A ‘balanced bilingualism, biculturalism’

Just back from the Toronto conference of the Modern Greek Studies Association, where he delivered a paper on «The Descent of the Nine» by Thanassis Valtinos, Dimitry Paivanas talked to Kathimerini English Edition. Born in Greece in 1961, resident in Australia for many years but back on home turf in Athens since 1998, Paivanas has achieved what he calls a «balanced bilingualism and biculturalism.» As a teacher of Greek to foreigners and a theoretician of Greek literature currently pursuing a PhD on the fiction of Thanassis Valtinos at Birmingham University in the UK, Paivanas works his way effortlessly between English and Greek. Learning to straddle two cultures was an unexpected challenge. In 1978, when Paivanas was still a schoolboy and his family suddenly decided to move to Australia without consulting him, he didn’t know a word of English, though he had studied French. Thrown in at the deep end, he rose quickly to the surface, and within two years of his arrival in Melbourne was a star pupil in English. Talent for language and a desire to keep in touch with his background led to university studies in classics and Modern Greek, a master’s degree on rebetika music and academic posts in Australia. He also taught Greek as a foreign language, which stood him in good stead when he returned to Greece and started a tuition college teaching English to children and Greek to foreigners. There was little material ready made for teaching Greek to foreigners: «We had to devise our own methods,» he says, «and there’s still a paucity of textbooks. But that necessity became an invaluable experience.» Immersion in two languages Paivanas’s immersion in two languages has given him special insight into translation and he has written the pitfalls of translating rebetika. «Translatability is a difficult issue,» he comments, «especially when interpretation is involved. When I approach a text, I approach its details, and I’m interested in its multiplicity of meaning. Translation is to an extent an interpretation of a work that necessarily will limit its polyphony, its multiplicity of meaning. That’s unavoidable; as an old adage has it, you lose something in translation. I think the skilled translator is the one who manages to translate the work by reducing the text as little as possible. I have an image of a translator who is something between what I do and a very skilled linguist – who understands both languages really well, especially the target one.» As for the specifics of translation, says Paivanas: «Things like idioms, idiomatic language and register are very difficult to convey, and that is where the skill of the translator comes in too. I have read some very good translations into English that are extremely good on the level of register, but somehow lack on the issues of vocabulary or of conveying the subtleties of vocabulary. Then again, there’s a subjectivity involved there. «There are many native Greek speakers, like myself, who have lived abroad for several years and have developed a kind of balanced bilingualism and biculturalism. I consider myself a balanced bilingual and bicultural person, but I do not consider myself a very good translator into English, and I attribute this partly to the fact that my true native tongue is Greek. Despite the balance there, Greek remains the dominant language. That is a personal assessment of myself. It boils down to skill again, to something as general as that. I have read some translations of Greek texts by native speakers of English that are not very good. Being a native speaker is one of the criteria, but it is not the decisive one. «The ideal translator understands the nuances of the Greek language, but has the sensitivity and skill to transfer these nuances into the target language. and I think that a native speaker might be better equipped to do that, in the long run, but not necessarily.» Does he think translation can be taught? «Yes, at a very rudimentary level, it can. I did teach literary translation at the University of Melbourne in 1995-96, and there are skills there that are teachable, but ultimately the style issue is a personal thing. «Perhaps intuitive understanding of the languages involved helps the translator to make a refinement of the final text and produce a very successful translation. Not everything in translation can be taught.» Currently Paivanas is concentrating on research, with a dissertation on Valtinos in the works, and he has plans for a book on rebetika.