Our “Translator Relay” series features a new interview each month. This month's translator will choose the next interviewee, adding a different, sixth question. For October's installment, Bill Johnston passed the baton to Karen Emmerich, a prolific translator of Modern Greek poetry and prose. Her recent and forthcoming translations include Something Will Happen, You’ll See by Christos Ikonomou, The Scapegoat by Sophia Nikolaidou, and Why I Killed My Best Friend by Amanda Michalopoulou. She has also translated books by Ersi Sotiropoulos, Margarita Karapanou, and Vassilis Vassilikos. Her translation of Poems (1945–1971) by Miltos Sachtouris was a finalist for a National Book Critics’ Circle Prize in Poetry in 2006, and her co-translation with Edmund Keeley of Diaries of Exile by Yannis Ritsos was awarded the PEN Poetry in Translation Award in 2014. She currently teaches at the University of Oregon, and will be joining the faculty of Princeton University in the spring of 2015.
What is your connection to the language(s) you translate from and/or the place(s) where the books you translate are written?
I started learning Greek in college, and immediately fell in love not with Greek per se but with the process of learning a language—it probably could have been any language. Since then I’ve spent about a quarter of my time in Greece, for periods ranging from a month to two years, and more recently in Cyprus, too. I’ve made a kind of life for myself there, centered on my relationships with people I love, just like my life in the U.S.
That said, my relationship to Greek does have a different emotional weight than my relationship to English. No matter how fluent I may be, or seem to be, every word still remains magically outside of me in a way that English words don’t. Greek will always carry the memory of piles and piles of flashcards, of books I struggled through, of texts or people or conversations that taught me certain words or phrases or grammatical constructions. Just as particular street corners in every city I’ve ever lived are marked by the memories of things that happened there, so too is the whole topography of Greek marked in my mind by the process of learning to live in that language. In a sense, this might make my relationship to Greek even richer than my relationship to English: I started learning English without realizing I was doing it, and was too young to hold onto the memories of how difficult and thrilling it was to build a space for myself to exist within it.
Can you give us an example of an “untranslatable” word or phrase, and tell us how you brought it into English?
I’m not sure I believe in ‘untranslatable’ words; in my experience, translation problems usually don’t operate on the level of the word. The word is too small; we often need to pan out a bit more in order to think about translation effectively.
But I can tell you about a sentence that’s been driving me crazy. It’s an example of the fairly common problem of translating into English texts in which English already plays a significant role. In a story by Christos Ikonomou, a character starts singing the Doors song “People Are Strange”; the lines are transliterated into Greek. If I transliterate them back into English they read something like: “Pipol ar streinz ouen yioura streinzer feisis louk agli ouen yiouralon.” I’ve been vacillating for weeks now as to whether to Greekify the lines in that way, whether to offer the lyrics in their “proper” form, or whether to do something in between: “People are streinz ouen yioura streinzer faces louk agli ouen yiouralon.” Right now I’m leaning toward the last of the three options, something that’s both jarring and comprehensible. After all, this is a story about a couple drowning in debt while others travel abroad, who feel like strangers in a Greece that’s changing rapidly before their eyes; in some sense, the whole book is about the different kinds of tension that animate the relationship between the domestic and the foreign on so many levels. And since this line, about feeling strange and looking strange, does look strange in Greek, I want it to look strange in English, too.
Do you have any translating rituals?
I have habits more than rituals. Translating sometimes feels like such an abstract endeavor that in order to make a solid space for it, I try to create a familiar environment for myself as I work. I can work more or less anywhere—as long as I have a table or desk that’s the right height, or a coffee table that I can work at while sitting on the floor. And enough room for my little metal bookstand, which has been shoved into every suitcase and book bag I own, and is currently held together with Scotch tape. And easy access to coffee and snacks. I set up a little portable translation nest wherever I go.
Do you have a metaphor you use to explain the translation process and the role of the translator in bringing a piece from one language into another?
I guess I would begin by saying that the question already contains an implied spatial metaphor: it imagines languages located in discrete places, and a translator who moves between them, and brings a literary work along with her. Is that how we want to think about languages, and about translation? Do we want languages to be imagined as territories independent of one another, and the translator as a figure who moves between them? What kinds of things might get left out of that picture, and is there a reason to care?
Metaphors are tricky things. People often talk about translation as a process that necessarily involves loss. That, too, is a metaphor—it just happens to have become so widespread and dominant that people tend to treat it as literal truth rather than metaphorical description. You can only talk about translation as loss if you think of it as a process of transfer or transmission, which I don’t. Some like to think of “translation” as a carrying across, drawing on its roots in the Latin trans-latio—but to assume that the etymology of the word reveals some kind of deeper truth is to literalize that same old spatial metaphor. It’s like that Stephen Dobyns poem about carrying water in your hands across a desert to people dying of thirst. If translation is transfer, all you can do is lose. And while that may give a sense of urgency and importance to the endeavor, to my mind, it’s also not a very useful or generous way of thinking about translation or about translated texts.
Tell us about a current, or future, translation project that you're excited about.
The project that has stolen my heart for the past several years is a series of poems by Eleni Vakalo that will be published as Before Lyricism by Ugly Duckling Presse in 2015. It will be a collection of six chapbook-length poems that Vakalo wrote in the 1950s and 1960s. The poems are some of the densest, most difficult texts I’ve ever read—a fact I only really grasped when I started trying to translate them. When I read them in Greek, I’m able to let them wash over me without worrying too much about all the crazy things Vakalo is doing with grammar and syntax. For instance, she might have a passage that contains five verbs, seven nouns in the accusative, and only two nouns in the nominative—and while a Greek reader can simply let the various possibilities hover in the air, humming, when you try to translate them into a language like English (in which word order determines so much) you have to make lots of decisions about who’s doing what to what, while also finding new ways of suspending meaning or resisting closure. I feel incredibly lucky to have spent years digging deep into these poems, and expanding my range in English, as well. But I know that anyone who judges the translations on the basis of a word-for-word comparison with the Greek is bound to say I’ve failed. I am, therefore, both excited and somewhat nervous to be letting these translations out into the world after all these years. It’s the biggest translation risk I’ve ever taken.
Who are the readers you imagine as you make your translations?
Well, Benjamin says we’re not supposed to think about readers, but I certainly do. When I said a moment ago that I’m nervous about publishing the Vakalo poems, I was anticipating the most frustrating kind of readers: those who cling to certain ideas about what translation is, and are unable or unwilling to think beyond that, and thus judge your work according to paradigms you might actually be trying to escape.
But I suppose my imagined readers change with each project. Sometimes I translate short text to share with a very few people—friends or family, or students in my classes. Those translations are never intended for broader circulation, and the impetus behind them is different than it would be for a novel or collection of poems. Of course I always assume that the texts I produce, even when commercially published, will have very few readers—but I also like to think, or hope, that some of those readers may be deeply affected in ways I can’t predict. The one book I’ve translated about which I’ve received the most feedback is Margarita Karapanou’s Rien ne va plus, which knocked the wind out of me when I was eighteen years old. To have other people write and tell me that my translation has allowed them to have a similar experience is the most extraordinary gift. It’s one of the most important reasons why I keep doing this utterly crazy thing that translating is.