Monday, January 22, 2007


Translation… is in fact an art both estimable and very difficult, and therefore is not the labour and the portion of common minds. It should be practiced by those who are themselves capable of being actors, when they see greater use in translating the works of others than in their own works, and hold them higher than their own glory the service that they render to their country.”
Ignacy Kasicky, Primate of Poland.

This week’s diatribe discovers the exception that proves the rule. No, we did not invent translation, though it could conceivably be argued that we provided the seed of genius which, fertilized in the womb of necessity, achieved its conception. This is because though peripatetic sages of old such as Pythagoras and Herodotus sojourned in lands of equal if not superior civilizations to our own and gained invaluable lessons therefrom, they never felt the need to receive any texts they may have encountered there, within the Greek language. Conversely, the Persians, having to deal with a multitude of ethnicities and languages in their multicultural empire, became adept at rendering texts from their own language into others as diverse as Egyptian, Aramaic and Elamite.
Owing to our own introspection, cultural homogeneity and quite possibly, a good dash of cultural superiority, we did not translate. Instead, other peoples, notably those who hitherto had no estimable literary tradition of their own, (and thus had an inferiority complex), such as the Romans , felt compelled to render our works into their own language, in order to derive the benefit of the knowledge therein contained. Translations from other languages into the Greek were a relatively late phenomenon and largely took place only after Greece’s inclusion within the multi-ethnic empires of the Hellenistic period and its Roman successors, whereby translations were compelled by force of conquest. In this regard, it is interesting that arguably the greatest literary translation into Greek was attempted not by Greeks but by Hellenised Jews between the third and first centuries BC, when their elders, fretting that the younger generation could no longer understand the Hebrew of the Old Testament, arranged for its translation into a language that they could more easily understand. In fact, the only notable translation in antiquity into Greek was made by Choerilus of Iasus, who was Alexander the Great’s campaign poet and who was said to have translated the epitaph of Sardanapalus from Assyrian, though this is disputed. Given then that we cannot claim to have conceived translation, we can console ourselves in the knowledge that we were the primal cause of its genesis and can proudly call ourselves its fathers.
Having established our paternal credentials, it follows logically that any claim that we have of being translation’s godfathers is downright incestuous. This is especially so, given that the term currently used to name this activity is of Latin origin. Indeed, it stems from the word ‘translatio,’ meaning to carry across. In contrast, the Greek word, ‘metaphrasis’ is infinitely more exact, as it connotes the object of the transfer: a ‘speaking across.’ It is etymologically fitting then, this word has supplied the English language with ‘metaphrase,’ meaning, a literal, word by word translation.
Perhaps the most common misconception about translation is that there does exist a simple “word for word” relation between any two languages and that translation is therefore a straightforward and mechanical process. On the contrary, translation is always fraught with uncertainties with the potential for inadvertent ‘spilling over; of idioms and usages from one language into the other. Take this snippet from the as yet unpublished work of a Greek-Australian author I am currently translating, which proves that translation is not an exact science and that firmly defined one to one correlations do not always exist between words and phrases in different languages: «Ενώ έκλαιγε η μαύρη με μαύρο δάκρυ, μπήκε μέσα στο δωμάτιο το μονάκριβο παιδί της και της ξεστόμισε: «Κούνια που σε κούναγε.» A literal translation, that does not account for traditional symbolism and cultural idioms may read: “As the black one cried with black tears, her only precious child entered the room and spoke out: ‘Oh the cradle that rocked you.’ Or take this gem, lifted from the English version of a guidebook of a folklore museum at Ioannina: “Jug with tubed cock, mostly glassy. Decorated with rose petals at its large surface. Interior orifice is chocolate colour.” The object in question by the way, is not a Scandinavian instrument of pleasure but rather, a jug with a handle shaped like a rooster.
Some loan words that have been received into Greek from other languages take upon a meaning of their own which becomes untranslatable. How does one translate the word «Ντόμπρος» which derives from the Slavic word for ‘good?’ (Добро) In Greek, this adjective can either mean trustworthy, reliable or upfront, depending on the context. Of especial interest are loan words that are adopted by Greeks in various parts of the world and at different times without reference to each other. Woe betide, for example, the Greek-Australian who, while enjoying a souvlaki at a tavern in Plaka and having tzatziki run down his fingers, turns to the waiter and requests the provision of a «σερβιέττα.»
Some mistranslations involve a multitude of languages and linguistic misconceptions. During December, while visiting a Greek school in Albania, I was provided by the principal with a copy of the DVD for Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, left behind by a Chinese visitor. The DVD seemed to be a camera recording of the theatrical release that was dubbed into Mandarin Chinese and included a feature for English subtitles. The subtitles however, were translated from the Chinese characters and not from the original English track. As such, the words and phrases in the film were mangled beyond belief. The title went from being called “The Revenge of the Sith” to the reminiscent of a Eastern Bloc erotic exploration: “The Backstroke of the West.”
Among all the faulty mistranslations, one was of particular interest as it involuntarily enmeshed the Greek language within it as a middleman. For in this particular DVD, the renown Jedi Council was rendered back into the English as “the Presbyterian Church,” having Anakin Skywalker mention to the insidious Emperor Palpatine: "The Presbyterian Church like enjoys you not." How this came about, unravels a comedy of errors worthy of an Aristophanes.
Firstly, it is worthwhile to take a look at the "Presbyterian Church," and her origins. The word ‘Presbys’ (πρέσβυς) in old Greek denotes an ‘Elder.’ In time this word was applied to elders of the Christian community who led them in prayer and hence the word ‘presbyteros’ (πρεσβὐτερος) came to signify a priest. The Chinese language does not lend itself easily to the assimilation of foreign loan words as each syllable in the word must denote its meaning, not just a sound. As the word Jedi means nothing in Chinese, the ingenious translator had to search for an equivalent to convey its meaning. ‘Elder’ must have seemed to be an adequate approximation.
The Chinese characters used to represent the “Jedi Council,” can also be translated as the “Elder Gathering.” As the term “Church” signifies a ‘gathering,’ or ‘assembly,’ we can read these characters as the ‘Elder Church.’ In Chinese characters, there is no way to distinguish between Presbyterian and Elder; hence, the Elder Church becomes the ‘Presbyterian Church.’ Even if we consider the purported Greek origin of Star Wars creator, George Lucas, it is uncertain whether he intended to wield the Jedi Council as an instrument for the criticism or promotion of the sci-fi Presbyterian Church.
Or maybe not. For if we meditate upon the infinite stealth characteristic of the devious Sith Lords, we perceive that further sub-motifs have been expertly woven into the Star Wars narrative. The Jedi Knights, dressed in the equivalent of the schema worn by Orthodox monks, represented by Ben Kenobi (Kenobion, (κοινόβιον) being the Greek word for a communal monastery) struggled for the salvation and redemption of their enemies (see here Luke Skywalker’s mission to Darth Vader). Is it stretching the parallel too far to venture to say that the Christian apostles and disciples carried metaphorical swords of light, conquering their enemies, and bringing the light of the Gospel all over the world, just as the Jedi Knights wielded their light sabres against the isopteric Geonosians? How does one render into New Testament Greek the phrase: “I feel a disturbance in the Force?”
Incidentally, we can all be reassured that in aeons to come, when the world as we know it will cease to exist and the myriads of galaxies will gather to resist the onslaught of the Trade Federation, a delectable princess from Naboo, Amidala, whose name signifies the beneficial qualities of almonds, (gamma is silent in Naboovian) will accost an inarticulate Hayden Christiansen in the Senate and lecture him on the immanent destruction of the only Greek word that has survived the centuries untouched and untranslatable: Democracy.
Until next time, may the Force be with you. We leave you with a snippet of the new authoritative translation of Lefteris Pantazis’ collected works: “Every night I cut veins/ I keep vigil with various frappes/ and I unravel sofas/ in order to sleep.” Βασανιστείτε μυστήρια πλάσματα!


First published in NKEE on 22 January 2007