effort to understand if you were a musician, because music jargon is different than everyday language.

So, I made some bold choices: loan words transliterated in Greek. This is what people who know about the subject actually say, so I decided to record the live language into text. Fortunately, my editor agreed.

Something that is also worth mentioning is the author’s contribution in this translation. Many authors do not become involved in the translation process, but Richard Powers did. He would readily clarify some points that I found obscure, since I was one step removed from the pragmatic elements involved. He would also offer alternative wordings, helping me really grasp the text.

But what is really really interesting about this book is that in Greek it has a different ending.

The musical term used in the final scene of the book, the word that resembles the last note to a musical piece that chimes away, as if underlining the tune, translates into Greek with a word that has another, plain, everyday definition. If I had used it, this beautiful final note would be lost.

So, I reached out to the author once more, and he worked out a different phrasing for the Greek text, one that would still keep a visible music term in place, but which would be easily identified for what it was.

I am grateful for this, because the Greek book ends exactly as the English book. And no, I will not give away how, you still need to read it if you want to find out.

Mata Salogianni studied at the Department of Foreign Languages, Translation and Interpreting of the Ionian University, Corfu, Greece, from which she graduated with a specialisation in legal, financial and technical translation, a field in which she has been working since. Other than Greek, her working languages are English, French, Portuguese, Italian and Turkish. She has been teaching legal and financial translation since 2006 and also translating literature since 2002, mostly from Portuguese. She is a member of the EC’s DG Translation Terminology Network and moderator of, a language and translation forum frequented by some of the top experts in the fields of translation and linguistics.

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