An exercise in translation

Sociologist, linguist, professor and translator Leo Marshall lives in the UK most of the year but when he’s in Athens he wants a view of the Acropolis, and has one from the balcony of his home.

Kathimerini met with Marshall on the occasion of the publication of his most recent project for the University of Birmingham Modern Greek Translations series, Yannis Skarimbas’s novel “Mariambas.” He has also translated three short stories by Alexandros Papadiamantis, two novels by Sotiris Dimitriou (Marshall was awarded for “Your Name be Blessed”) and one by Nikos Gavriil Pentzikis.

Marshall studied sociology, linguistics and later the philosophy of language; Greek was not on his curriculum. However, he admits, when it came to translating Papadiamantis, “theory was not enough.”

“It’s the same with Skarimbas, who’s even harder than Papadiamantis. When you see a Papadiamantis text, you know what you have to do,” says Marshall, adding that he considers the late 19th, early 20th century Greek writer among Europe’s greats.

“I think he’s equal to Flaubert,” says Marshall.

The translator concedes that not all of Papadiamantis’s works are equally important “but there are some real masterpieces.” He also admires Skarimbas, saying that “with his masterful use of language and structure, but also the depth of his insight, he is to the 20th century just as important as, say, Raymond Queneau or Vladimir Nabokov.”

Marshall and his British wife spend long periods of time either at their apartment in Athens or their home in Andritsaina, western Greece, so he has a very clear idea about the country, its day-to-day life and, of course, its literature. His choice of material, he says, is dictated by style rather than content.

“I choose those who are interesting in terms of style. Not that I’m not interested in content but I choose the kind of content that comes from style. That’s what literature is,” he says.

“By translating, I was exercising my writer’s muscles. I always start and then stop. The idea is always that I’ll do this translation, strengthen my muscles and then start writing. But I need more exercise every time. I think Skarimbas may be my last workout,” adds Marshall.

One of the biggest things holding him back is his fear of being unoriginal.

“All of these writers have a distinct personality. My fear is that this is something I will lack.”

Before he first came across Papadiamantis, Marshall had read most of the well-known Greek writers in the original and admits that he was somewhat disappointed.

He moved to Athens briefly in 1981 to teach at Athens College, a private school, where he stayed for two years. It was during that time that he picked up “I Nostalgos” (Homesick).

“I couldn’t believe my eyes. I read a few more of his stories. And because I found his style so fascinating, I tried translating him, because I wanted to see whether I could achieve something similar in English,” says Marshall.

That was how it all started.

But how did Marshall ever get involved with the Greek language?

“My mother was Greek, from Asia Minor,” he explains. “During the Greek Civil War my father was in the British army, in the special forces. He was here during the Dekemvriana battles.

“One day he was going past my mother’s house on Themistocleous Street [in downtown Athens] and was attacked by the rebels. There was an exchange of fire and the rebels escaped into the building my mother was living in. My father and his team followed them. They asked the residents whether anyone spoke English. My mother did and that’s how they met.”

Marshall’s father returned later and looked for her.

“My grandfather did not like this development at all, but they fell in love and got married in Athens,” recounts Marshall. “So, Greek was my mother tongue even though my father hated it when we spoke Greek at home – he was jealous. When I was 4 or 5 years old, my dad got sick and I spent a year and a half with my grandparents in Greece, learning to speak and read Greek on my own.”

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