Nikos Pratsinis studied Chemistry at the University of Athens and pursed postgraduate studies on the economy of chemical industry (Complutense University of Madrid). He studied Portuguese Language and Literature at the State University of Lisboa and Ιnterpretation at the Congress Consultants School (Athens). He works as a translator (technical and literary translation), conference interpreter, and teaches literary translation. He was co-owner of a translation and interpretation company. His working languages are Spanish, Portuguese, English and Catalan. He is particularly interested in collective and groupal translation. He writes articles for the online magazine HARTIS.
Your latest translation venture Η παιδεία του Στωικού [The Education of the Stoic] by Fernando Pessoa was recently published by Gutenberg. Tell us a few things about the book and its translation?
This short philosophical novel belongs to the remnants (fragments) of F. Pessoa, i.e. it was found in the author’s loose papers and was published posthumously, relatively recently. It is not complete, although its clean-cut plot is articulate and the writing is brilliant. The original was edited by Richard Zenith, an American who has lived for over 30 years in the Portuguese capital and has undertaken the publication of Pessoa’s works. The editing of the translation and the respective notes were made by Maria Papadima, who has translated almost all of Pessoa’s works, both prose and poetry, into Greek and has an overall supervision of the author’s discourse.
As for the plot: Álvaro Coelho de Ataide, 14th Baron de Teive, is another heteronym of F. Pessoa. A gentleman, an intellectual, a rather stiff and restrained perfectionist, let alone a frustrated lover, he spent most of his fictional life in a farmhouse, on the outskirts of Lisbon, devoting his time to writing notes and excerpts, leaving behind a “mishmash” of a work he ultimately did not finish. Having mastered “the use of reason in its fullness” or rather having reached the “satiation of nothingness, the fullness of nothing”, he is driven to suicide. Before his fatal passing, Teive burns all of his writings except his last and only manuscript, a “spiritual memoir” of his Stoic education and an apology for his decision to end his life.
You have translated major Greek literary works in Portuguese and vice versa. How did your professional involvement with literary translation begin? Which have been the major challenges you were faced with?
It was accidental, like most defining things in human life. Being a student at the Chemistry Department of the University of Athens, I translated for fun together with Dina Sotira, Doors of Perception & Heaven and Hell, by A. Huxley. A good friend and experienced translator (Nikos Balis), who is no longer alive, offered to correct it. We learned a lot from him. Afterwards, a publishing house (APOPEIRA) bought the translation and published it. The book was so well received by the book market that the publishers asked us to translate Junky by William Burroughs as well. A difficult book but, being young at the time and ignorant of danger, we plunged in and translated it. And quite well indeed.
Junky was a publishing boom for years, best sellers at first, long sellers later. Back then, anyone could easily enter the world of translation (It was the 80s). Then I learned Spanish and Portuguese, I lived for some years in Iberia, while I also studied Portuguese language and literature. Returning to Greece, I worked as a translator, mainly technical translation, and interpreter. I was also a co-owner of a translation and interpretation company. At the same time, I did not stop translating literature, from Spanish, Portuguese, English and Catalan. And not only literature, but also essay, history, chronicles etc. More for fun and out of passion, because from a financial point of view, literary translation is far from lucrative. In Greece at least, with the small readership. When it comes to challenges, I scrupulously avoid them. I don’t take on a translation project unless I’m sure in advance of my competence.
Together with distinguished translator Athena Psillia, you participate in “Translation Slam”, a “confrontation” of two translators with the same original text, with an active participation of the audience which is called to compare the two versions of the translated text. Tell us a few things about the project.
Translation Slam, a term that could be translated as “translation duel” or “translation battles”, is a relatively new English invention, the brainchild of an “activist” translator, Daniel Hahn. Two translators ̶ usually experienced and, of course, easy-going and untroubled by any ‘exposure’ before an audience ̶ separately undertake the translation of a short literary text. Then they present the result to the audience, in the presence of a “referee”, defending their choices on the points of essential divergence (conceptual and/or stylistic) of the two versions, following respective questions from the referee, the audience or between themselves. The main goal is not to choose the “best” translation but to demonstrate that there can be more than one good translation of a literary work, depending on the approach of each translator, just as there are various “readings”. Because the translator is, first and foremost, a good reader. A second, perhaps more important, goal is for the reader to understand how the translator’s mind works.
Translation slams originally started as games in translators’ circles and then were – and still are – used as educational tools for training translators. Nowadays some are aimed at a wider audience, which is not necessarily made up of translators or even people who know the source language. In their early days they were more competitive, especially in their home country, England. They were ‘introduced’ in Greece by Kleopatra Elaiotriviari, member of the Panhellenic Association of Professional Translators, Graduates of the Ionian University (PEEMPIP), and at the first slam, which took place in Thessaloniki 5-6 years ago, there was a friendly and constructive ‘confrontation’ between professor at the Italian Department of the Aristotle University and translator, Konstantinos Palaiologos, and myself on a short story in Spanish by Αbdόn Ubidia, from Ecuador. I have attended two slams and participated in three.
In my most recent slam, on 2/12/2022 (before the match of Brazil against Cameroon) in which I was impressed by the purposeful participation of the public, largely due to the refereeing, organized by the Brazilian Embassy in Athens and PEEMPIP, Athina Psillia, an excellent translator of José Saramago (and not only), and myself “duelled” in the translation of a short story/chronicle, written during the 1966 World Cup, by Brazil’s most important poet, Carlos Drummond de Andrade. The text was chosen by the Embassy’s Third Secretary Júlio de Oliveira Silva, responsible for cultural affairs, and focused on the social dimension of football frenzy in Brazil. The slam was refereed by Eleni Vlachou, an employee in cultural affairs, translator and interpreter, member of PEEMPIP.
What is that makes Portuguese literature attractive to Greek readers? And, in turn, in what ways does Greek literature attract the interest of a Portuguese audience?
Portuguese literature is usually attractive to many Greek readers who are still unaware of it, and are more than willing to know it, feeling they can identify with it, even at a subconscious level. What they have in mind is a somewhat underdeveloped country of the European South with a population and area similar to Greece, which some, mistakenly, regard as Mediterranean. In addition, many Greek readers are aware that Portugal has a long dictatorship past, from the 1920s until 1974, and that we are both peoples that thrived, in large part, thanks to our relationship with the sea. Through different roads, of course…Getting to know Portuguese literature makes it even more attractive given that Greek readers have begun to discover classic novelists of the 19th century, such as Eça de Queirόs and Camilo Castelo Branco, quite well-known abroad and equal to Balzac and Dickens. And, of course, a leading figure in all avant-gardes that European Modernism has to show, Fernando Pessoa, recognized in all his glory somewhat belatedly abroad, the best ambassador of Portuguese literature internationally, in terms of poetry, prose and essay.
Greek readers who will somewhat “comb through” Portuguese literature will find in it an interesting record of the experiences of the people of a country where colonialism began. It was also the last country were colonialism (officially) came to an end with the loss of its last colonies in Africa – following long anti-colonial struggles – and the Far East during the 1970s. The translated books of Lobo Antunes – and not only – describe the recent history of the country’s relationship with Africa. Some of the interesting chronicles of the beginnings of its colonial expansion, translated by the “pioneer” Maria Ferreira- Hidiroglu, precociously capture the distinct recognizability of the writing of the Portuguese, the people of the country with the oldest fixed borders in our old continent. The “discovery” of Portugal’s special relationship with Africa has also paved the way for the discovery of a remarkable Portuguese-language African literature; that of Angola, Mozambique and other countries, with important writers, such as Ondjaki, Mia Couto, Eduardo Agualusa, translated into Greek. Portuguese-language African literature is becoming known in Europe mainly through Portugal.
To the above, we should also add the most popular Portuguese Nobel laureate, José Saramago, a non-scholarly long-winded prose writer who always has something special to say to every reader. I believe that the exit of a great number of novels written by J. Saramago was the trigger for the translation of other Portuguese novelists of the 20th century (Miguel Torga, Luis Peixoto, Gonçalo M. Tavares, Dulce Maria Cardoso, João Ricardo Pedro, Nuno Júdice, Mário de Sa-Carneiro who is more famous as a great “poète maudit”, the 2nd “figure” of the Portuguese Modernism after F.Pessoa, In late 90s we had the sporadic publishing of 2-3 novels written by Virgίlio Ferreira and J.Cardoso Pires, proposed and translated into Greek by the pioneer Maria Ferreira-Hidiroglou). Portuguese prose has been relatively “explored” by the Greek reader, who approached it as “familiar” and then became fascinated by its “exoticness”, and its striking diversity in general. Τhe future is promising. What remains to be “explored” is Portuguese poetry, generally unknown, with the great exception of F. Pessoa. The Portuguese poetry has a long and particular history with deep an persistent medieval roots and brilliant modernist mastepieces. It is a very original, polyphonic, multidimensional and, sometimes, very sui generis poetry, but it is a poetry that has always been opened to international movements. It’s probably very important if you want to know the Portuguese culture, given that the Portuguese like to declare that they are a nation of poets.
Most scholars reckon that the content of a book cannot be separated from the particularities of the language that gave it shape. In this respect, where does the role and responsibility of the translator lie? Can translation ever be unethical?
The peculiarities of the language of the source text must always be dealt with by a diligent and resourceful translator. The cultural particularities of the country in whose language a particular work was written should be left textured, for the reader to know them, perhaps with the addition of some notes where necessary. This is the appropriate attitude, both ethically and morally. The translator is indeed a creator, but a creator based on strict rules, like the painter of Byzantine icons in every corner of the Earth (Byzantine-style icons can be found both in Russia and Ukraine, but the good ones are always recognizable as ‘Byzantine’ and at the same time Russian or Ukrainian). Translators are more like craftsmen than artists; they should tame their desire to “write the work themselves” and not, since this is not the case, write, almost unconsciously, a new work usurping the author’s glory.
A translator may be more efficient with a work that he/she fully understands and appreciates, but does not feel identified with. And, of course, the translator should avoid easy solutions that may “dazzle” the reader but steal a lot from getting to know the author. I remember how, in 2004, while translating the poems of the Cavafian canon into Portuguese in collaboration with the Portuguese poet and philologist Joaquim Manuel Magalhães for Relόgio d’Água editions ̶ in its third reprint these days ̶ and having a look at the translations into other European languages, we were amazed by the ‘lyrical load’ that some of them added to Cavafy’s poetry, producing beautiful poems but not Cavafy at all. It was very difficult to resist the temptation to do something similar in our translation. And our resistance to this sweet temptation cost us a lot of extra working hours.
Despite their arduous and pivotal work, translators usually remain invisible: their names are often not even mentioned, while they are ignored by critics and readers. What could be done to bring translators to the forefront?
Unfortunately, very little can be done. Critics usually ignore the translator’s role in a translated work because they often ignore the language of the original. And even if they know it, they rarely bother to compare the two. Translators’ conferences and symposia that are open (and accessible…) to the public, translation slams, interviews, may help to acknowledge the role of the translator. Perhaps, there should gradually be included a “translator’s note”, in which the translator would explain how he/she worked and introduce the book in his/her capacity as a good and careful reader, since this is what a translator, even a mediocre one, is first and foremost. On the other hand, while I consider it necessary to mention the translator among the contributors of a book, I am against his/her name being written on the cover, unless the editor, the typographer etc. are also mentioned, which is impossible.
A translator’s name on the cover would only confirm the dangerous feeling that he/she may be the creator, as I already mentioned. In addition, it may lead to “brand names” in the profession and translators who, in order to maintain, consolidate and strengthen their name in the market, tend to reproduce their ‘own’ manneristic translation style while working on quite different texts, which is disastrous. I would also like to point out that mention of the translator’s name on the cover, which is gaining ground among several publishers in our country in recent years ̶ in contrast to what is happening in important foreign publishing houses (Penguin, Anagrama, Alfaguara) ̶ did not help raise their wages as well; it may have, in some cases, just fed their understandable human vanity. On the other hand, maybe I’m just stressing all these things out because I believe in collective translation, and I also believe that at the end of the day translation is to a great extent a collective process; the community (or many communities) indirectly participates through the “lonely translator” – how romantic a figure!
Could translation contribute to a better understanding between cultures and translators act as cultural ambassadors between countries?
Definitely. I reckon that the translator is after all a cross-cultural mediator (or cultural mediator?); he/she should make the work he/she translates accessible (and endearing…) to the host language, considering the cultural parameters of the country where the language is spoken, without, however, altering the original text and the cultural context of the country it originated from. In other words, respecting its “foreignness” and helping it, at the same time, to acclimatize.
The translator is often expected to propose titles and authors and to act as an ambassador -not to mention matchmaker- of the national literature; a rather serious and responsible task. For example, last year I was asked by the Mexican popular magazine Letras Libres to propose and translate 5-6 poems recently written by living Greek poets. I suggested poems by Loukas Axelos (about 60 years old) and Ifigenia Ntoumi (about 40 years old), keeping in mind the representation of both genders as well as two generations. I translated them having as editor the Greek-speaking Spanish philologist Eduardo Lucena, a natural host language speaker, which was necessary, as Spanish is not my mother tongue…
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou