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Building ‘almost the same’ house

Posted on 31/07/2019
By Commonwealth Foundation

Commonwealth Writers announced the overall winner of the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize in Quebec City on 9 July. For the first time, a translated entry was awarded as the overall winner of the Prize. Lina Protopapa translated ‘Death Customs’, written in Greek by the Cypriot writer Constantia Soteriou. In her blog, Lina reflects on the nuances and intricacies of translation both within the story and more widely. She also writes about her time in Quebec taking part in the events in aid of the prize.


Translators often talk about the humility and abnegation translation requires. Anita Raja put it beautifully when she said that ‘the translator must retreat so as to accept the language of the other, to allow herself to be invaded by it so as to accommodate it.’ We talk about the negotiations translation demands and the enormous responsibility it carries. About how we must learn to remain faithful to a text while letting parts of it go—translation, we say, is an exercise in loss and sacrifice. We oscillate between a sense of immense control and a total loss of control. After all the work is done, we sit back and, with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, allow our readers to do the rest—our work is always complemented and completed by that of the reader. I like to think of translation as a collaborative house-building project. A writer has built a house and you, the translator, must build one that is, in the words of Umberto Eco, ‘almost the same’, only in another place, for other people to live in. Using local materials, your job is to create a strong structure with deep foundations, fill it in, paint the walls, furnish and even decorate it as faithfully as possible. Finally, you invite the readers in and hope that, by adding their own finishing touches, they may feel at home. The wonderful and potentially unnerving thing about translation is that you never quite know how the new tenants of the new house will inhabit it.

'Greek-Cypriot perseveres because it has been handed down from generation to generation by the […] folk poets who defied the rigid cultural norms and the disdain ‘high culture’ held for their words'

Last October, I was asked by the Commonwealth Writers to translate a short story from the Greek to English. It was submitted anonymously and entitled ‘Έθιμα Θανάτου’, what in English corresponds to ‘Death Customs.’ A fascinating title for what proved to be a remarkably powerful, well-crafted story that conveyed its themes (universal and specific, weighty and delicate) in a nuanced, richly-layered way. Translating it was as pleasurable as it was challenging. I knew right away, for example, that I would have to abandon the alternation between the standard Greek language and the Greek-Cypriot dialect. The use of the latter, our mother tongue (Greek-Cypriot is what we are taught by our parents and standard Greek is what we are taught in school), is important: the Greek-Cypriot dialect (and identity) has long been devalued, denied dignity, considered unrefined and inferior to standard Greek, fought fiercely in the literary world by generations of cultural gatekeepers who tried to uproot it, like a bad weed.

‘[translating stories] could be a way for us to imagine a future of true and meaningful coexistence, where our traumas are mutually understood and our future is shared.’

Though never officially codified, Greek-Cypriot perseveres because it has been handed down from generation to generation by the people who speak it, and by folk poets who defied the rigid cultural norms and the disdain ‘high culture’ held for their words, their accent, their syntax. They wrote marvellous poetry in beautiful iambic pentameter, showcasing the richness and the musicality of our dialect, the descriptive vividness it is capable of, and the naturalness with which we can use it. Abandoning it left the text at a loss which I tried to compensate for by clarifying and expanding, wherever possible, on other aspects of Cypriot culture. Introducing footnotes, for example, such as the ones explaining the various customs the text refers to, and the historical and political events that are obvious to the Greek-Cypriot reader but not to other readers, allowed me to contextualise the story and anchor it in Cyprus as best as I could. I also compensated by using a few idiomatic phrases to convey Cypriot-ness. For example, in one passage, in which the women are announcing that the main character is dying, I combined phrases that favoured the target language, such as ‘She’s going beyond the veil’ with others that favoured the source language, such as ‘She’s fighting Charon,’ and ‘She’s glimpsing the angels,’ These phrases, though not obviously Cypriot to the English-speaking reader, signal a difference that I hoped would jolt the reader out of their comfort zone and remind them that this story is set in a place where English is not the spoken language, while the figure of Charon could operate as a cultural hint.

Even though we must abandon some of the text’s character, leaving something behind means we are better able to transport a story into another world where, after it has been deconstructed and dissected word by word, it can become whole again. And when readers feel that wholeness, a translator can give a sigh of relief. On 9 July, on attending the ceremony in the astonishing Maison de la littérature in Quebec City, where ‘Death Customs’ by Constantia Soteriou emerged as the winner of the overall 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, I felt relieved, proud, and honoured to be the translator of the first story in translation and the first story written in Greek to win the prize. And I was grateful to the Commonwealth Writers who saw the power of storytelling, the wealth of storytelling cultures the Commonwealth contains, and the possibilities of translation. While in the multilingual Quebec City, I was reminded both of how central language is to our identities and how translation allows us to transcend barriers. I thought of this as the writers Mbozi Haimbe from Zambia, Harley Hern from New Zealand, Saras Manickam from Malaysia, Alexia Tolas from the Bahamas, Constantia Soteriou and myself from Cyprus, Karen Lord from Barbados, and the Commonwealth Writers team embarked on a journey of discovery of the city and of each other, constantly translating our worlds to one another.

Left to right: Lina Protopapa, Constantia Soteriou, Saras Manickam, Harley Hern, Alexia Tolas and Mbozi Haimbe.

The closing of the ceremony was a fitting end to our journey. The collective Kwahiatonhk!, which in Wendat (a First Nations language) means ‘we write!’, gave a breathtaking performance. Onstage, the indigenous Innu language gave way to French, which gave way to English, each complementing each other beautifully, as languages and cultures would in an ideal world. Our histories—of war, violent colonisation, and oppression—speak of a less-than-ideal world. But our stories can serve to make sense of these difficult histories. Sharing these stories and, where possible, translating them, could be a way for us to imagine a future of true and meaningful coexistence, where our traumas are mutually understood and our future is shared.


Lina Protopapa

Lina Protopapa lives in Nicosia, Cyprus, where she works as a translator and cultural critic.