Greek literature risks getting lost in translation
Bureaucratic and fitful support for translators risks hampering authors
Greek writers we need to know: Nikos Kazantzakis. Almost everyone has heard of his ‘Zorba the Greek’ perhaps because of the film (pictured).
If you write in a less well- known language, such as Irish, Finnish or Greek, the essential vehicles for reaching a wider readership are a reliable translator and a publisher who can exploit your book in the marketplace. This in turn requires a cultural policy underpinning the work of translation. But there is no government agency responsible for pushing Greek writers under the noses of commissioning editors, reviewers or the bulk-buying outlets.
In Greece, the Frasis project, managed by the national book centre, funds the translation of books published outside Greece. In its two years of existence, with a budget of €189,000, out of a total of 100 applications it has subsidised the translation of 28 books (at an average cost of €6,500), only four of them into English.
I’m told by translators that the Frasis application procedure is bureaucratic and its operation intermittent; it seems to have no policy guidelines, and no marketing role, which imperils any project that aims to get Greek authors into Waterstones or on to the Amazon website.
And last year the government announced the closure of the national book centre, with Frasis being subsumed into the culture ministry.
’ Who are the Greek writers we need to know? Nikos Kazantzakis is in a class of his own: almost everyone has heard of Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation (maybe because they saw the films). It would be unfair to say that his reputation overshadows later writers
but he remains an example of a Greek writer who, because of the power and popularity of his writing, could readily attract a publisher of the calibre of Faber and, in the United States, Simon and Schuster.
It’s the power of Greek writing that makes it so rewarding. It’s emotional, it’s visceral, it’s passionate. Of course the perennial themes of love, jealousy and ambition are present, but Greek novelists seem to be preoccupied, very instructively, with the events of history in the past century, and the emotions they evoke.
For example, the disastrous Anatolian campaign of 1920- 1922, when Greece attempted to invade Turkey, is the subject of several recent novels, including Panos Karnezis’s The Maze. Such events not only continue to resonate within the Greek folk memory, but provide non- Greek readers with an understanding of the persistent tensions and anxieties which make modern Greece so rewarding to study.
Karnezis also writes with wry and acute perceptiveness of contemporary Greek life in stories such as The Birthday Party, allegedly portraying the Onassis family. Karnezis, published by Jonathan Cape, is lucky in that he lives in England and writes in English. But it is only occasionally that a Greek author finds a mainstream publisher.
One major Greek publisher, Kedros, has an impressive list of fiction and poetry in translation, but, based in Greece, is ineligible for Frasis funding. An unsung hero is Denise Harvey, who publishes from the island of Euboea: her edition of stories by Alexandros Papadiamantis, together with his novella The Murderess, is perhaps the single most important publishing achievement I can think of. Again, Frasis funding is not for her.
My recommendations must necessarily be subjective, and limited to a very few of the titles I have read. The tragic but beautiful Astradeni by Eu
genia Fakinou (Kedros), depicting island departure and resettlement in the city, will ring many bells among Irish readers. So too will Dimitris Hatzis’s stories The Death of Our Small Town (Birmingham University).
If you like detective thrillers, Greece has its Inspector Haritos novels by Petros Markaris; at least four of his, including Deadline in Athens, are available from Vintage. Vangelis Hatziyannidis has two novels of dramatic quality: Four Walls and Stolen Time, both from Marion Boyars. Yiorgi Yatromanolakis, widely regarded as an amiable eccentric, concentrates on the psychology of village life: The History of a Vendetta, The Spiritual Meadow and Report of a Murder are published in the UK by Dedalus Press, with EU and UK arts council funding.
There are many novels of the German occupation and civil war. Outstanding among these is Pavlos Matesis’s The Daughter (Arcadia),which been translated into nine other languages.
All the books I’ve mentioned are in print. Many others, translated in the 1950s and 1960s, are out of print and cry out for reprints. Many more, from past and present, are untranslated.
What these stories have in common is an earthiness, a deep sense of history and tradition, a seemingly infinite capacity to engage with social issues, and a sensitivity to what it means to be Greek, how to celebrate life in all its horrors and joys. Partly for the echoes and parallels, partly to discover a new culture, Irish readers need to find them.