Getting the nuances of Scottish crime fiction across in Greek

Translating fiction is a special skill. How can one capture the full flavor of Scottish idioms in Greek, for example, or convey the atmosphere of the Edinburgh underworld? Alexandra Kontaxaki and George Tzimas, two young Greek practitioners of the craft, have recently translated a book apiece by best-selling Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin for Athens-based publisher Metaichmio. They shared some of the tricks of their trade in an interview with Kathimerini English Edition. In both cases, the proposal to translate the book came from the publisher. «I had never before translated a mystery novel,» says Tzimas. When offered Rankin’s «The Falls,» he thought: «Alright, this is going to be yet another of those ‘the butler did it’ stories, but I was wrong. No butlers on the scene, no predictable plot, no cliches, just interesting characters, lots of Scotland and Edinburgh lore – I decided to translate it.» Kontaxaki had already seen Tzimas’s translation of Rankin when Metaichmio asked if she would like to take on «Resurrection Men»: «I gave it a quick read, I quite liked it, so I said OK.» Maintaining ambience For Kontaxaki, the greatest challenge in this particular translation was «to maintain the ambience of the original, to convey the Edinburgh images and the Scottish idioms, as well as Rankin’s wit.» She has strong views about how to translate: «I fervently believe in the importance of a faithful translation, as I believe that readers are interested in the writer’s style and not the translator’s! Sometimes it’s impossible to convey an expression or idiom or pun in another language. In such cases, I prefer to fill in the gap with something that would make sense in Greek, or else I resort to the footnote solution. In all other cases, I try to remain as close to the original as possible. I believe that even the smallest detail can make a difference.» Commenting on the difficulties the book presented, Tzimas says: «When translating a text there is always a set of things that can give you a serious headache. In this particular novel, my major problem emerged from the nature of the mystery genre itself and the purely Scottish-British cultural elements in the text. Language devices «The first category of problems had to do with the language devices that mystery novelists use: puns, innuendos, deliberate ambiguities, anagrams, etc. These devices are not always readily translatable and the translator’s task becomes even harder when they play a key role in the plot. The second category, the one dealing with cultural realities, can also become tricky.» So how did he tackle the problems? «The translator,» says Tzimas, «has to apply a series of specific strategies from the various theories of translation, but there is no absolute set of rules. It is language we translators deal with and language is a very intricate and mysterious phenomenon. In my view, it all boils down to instinct. Translators have to rely largely on their instinct.» Kontaxaki has a systematic approach to working on a book: «I skim through it one time just to get the gist of it and then I start translating slowly and carefully, gathering all my questions or any obscure points. At the end of the week, I try to find the answers to all my questions up to that point (looking up words in dictionaries, encyclopedias, on the Internet, etc.). I carry on like this until I have finished the translation and then I start asking friends or experts about more specific questions. After I have finished all this and have no questions left, I reread the text slowly; I pore over it, correcting anything that does not sound right, always comparing it with the original text. I find there are always plenty of mistakes to correct, no matter how hard I try to avoid them during the translation. This is why I believe rereading the translation is the most important part of my work, the one I have to concentrate on the hardest.» Like most people in their profession, Kontaxaki and Tzimas were drawn to translation by their love of language. For Kontaxaki, it was mostly «out of my love for the English and the American culture (popular as a teenager, literary later on). Moreover, because it is a profession full of variety and knowledge, one I will never get bored with, hopefully, that is.» A learning adventure For Tzimas, much of the appeal comes from the adventure of learning. «Translation,» he explains, «presupposes a continuous effort to learn new and often interesting things. When you translate a text you don’t merely convey a message from a source to a target language. You have to do research and this can be more fun than the translation process itself. «It is something like the original writing process but in the reverse. I find that quite challenging and the learning adventure it encompasses is really intoxicating.» Though Kontaxaki and Tzimas have had formal training as translators both found that other studies and practical experience have helped them in their craft. Theory and practice She studied translation for two years at a private school in Athens called EEO: «It helped a lot because I dealt with a lot of different kinds of translation. But even back then, I was translating films and TV series as well as teaching English. «What I also found quite useful was studying for the Diploma of English Studies (Cambridge) through which I got better acquainted with English literature. As I saw my interest lay in literature, I also attended a course on Irish literature in Dublin and another one on American literature in Athens.» Tzimas attended the translation courses of the British Council for a very short period of time then continued his studies in the Ionian University’s department of translation. He doesn’t believe academic study is an absolute prerogative for aspiring translators, though, as he points out, it offers a theoretical background that should not be underestimated. «What makes a translator,» he says, «is not so much the knowledge of a language but the knowledge of the ways to deal with the difficulties arising from the text. «Of course, you always run the risk of becoming excessively obsessed with rules and solutions consistent with theory, but this is where the translator must draw a fine line between what he learnt as being the right thing to do and what he feels to be the right thing to do.» Kontaxakis takes a similar line: «I believe training is quite important, but I also believe that no training in the world could ever make up for inexperience or replace the love for literature, a language, a culture. Neither training nor experience can work miracles by itself.»

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.