Saturday, October 10, 2015
«Μαμά, μπαμπά, σας ευχαριστώ για όλα που κάνατε για μένα.» This sequence of words is the only one that did not require rendering into English, in Georgina Dimopoulos' recently released Greek translation of His Honour Justice Emilios Kyrou's autobiography: "Call Me Emilios." The Greek translation: «Να Με Λέτε Αιμίλιο,» is a unique contribution to the already well-established Greek-Australian genre of autobiography and as such, merits special attention.
Most Greek-Australian autobiographies deal with the migrant experience. In almost all cases, their structure is similar: moderate to extreme privation, a long journey to Australia, hardship and difficulties in establishing oneself and acclimatizing to a new environment, ultimate material success and perhaps in conclusion, some undertones of ennui at a lifestyle irrevocably lost. When English translations of these autobiographies are commissioned, the authors usually cite three reasons for seeking these: a) they want their story to be maintained and not lost, in the future, b) they hope that their story can reach the broader mainstream and most importantly, c) they want their story rendered in an intelligible form so that their children and other descendants will have some understanding of "where they came from," and what their progenitors "went through." Underlying this desire is a tacit assumption that the Greek language as a means of preserving history and of basic communication is largely redundant and also, that the latter generations are in need of a "founding myth" that will explain not only how they came to be, but also, just how the guiding principles and values of their forefathers, such as hard-work and thrift, should be maintained throughout the succeeding generations. This myth and its ancillary set of values is imposed, rather than negotiated, by way of translations of autobiographies.
Justice Kyrou, also a first generation migrant, in writing his autobiography in English and then choosing to have it translated into Greek is thus subverting common practice, though in many respects, his autobiography espouses many of the values and structures that characterise the Greek-Australian autobiographical tradition. Having already established an English-speaking audience, he consciously renders his story intelligible to first generation Greek-speakers, who, at first glance, would have intimate knowledge of it in the first place. In so doing, he is mirroring the attempts of his colleagues in the field, to bridge the generation and communication gap, but from the opposite direction.
Justice Kyrou belongs to that generation of migrants that arrived in Australia at an early age and rather than being socially marginalised by being shunted off into factories as cheap labour as their parents were, they were inducted into the school system and were thus compelled to confront and attempt to negotiate their way into a society that at that time, was unprepared to accept them or their cultural background. The racism experienced by that generation forms much of the bulk of Justice Kyrou's Australian narrative. He writes about taking circuitous routes to Greek school in order to avoid the ridicule of classmates, being beaten, avoiding speaking Greek in public and being made to feel ashamed of his identity to the point where he, like many others changed his name, the most obvious indicator of that offending identity. In this way, Justice Kyrou provides us with a unique insight into a traumatized generation, whose ambivalence about their identity has, despite the overwhelming dominance of the monolingual Greek speaking migrant's narrative in our understanding of ourselves, profoundly influenced the development of our community, in ways that cry out for serious study.
In «Να Με Λέτε Αιμήλιο,» and also in a recent essay about his father, Justice Kyrou outlines a generation gap that is rarely given a voice within the canon of our literature. According to him, owing to his parents' relegation to the sidelines of Australian society, they were not able to appreciate his own challenges in carving his own niche within the mainstream. They were unable to comprehend, let alone address the level of racism he experienced at the hands of his peers. They had no conception of, let alone the skills to offer advice or guidance as to the most effective ways in which he could acclimatize to his new reality, without invalidating his own cultural background. Consequently, his self-consciousness about exhibiting aspects of his Greek identity were incomprehensible to his parents, who like most Greek migrants did not at that time have a coherent vision of their place within Australia. Though this is not specifically mentioned by Justice Kyrou, except for brief and amusing anecdotes about the manner in which he and his brother contrived to obtain the trappings of cool teenage-hood by way of fashionable haircuts and jeans, one can also see how such a state of affairs as delineated by him would result both in the youth of the age divesting themselves of aspects of their Greek identity no longer relevant or advantageous, in the society they were forced to embrace and in their parents' complete mystification as to how this could have occurred, and insistence that all Greek cultural norms, however arcane be enforced and retained.
Viewed in this manner, Justice Kyrou, in having his work translated into Greek, is uniquely reaching out to the previous generation of monolingual Greek migrants, in order to give to them, in their own language, some inkling of his generation's own battles in enduring the migrant experience, just as their idiom of discourse, which currently still controls the dominant identity narrative, is beginning its terminal decline. Here, the narrative becomes a dialectic. Making the translation even more poignant, is the fact that it has been superbly rendered by Georgina Dimopoulos, a member of the second-generation of Greek-Australians, proving poetically that a good deal of unfinished business needs to be completed between the generations before we feel comfortable enough to mould an identity that will accommodate all narratives and take us into the future.
The generation gap notwithstanding, Justice Kyrou also another aims, in pursuing a Greek translation of his autobiography. The untranslated phrase: «Μαμά, μπαμπά, σας ευχαριστώ για όλα που κάνατε για μένα,» is of historical significance because it ultimately derives from the first ever appointment speech of a Judge of the Supreme Court of Victoria to be delivered in Greek. The act of translation therefore becomes an act of homage and tribute to an imperfect but eminently honourable, courageous, far-sighted generation that is deserving of our respect and devotion.
One of the most immediate observations I made upon first reading the English version of "Call Me Emilios," was how "traditionally Greek," it was in structure. Rather than focusing upon himself, as is the case within the Anglosphere, Justice Kyrou traces his ancestry and seeks to place himself within the context of his village and relations, a recurring theme as has striven to maintain those ties throughout his life. In the Greek translation, this process not only acts as a bridge between the first generation and those following but also serves to place the migrant experience, as recounted by Justice Kyrou, squarely within the narrative of modern Greek history. This is a noteworthy achievement.
In the original English, Justice Kyrou employs a clear, concise and structured style, that Georgina Dimopoulos ably preserves in her masterly Greek rendition, eschewing the histrionics and hyperbole that have become almost compulsory when writing about the migrant experience in Greek. The multi-faceted and complex approach taken by Justice Kyrou and his translator to issues of our community, identity, psychology and the traumas that lie therein make both the English and recently published Greek versions of his autobiography compulsory reading.
First published in NKEE on Saturday, 10 October 2015