Translation theorist Lawrence Venuti has written of a "trade imbalance" between the cultural products of so-called major and minor languages, and journalism is no exception. Earlier this week as Greeks headed into national elections, 600 journalists descended on the country to supplement the 150 foreign correspondents already reporting from Greece -- not to mention the countless commentators writing about Greece from a distance. This unprecedented international interest in the future of Greek politics -- and, by extension, the future of the European Union -- itself became a topic of note in the Greek press: for weeks leading up to the SYRIZA victory in the polls, Greek dailies translated and discussed articles from major European and American papers.
Much of the most nuanced analysis of the situation in Greece is, not surprisingly, being written in Greek, by individuals familiar with the longue durée of the Greek state, Greek politics, and Greece's ever-shifting position in the region -- familiar, that is, with Greek history and culture writ large. Yet even at this moment of intense global interest, we see hardly any translation of Greek coverage for circulation abroad.
"Literature helps us get beyond media representations of an issue, event, or place; it interrogates the stories we tell about real things by testing the limits of imaginary worlds."
Or, to be more accurate, we see hardly any translation taking place outside of Greece: while no one at Der Spiegel, Le Monde, or The Guardian is hastening to translate Greek sources, a handful of online venues have recently sprung up (including The Press Project, Chronos, and the Greek Left Review) that are maintained by Greek journalists, academics, and intellectuals and offer extensive coverage in English (or, in the case of The Greek Independent News, in six languages other than Greek). Ironically, many Greek commentators have time for such projects because the austerity measures that have so devastated their country have left them, too, unemployed or underemployed. As it happens, the number of journalists who have been dispatched to Greece to cover the election matches almost precisely the number of those who lost their jobs overnight in June, 2013, when creditors' continued demands that Greece shrink its public sector led the Samaras administration to shut down the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation.
Many left-leaning Greek organizations maintain websites with materials in English, both to publicize their activities abroad and to allow participation by residents who can't read Greek. Since many far-right groups in Greece are radically isolationist as well as nationalist, it's harder to find right-wing materials in languages other than Greek. This makes it especially critical to translate materials from groups that might not want their materials to be translated -- including texts we find repugnant. Translation doesn't have to be a form of endorsement: in the face of ongoing racial, anti-immigrant and homophobic violence, we need to be better informed about the voices that are encouraging such acts. After all, SYRIZA may have won, but Golden Dawn still came in third at the polls.
As a scholar and translator of modern Greek literature, I find the dearth of translations of contemporary Greek literary texts most distressing of all. Literature helps us get beyond media representations of an issue, event, or place; it interrogates the stories we tell about real things by testing the limits of imaginary worlds. In the past few years, during the worst depression in their nation's history, Greek writers have produced an array of works that think through the current "crisis" in nuanced, sophisticated, and daring ways.
"Greek writers have produced an array of works that think through the current "crisis" in nuanced, sophisticated, and daring ways."
This year's shortlist for the Greek State Novel Prize contains a number of such works. Nikos Mantis Wild Acropolis is set in the Athens of 2159, in a world run by multinational corporations in which Neanderthals have been cloned to serve humans and all pretense of democratic process and political representation has been abolished. Other novels on the list present the current moment in its wider historical context. The protagonist of Elena Houzouri's Twice Innocent, raised in Tashkent by her father, a leftist who fought in the resistance to the Axis Occupation and later fled Greece during its brutal Civil War, travels to Greece in the late 1980s to find her lost "homeland," only to realize that the concept of "home" is far more complicated than she had realized. Nikos Davvetas's The Man Who Drew Beloyiannis -- a title that refers to Picasso's famous sketch of Nikos Beloyiannis, a hero of the Greek Resistance whose trial and execution after the Civil War became an international cause celébre -- likewise examines the legacy of Greece's troubled past.
None of the books on the list are currently slated for translation into English. In fact, very few contemporary Greek books are being translated at all. One exception is Fotini Tsalikoglou's The Secret Sister, translated by Mary Kitroeff and published by Europa Editions in 2014, which takes place entirely on a plane, as a young Greek American man travels from New York to Athens, thinking back on his family's past and looking forward to the changed Greece that awaits him. And in The Scapegoat, just out in my translation from Melville House Books, Sophia Nikolaidou takes the actual unsolved murder of CBS reporter George Polk in 1948 as inspiration for a novel that bridges the past and the present, drawing an implicit parallel between the current "scapegoating" of Greece by the E.U. and the power dynamics established by the Marshall Plan over half a century ago.
As one character in Nikolaidou's novel states, "History doesn't happen to other people, in a distant place and time. It's happening to us, here and now. What we're living is history." This is true of us all. History is happening to Nikolaidou's fictional characters; it's happening to unemployed journalists in Athens; it's happening to the angry young Greeks writing Golden Dawn's anti-immigrant screeds. If we want to understand the history we are living right now, the unfolding history of the present, we need to see more translation of media and genres of all sorts.
Karen Emmerich is the translator of The Scapegoat, a novel by Sophia Nikolaidou.