Jon Snow Knows Nothing But A Translator Knows A Lot

Jon Snow knows nothing but a translator knows a lot
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The universe built by G.R.R. Martin is not just a beautiful, haunting story, but also a real minefield for translators all over the world. Far from being invisible, as argued by many scholars, the translator adds his/her own contribution to the course of a book towards the reader.

As a literary translator, an avid reader and fan of the books and show myself, I had been wondering how on earth had the various translators managed to render such a complex mosaic of characters and plots to a smooth, compelling narrative to their respective languages.

I interviewed the translator of 3 of the GoT books in Greek, Alexandra Letsa, who was more than happy to shed some light in the dark and sinister world of Westeros and beyond, where Lannisters always keep their debts, Starks reunite, dragons are re-born and all fans await the Winds of Winter.

Alexandra, could you please share any particular difficulties (compared to translating other books) and tell us which were the most pleasant moments in translating A game of Thrones?

Regarding the difficulties, Martin, as an author, uses word play and puns a lot, as well as multiple word meanings, so this is a recurring issue in the translation of his works.

Furthermore, the greatest challenge is, of course, consistency: due the number or heroes and the different spellings and transcriptions in Greek – it is a huge feat to remember how each term was previously translated or how was each name transcribed or whether a place was translated or transcribed [note: because Greek has a different alphabet, names are usually transcribed]. No glossary can be as extensive as to include each and every hero and place of this series and often one would have to search thousands of pages of books.

The most satisfying moments are when there are scenes full of atmosphere which manage to absorb me – when you suddenly stop and realize you have translated many pages without stopping. On a technical level, the atmosphere created by Martin is a pleasure for me – many chapters might be slow in action but they are my personal favorites.

How do you deal with the many languages featured in the books, many of which are invented? (such as High and low Valyria, Dothraki, etc)

In the books, the use of other languages is significantly less compared to the TV series. They don’t come up often, except some words in Valyrian and a few Dothraki words –mainly place names. Anyway, we always transcribe those – although our versions don’t always match the sounds used in the TV series.

And what about those instances when the meaning of names or places is important for the book plot?

It was decided from the beginning, that some things had to be transcribed – such as most castles, cities or surnames. When a name has not been translated and some sort of explanation is needed, we usually add a Translator’s (foot)note. Some particular cases, such as Snow, Ghost or Summer, names which are recurrent and have a meaning for the plot, have their Translator’s Notes the first time they appear in the novel.

What about when a pun or wordplay cannot be totally translated? How do you deal with such cases? An example from the most recent season 6 is Hodor – Hold the door …

And you already know that further in the book (or in the next book) there will be a pun with the hero’s name, it will be easy to do something similar in Greek without altering (too much) the original text. This has happened a few times and I feel it was more due to luck than inspiration! If there are no other factors present, you can even change the original words. In the particular episode we were completely in the dark (along with the rest of the world)! Our only option is a translator’s note (unless something changes later in the series). However, I would like to note here that I am not completely against using footnotes. A translator might feel he/she failed when they have to resolve to using footnotes but it is more important to convey to the reader what the author was doing, even this way.

What did you feel was more important for you in translating the particular books, was it faithfulness to the original’s meaning or the recreation of the atmosphere created by the author? And what are the sacrifices one has to make to achieve a balance between the two?

Being faithful to the meaning – although I have already said I consider the atmosphere created by Martin almost as important. The scales lean to one or the other each time and sometimes you have to compromise on both fronts. Besides, many times the meaning of a phrase goes much further than a simple translation of its words. A simple example were the songs, where we wanted to keep the alliteration as well or the puns with Reek in A Dance with Dragons where we sacrificed faithfulness to stay faithful to the deeper meaning of the text). In any case, however, any choice is better than omission – I have seen translations which completely omit phrases and this is something I totally disagree with, however insignificant a phrase might be for the plot.

Has the visualisation of the series for the screen helped or complicated your work?

When the TV series aired, the first 4 books had already been published so many things were already known and given for us - it is very difficult to go back and change something in books already in circulation (even though some changes were implemented in the following books). So in the actual translation, the TV series has not been either positive or negative. In the next book, however, we will be challenged – if the episode with Hodor is indicative! I have a feeling that the audience will already be familiar with many things and our choices will be limited.

Who is your favourite character?

Arya, by far. And in general, I’m more of a Stark fan.

Arya Stark
Arya Stark

Who should sit on the Iron Throne in your opinion?

I don’t mind! All candidates have their own shortcomings as leaders and I have never been able to say that definitely he/she is the one. I am waiting to see what the author does, unless someone “convinces” me. My own criterion, however is effectiveness and not hereditary rights – and that’s why I’m not such a big Daenarys fan.

What is in your opinion the element that makes the series (books and TV) so fascinating for such a wide range of audience?

The characters and its realism. The characters’ realism actually – they are all in between the lines of good and bad, human, with their shortcomings and their obsessions, their wrong decisions – and the realistic consequences of their actions. There is a hero for every reader or viewer, one with whom they can relate (and for the death of whom they might possibly cry…) Martin’s artistic style has a calm allure, he can provoke intense feelings with simple words and his ideas are often amazing – however, I think that his greater asset as an author is the characters he has created.

So what do you think? Is the world (of translation) dark and full of terrors? Or is it a challenging war field between faithfulness and creativity? For me it is like a whole imaginary world, where spring fields, magical castles and exotic beaches give their place to dark and sinister forests and dangerous creeks…. Just like our own world (kind of)

Thanks for reading!

You can also read the interview in Greek here and here.

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