Gringlish and how languages interact

It was the anti-dictatorship graffiti scrawled in Greek on walls in Melbourne that alerted Karen Van Dyck to the existence of another alphabet. She wasn’t too sure which language it was in: «I think I took it for Russian,» she says, but she was hooked for life. When her father’s posting to Australia ended and Van Dyck was back in her native Princeton, still at high school, she started Modern Greek lessons, and has worked in the field ever since. In town this week to deliver the 11th Kimon Friar Lecture at the American College of Greece, Van Dyck spoke on «Gringlish Literature and the Question of Translation.» Kathimerini English Edition asked her about her thoughts on Gringlish. ‘To flori’ What exactly is Gringlish? In her lecture Van Dyck explained how Gringlish was first coined to describe the particular way Greek immigrants in America spoke because they didn’t know enough English, coming up with formulations such as «Ftasame ta belozeria» for «It’s gone below zero.» The term eventually stretched to cover «the differently macaronic talk of their children for whom Greek, not English, was the foreign language (‘to flori’ for ‘floor’) and the language of radio and TV announcers and rappers in Greece who borrow words and grammatical structures from English.» Van Dyck has taken it further, to describe what she calls Gringlish literature, which is far more than a humorous mishmash of the two languages and which feeds into her interest in «literature written at the interstices of two or more languages. I find it fascinating to see how languages interact and alter each other, transforming the predictable into the unexpected by mixing up rules. Hybrid idioms intrigue me because they contain puzzles that demand going outside the box for solutions. One set of linguistic rules and cultural references is not sufficient. Greek Italian, Greek French, Gringlish or Gralbanian, for that matter, underscore how languages infiltrate and rewire each other, suggesting alternative identities and cultural communities that are impossible to stamp on a passport or codify in a census.» Van Dyck went on to illustrate the process at work, using translations she has edited of poetry by Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke and asking whether the poet’s writing was not «the product of a lifetime of translating between those two languages.» She said English was a «motor that fuels the work of Anghelaki-Rooke.» What makes Van Dyck’s approach unusual for a scholar is that she zeroes in on precisely the elements that a more traditional academic might slate as grammatically, syntactically or lexically incorrect. As she explained in her lecture, «Gringlish offers a different approach to literature as well as translation by putting the emphasis on interference and complementarity over purity and replication.» She is keen to get more translations out there to the public that reflect this approach. «We have to go more toward making translations that are conversant with the dominant American idiom,» she said. «I’m very happy that I am working on an anthology of Greek poetry since Homer,» she said, referring to a forthcoming volume she is co-editing with Peter Constantine, Rachel Hadas and Edmund Keeley. In her view, that volume will allow the editors to include translations that will raise some productive questions. Greek-American writers are teaching English speakers to read in a different way, argues Van Dyck, who also believes the most exciting literature comes out of these ways of thinking between languages. Citing Conrad and Nabokov as familiar examples of writers who worked between languages, Van Dyck noted how few readers of Greek literature think of the influence of other languages on leading demoticists such as Psycharis and Korais. The legacy of the bitter conflict between the Katharevousa or purist form of Modern Greek and the demotic – known in Greece as the language question – has made it hard for Greeks to see how thinking about that question can be productive, she thinks. But writers such as Vizyinos and Papadiamantis «lived in these languages and worked between them. Translation is at the center of Greek literature in a way that needs to be explored and thought about,» said Van Dyck. She cited the example of contemporary Greek writer Sotiris Dimitriou, whose first novel «N’akouo kala t’onoma sou» (translated into English by Leo Marshall as «May Your Name be Blessed») employs the Epirote dialect. «It is important to think about national literature sometimes doing transcultural and translinguistic work behind the scenes,» she said. It’s the tension between Greek and English that is the new language question in Greece, she believes. Her next book, now in progress, will explore the Gringlish structure of the Greek and English languages. Karen Van Dyck – the short bio A scholar and translator of modern Greek literature, Karen Van Dyck is professor and Kimon A. Doukas Chair in the Classics Department at Columbia University, New York. She did a BA in classics at Wesleyan, an MA in modern Greek literature at the University of Thessaloniki, and a PhD at Oxford. In addition to teaching, she has published widely on 19th and 20th century Greek and Greek-American literature and culture, translation studies and gender studies. Van Dyck has also published translations of poems by Jenny Mastoraki, Maria Laina, Demosthenes Davvetas and Yiannis Ritsos. She is currently working on a book about multilingualism and translation in the production of literature, and is co-editing an anthology of Greek poetry since Homer for Norton.