The cautionary case of a small literary translation
Presenter: Stathis Gauntlett
This paper presents and discusses the remarkable range of conflict encountered in the course of translating a small, and seemingly innocuous, work of literary fiction from Greek into English. The Cypriot novella “The Gangsters” by Lefkios Zafiriou proved to be enveloped in conflict out of all proportion to its size — not unlike its setting, the strife-torn island of Cyprus.
The story is prima facie a ‘misery memoir’ of the author’s deprived childhood during the final phase of British colonial rule and the early years of the Republic of Cyprus. However, in chronicling that turbulent period through a child’s eyes, the narrative —and especially its incongruous title, “The Gangsters”— adumbrates some highly contentious events in the island’s later history in a partisan and provocative manner. Accordingly, the novella was awarded a State Literary Prize by one side of Cypriot politics, but was pilloried and reviled by the other side.
Deciding to translate such a work carried the obvious danger of buying into the minefield of local politics. Translating it into the language of the erstwhile colonial masters of Cyprus increased the range of sensitivities to be negotiated. Moreover, the close reading of the text required by its translation revealed a number of subtle politico-cultural issues lurking just below the surface: for example, the author’s sporadic insertion of Cypriot dialect and semi-Cypriot forms in the broadly standard Greek of the narrative, raises issues from the conflicted politics of Cypriot identity and its distinctiveness from that of mainland Greeks. This compounded the perennially thorny problem of how to translate dialect.
Publication and distribution of the translation entailed further adventures with both cautionary and uplifting aspects.
While some of the issues arising are culturally and historically specific, the experience discussed in this paper should be of general interest to translators.
About the Presenter
Stathis Gauntlett was born and raised in (Old) South Wales. He read Mediaeval & Modern Languages at Oxford University, whence he also took a doctorate for a thesis on the poetics and performance of Rebetika (“Piraeus blues”). He was appointed to the foundation lectureship in Modern Greek at the University of Melbourne in 1973 and retired from the Chair of Hellenic Studies at La Trobe University in 2006, when he was also elected to the Australian Academy of the Humanities. His research in Greek literature and oral traditions continues in retirement as a senior research fellow of the University of Melbourne. His publications include annotated translations of the Cretan Renaissance verse romance Erotokritos (co-authored) and the modern Cypriot novella “The Gangsters”, the latter being the subject of his conference presentation.