Putting unique linguistic skills to work

A cosmopolitan background and a love of languages have helped make Peter Constantine a talented writer, poet and multilingual translator. Born in London and raised in Greece, he now lives in New York where he makes his living from literary translation. Constantine spoke by telephone to Kathimerini English Edition while in Athens recently on a family visit, and agreed to an e-mail interview. Diverse background As a boy, Constantine had the advantage of links to several countries and languages, which he has added to ever since. His mother is Austrian, his father British of Turkish descent, and he was born in London. So where is home? «I was two and a half years old when my family moved to Athens in 1966, so I have always considered Greece my homeland, he explains. «I also feel a particular bond to the Greek language, and consider it along with German and English one of my three mother tongues. I felt very Greek growing up here.» Such a diverse background was a little unusual for Athens at that time, when historical grievances could still cast a dark shadow, as Constantine memorably discovered: «My formal Greek schooling abruptly ended in kindergarten one day when my mother found out that the teacher had announced that the sun does not shine for the Turks. I was immediately packed off to the British Embassy School, which was quite a culture shock for me. Greek, for one thing, was completely forbidden – strictly forbidden. It was an enforced de-Greekification, in a sense. British boys must be British. Many classmates who were actually born in Greece did not even know how to say good morning in Greek. The only Greek element in the school (beside myself) was Kyria Aphrodite who brought us our noontime orange juice and kept the school tidy.» Constantine moved to New York to pursue his interest in dance: «I moved to New York when I was 20. I was working in Vienna as a dancer, and wanted to widen my range and technique. I was particularly interested in African-American dance forms, and studied at Alvin Ailey’s and Dance Theater of Harlem here in New York.» Formidable repertoire What stands out from Constantine’s list of publications is the extraordinary range of languages in which he works. In addition to translating poetry and prose from languages as diverse as Slovene, Albanian and Haitian Creole – to name just three from a much longer list – he has also written scholarly articles in English, poetry in Nether-Austrian and modern Greek, and penned some gritty guides to Asian street slang. Not surprisingly, he embarked on building this formidable repertoire at an early age. «I have always been interested in languages – all languages, from Afrikaans and Albanian to Xhosa and Zulu. As a teenager I studied whatever grammar books I could lay my hands on. I went to Campion School in Athens, and our headmaster at the time, Mr Meyers, fanned my interest in languages by offering me subjects such as Sanskrit and Gothic. He even suggested I take a full course in Vietnamese, which I regrettably turned down. There were quite a few Greek/ Afrikaaner pupils doing their Afrikaans O Levels [secondary school level exams], which I found intriguing. I was eager to do Afrikaans exams myself, but we got a new headmaster who felt that I would do well to focus on my core subjects (he was probably right). So I focused on more mainstream languages, such as Russian and French.» How does someone so skilled at acquiring languages go about learning yet another one? «When I learn a language I try to approach it from as many angles as possible. Cassettes for the sound, videos that can be watched over and over for natural speech rhythms, grammar books and dictionaries.» Though he has worked on various types of texts, Constantine now does only literary translation, prose and poetry, he says. Having attained the enviable stage of only working on material he likes, to what extent does he actually choose the works he translates? «I usually propose a book and my agent sends the proposal around to various publishers. The book I am currently working on for The Modern Library, ‘Taras Bulba’ by Nikolai Gogol, was, however, suggested to me by the publisher.» His tastes draw him to the 19th century in particular. «In the past I have done some lighter books such as the ‘Frommer’s Travel Guide to the Moon’ – which was fun, but, interestingly enough, it was more work than doing, say, a Chekhov book.» This leads to an observation that will strike a chord with translators everywhere: «When the writer is very good the translation is easier than when the writer is inattentive to style.» Preparation & pitfalls A prolific translator, Constantine has gained recognition for the excellence of his work. He won the PEN/Book of the Month Club Translation Prize, 1998, for «Thomas Mann: Six Early Stories,» the National Translation Award in 1999 for «The Undiscovered Chekhov: Thirty-Eight New Stories,» and The Koret Jewish Literature Award, 2002, for «The Complete Works of Isaac Babel.» What advice does this expert have for budding literary translators about preparing for their chosen profession and the pitfalls they may encounter? «The best preparation,» says Constantine, «is to read in the language you are translating into. Many translators forget that they have to keep widening their range within their own language. For the translator, comprehensive command of the language into which the translation is being done is more important than total command of the original language. The translator needs to have available all the registers of the language he or she is translating into in order to render the nuances of the original. «Again, the translator is alone with these decisions and must rely on his or her individual skills. Every translator is alone with a text in a unique way. What is important is that he or she remain palpably sensitive to the author and the work before embarking on the problems of language. «Many beginning translators focus too exclusively on words, on vocabulary. But it seems to me that more often, in prose as in poetry, it is the author’s rhythm or breath that is determinant, and that what is essential for the translation is deciding what this rhythm or breath is, and how to deal with it. In a nutshell: If you are translating Proust into English, your English had better be as good as Proust’s French. So it is also important to be aware of one’s limitations.» The translation market Readers in Greece are used to seeing vast quantities of books in translation – largely into Greek – in local bookstores, but this is a very different market from those in English-speaking countries. Constantine comments on the scene in the United States: «The market for works in translation is far weaker in the US than it is anywhere in Europe. In an Athenian bookstore the ratio of translated works to non-translated works is far greater than it is here in the States. German and French publishers also publish many more books in translation than American publishers do.» This makes it very difficult for anyone to earn a living solely from translation, as Constantine explains: «Almost all literary translators in the United States are also professors or have other jobs. I think the only reason I can survive as a literary translator here is because of my range of languages.» From the Greek For his next project Constantine will be working in two of his earliest languages, Greek and English. «I want to do a substantial book of Alexandros Papadiamantis’s works on the scale of my ‘Complete Works of Isaac Babel.’ The proposal is out among the publishers. I just completed a three-month fellowship in the Hellenic Department at Princeton last month, and that has made me extremely eager to work on a series of modern Greek projects.» Inevitably, his immersion in literature and demanding workload leave little room for other interests: «It’s just work, work, work, during the day, and then NY social whirls in the evening.»