Thalia Alexandra Pandiri is a professor of the World Literature department and chair of the Classical Languages and Literatures department. She has worked and studied around the world, including in Berlin and New York, and she is a Fellow of the American Academy in Rome. Her published translations range from Medieval Latin to Italian to Modern Greek. Recently, she has been translating short stories and a novella by the Greek author Christoforos Milionis; other Greek authors she has translated include Alexandros Papadiamandis and Athina Papadaki. From Italian, she has translated the prose of Francesco Marroni. Her next project is a continuation of the survivor narratives of Asia Minor refugees, while also collecting new narratives from recent refugees to Greece. Professor Pandiri has served as the Editor-in-Chief of Metamorphoses, the Five College Faculty Seminar on Literary Translation since 2000. To visit Metamorphoses online, please go to https://sophia.smith.edu/metamorphoses/.
How did you come to translation both personally and professionally?
Well, I grew up essentially bilingual. Greek was my first language, but I learned English when I was still very small, so I was always aware of more than one language and people translating from one language to another depending on who was in the room. Both of my parents spoke a number of languages; my father I think had thirteen or fourteen languages.
Was he an academic?
He was an international lawyer, actually—he just liked languages and kept picking them up. He grew up bilingual in Greek and Turkish and learned French very soon after that, and Italian after that, and taught himself Russian. So then I had French, still very soon after that…
From school or from your family?
From my father, mainly, and then from school. Latin and Ancient Greek from school, and then I was a German major in college, as well as going on with Latin and Ancient Greek. I spent time in Germany. I picked up Italian and spent a couple of years at the American Academy in Rome as a fellow and picked up more Italian! So translation and being aware of translation has always been part of my life. Professionally…
I know a lot of translation is kind of inherent when you’re in academia with languages, but…
Yeah, I mean, translation in terms of Greek and Latin, and in terms of teaching, yeah, but in terms of publishing translations, I guess there are works that either I wanted to see published or that people wanted to have published. Like some Italian/texts/literature? that I’ve translated, and Modern Greek, Medieval Latin. In the case of Medieval Latin, I was commissioned to translate some Hildegard of Bingen, and there was another woman author, a younger contemporary of Hildegard’s, also from the Rhine and also a Benedictine, that I got interested in and who hadn’t been translated when I started working on her.
Who was it?
Elizabeth of Schönau. And so the second book of her Visions was published in an anthology, and then an essay and selections from the first book of Visions was published in a three-volume collection of medieval women writers writing in Latin. I’ve published poetry and prose translations from Modern Greek. Among other things in Modern Greek, I did archival work that involved narratives of refugees who survived the expulsion of minority populations from Turkey in 1922, and translated quite a few of those narratives into English. Some have appeared in journals, others (along with an essay) were published in a collection of essays entitled The Anatomy of Exile. That was published by the UMass Press.
I am now way behind in editing an anthology of fiction by a writer with whom I was collaborating and who unfortunately died a couple of years ago. Greek into English. I have not been as efficient as I could be because I have had so much other/work to deal with. I’ve also done some co-translation from Russian but mainly on the English side of it.
Seems like translating just popped up along the way. There wasn’t a moment when you were like “Oh I’m…”
I’m going to be a translator!! No, no. Translating is a very different experience from interpreting. The most recent time that I have done that in a more or less formal setting was with a lawyer who wanted me to interpret, not to translate, for her and for a pair of clients. The clients spoke very little English and the lawyer spoke very little Greek. A lot of it was over the phone, which is even worse. Some of it was in person and that was bad enough. We would have one person yakking at you in English and then you immediately had to turn it into Greek with contentious clients and a contentious lawyer. The clients would both be talking over one another into your ear and you had to get it back to the lawyer who was saying, “What did they say, what did they say, I want to hear it all!” And it’s that switching back and forth—in a sense simultaneous translation is less difficult because you’re only going in one direction.
That’s a good point.
It’s the switching back and forth that I found really draining. So that’s a whole other thing.
You have this job as editor of Metamorphoses.
I have this unremunerated job for which I get no release time, no administrative help, and no money and very little glory.
Glory! You want glory!
Yeah! I have more glory outside Smith than in Smith, actually. Metamorphoses has a significant reputation outside Smith, even internationally, but I think it’s under-prized at Smith.
Do you enjoy being Editor-in-Chief?
There are times when I feel as if I have an albatross around my neck and it’s a pain and it is really a nuisance having no steady support. Student-interns are great but the thing is, they come and go. So it’s always kind of reinventing the wheel, which makes it hard. So as editor-in-chief I am chief cook and bottle washer. For example, what did I do over January? I myself physically mailed out all the issues. That part I’m not so keen on. I guess what I do like about it is learning new things. We get submissions from all over the world. Not all of them are good, but that’s okay, it’s normal to reject at least 40% of submissions. But we get translations from languages and cultures that are new to me, authors that are new to me. So there’s always something interesting going on. You meet, virtually or sometimes in person, interesting people. So that part of it is good. And some of the contributing editors are really interesting.
It seems like a really cool community.
It is, yes. It’s like graduate school in a sense, in that a lot of it is horrible but as long as there’s enough that makes you think okay, I know why I’m doing this, this is worthwhile, then it’s worth your time. There has to be something that you really like which makes the rest of it okay. I’m worried that there’s nobody else that’s a sucker like I am who will take on this job. You have to do it out of love, and that’s hard to find. In general, there is ever-decreasing support for the humanities and languages.
Can you describe the process you go through when you’re translating? Say you’re translating an essay. How do you start doing that? How long does it take to complete? a year, a week?
It depends on what else you’re doing. If you can’t focus exclusively on what you are translating, it takes longer. But in terms of process: The first thing I do is read what it is I’m going to translate. Then I go through and do a more or less rough translation and make note of particular words or references I want to come back to or be more precise about. It depends what you’re translating. If you’re translating language with dialect in it, then that’s an extra thing you have to hunt down. The same is true of strange references–you need to do research, whether in dictionaries or other texts or consulting with appropriate native speakers. Then you go back and make it better, and go back again and make it better, and then get feedback from somebody with a decent ear, or several people with a decent ear, and then go back again and make it better. And then let it sit with itself for a while, and then go back again and regret what you did and do it again. It depends, it depends very much on what it is you’re translating, how much research you need to do. Some language that’s really hard to deal with is what do you do with terms that need to be in some way glossed to make sense? Then the decision is do you want to include some kind of explanation in the text? Use a footnote? These are decisions. How much do you want in terms of notes, footnotes, endnotes? And again that depends on what something is being published in and what editors or publishers want. Or how much intrusion into a text do you want to have, how much do you want to add. Or in some cases you’re just going to leave the term untranslated…
I was going to ask about that. It’s all context.
T: All of the things that immediately come to mind in the case of somebody who reads the original language and is familiar with the culture that produced the text. That reader has immediate experiential and visceral associations. All of this is lost if you try to import a different set of language and social value conventions and class conventions. And if you do away with dialectal speech altogether, then you’re also losing something. Those are decisions that are really hard to make. Again I think it varies from text to text.
Do you think – I guess this isn’t applicable to the Classical languages – but with the modern languages you work on, do you feel like your process is different between them at all?
Hmm. Not really? I mean, it’s the same in some cases. For example, the connections I make for some things in Greek or English where I immediately have a bunch of associations with a particular reference– it doesn’t really help with translation, it just makes you more dissatisfied with what you’re doing. To some extent I do have the same experience with Italian. But when in doubt, I go to Giovanna [Bellesia], who remembers what it meant to have a particular model of car in the 1950s. You can look it up and check it out, but I am happiest when I can count on the memory-bank of friends. But it’s a cool feeling to come across something that might seem obscure and say to yourself, “ Oh that, I know exactly what the author has in mind.” So the process isn’t that different, it’s just a question of how much research you want to do, how much you’re struggling with it. My problem with some of the Greek texts that I’ve dealt with, is that I have a lot of really visceral associations, as would any reader of the generation before or after me and my generation. It’s hard to let that go. You want people to know what it is that you know. And sometimes you have to let it go—you can’t do it all. What something means to somebody for whom it was an experience – my mom took me when we visited New York or whatever – what do you do when you’re translating that and you have to explain what, for example, an Automat is.
Do you usually or sometimes have some sort of relationship with the original author? Do you communicate with them? Do you like to? Do you ever argue with them?
Yes to all of the above. It depends a lot on the author. There was someone who died recently whom I adored and his attitude was very much: I put it out, I’m done with it, I wrote it, you know, and I’m not going to micromanage the translation but I’ll answer questions if you have questions. There was also a poet whose English wasn’t good enough to get in my way! She was somebody I met and she wanted me to translate. Let’s see, living authors. Occasionally, for some short stories I translated from Italian, there were two living authors, I knew both of them, and we were in conversation. One of them knew English well and one of them knew some English, but they were not involved with the English, they were available if I had questions. One story had a lot of vocabulary having to do with fishing, and with particular river conditions. I talked to some fishermen I know. One term proved really challenging: I could not find a word in English that evoked what the Italian did: time of day, light conditions, water conditions, behavior of fish. The author explained it to me, and I ended up expanding the text to describe what the single Italian word conjured up for fishermen in the south of Italy. What you do come across occasionally is somebody who thinks he or she knows English but doesn’t, not really. But has strong opinions. They are a real pain in the ass. That can happen. And if you’re dealing with the dead, on the one hand you can’t ask them to elucidate what they wanted to say, on the other hand they’re not getting in your way. There is a poet I knew, whom Giovanna knew too, whose husband said the greatest obstacle to a translator is the living poet!
Yes! I remember I read this article with Giovanna about an Italian author and his translator who were really close. The translator said the author would get fixated on these words in English and then be like oh this means this, you have to use this word. And he would say no, that’s not what that means at all!
Right. There’s a poet who really knows Hebrew and knows English enough to know when a translation sounds awkward. And she has a cousin who is sort of a celebrity and writes in Hebrew, which I can’t appreciate, but also in Ladino, which I can. This happens a lot – somebody will flatter the translator or the author and say oh I want to translate you and the author says yes, you have the right to translate. But the translator sucks! So it was impossible to convince [this woman] that these were bad translations. Various people tried and she said no no no. She is fluent in English in the sense that she can go to restaurants and order things and she can talk to you, but she does not have an ear for English. She doesn’t know English really well enough. But you can’t convince her!
She was not really my problem. I was working with her in a group of people, folks who were native speakers of Hebrew, folks who were native speakers of English who were fluent in Hebrew, one of them a poet and translator, and we were all thinking Oh God, shut up! This is not a language you know.
That’s a hard line. How do you know you are keeping current with the language(s) you know and work with?
And there’s no way of knowing. And it’s funny, but what do you know a language for? I was talking to a colleague in the theatre department who is Greek and is a thousand percent fluent in Greek and she was saying, and I feel that too, that her professional writing has been in English for many years now. She doesn’t feel that she can write or give a talk as a professional, a professional article or talk, in Greek anymore. Jargon changes, you know. I had to write an article in Greek for something a few years ago and it was hard!
Yeah, it’s a different way of thinking. What is a recent problem you’ve run into in translation? And how did you solve it, if you did?
I haven’t. A recent problem I’m running into with this translation I should have finished a year ago is dialect. Wordplay. References to very historically, geographically, and culturally specific things that do not need explanation in the text but need explanation in translation.
Is that a moment where you feel like you want to add a footnote?
Is it a moment when I feel like I want to shoot myself?
I have not resolved this problem. The problem with too many footnotes is that it depends on what you’re doing. If it’s a scholarly translation you expect people to want to look at footnotes or glosses. If it’s a publication in which you want to include a big introduction and glossary and something else, I don’t know. By and large, when people are reading, how many footnotes do they want? It depends.
Lilian Rose McCarthy ‘21 is a Translation Studies concentrator and a double major in Comparative Literature and French Studies. She is also learning Italian and is planning on studying abroad in Paris, France for her senior year.by