By Harrison Blackman
While ancient Greek literature has been celebrated for millennia, outside of Greece few are aware that substantial fiction has come out of the Hellenic Republic in the last 150 years.
Many Greek publishing houses publish only in Greek, or translate international bestsellers into the local language, compounding the problem. As result, Greek literature has never gotten the international attention of Latin America’s magic realism or Scandinavia’s noir crime fiction.
One publisher in Athens is trying to change that. Aiora Press is extending the reach of modern Greek literature.
For a nation whose economy largely relies on tourism, expanding the reach of modern Greek literature could introduce foreigners to the country’s recent history and provide background for understanding Greece’s various crises–instead of just continuing to promote the limited perspective of Odysseus, Socrates and the 300 Spartans.
The humble beginnings of Aiora Press, as told by its founder, Aris Laskaratos, gradually built into the publishing initiative Aiora has spearheaded in recent years.
“The story started in the beginning of the 80s,” Aris Laskaratos said. As a student, Laskaratos explained that he had published translated lyric books of songs by Neil Young and Pink Floyd.
“That was my baptism, my first job in publishing,” Laskaratos said, adding that the experience influenced his future career trajectory—as a conference interpreter for the European Commission, and later at his own publishing house, Aiora. It was through his work as an interpreter, Laskaratos realized that Greece’s modern culture was underrepresented abroad, an understanding that became an intrinsic component of Aiora’s mission.
In 2000, when Laskaratos started Aiora Press, it was focused on Greek literature. It wasn’t until 2002 that the company published its first work of translation, a book of short stories by Georgios Vizyenos, a famous Greek short story writer who was active in the late 19th century.
“I had seen in the theater a rendering of his short stories and I was amazed,” Laskaratos said. “A few days later, a friend came with a lady saying [she is a professor of Modern Greek studies in Catania] and has translated Vizyenos in Italian, and so I said, why not, let’s do it, without thinking of what I’m going to do next.”
Some time passed before Laskaratos tried out publishing translation again. For five years he worked on a Greek-English dictionary, and then the financial crisis slowed business down for a bit.
“It was around 2010 that we seriously started again,” Laskaratos said. “This time my idea was a bit different.”
Though Greece is a tourist center, Laskaratos explained, there is a dearth of knowledge concerning modern Greek literature. While some of the major modern Greek poets are well-known abroad—C. P. Cavafy, George Seferis, etc.—the Greek novel internationally tends to revolve around Nikos Katanzakis’ Zorba the Greek.
“We have 20 to 25 million visitors a year, who come here to have a good time—they go to museums, they like nature, and then, all of them start wondering, what about modern Greece?” Laskaratos said. “What I wanted was an introduction to modern Greek literature for beginners.”
Since then, Aiora has published 10 books in English, seven in Italian, five in French, three in German and two in Russian. An Aiora pamphlet markets them all as the publishing houses’ series of “Modern Greek Classics,” featuring a quote from Roderick Beaton, a Greek-English translator from the King’s College of London.
“The Greek literature of the last two centuries occupies a particular place within the totality of European literature and has much to offer to the rest of Europe and the world,” the quote reads. “We need, simply, to get to know it better.”
“Getting to know it better,” as Beaton’s quote suggests, requires diligent work on the part of translators and publishing houses to produce quality translations. To explain this need, Laskaratos referred back to his experience as an interpreter as an analogy, emphasizing that though the roles of interpreter and translator are similar, they have distinct challenges—and both depend on accuracy.
“As an interpreter you are required to find the right translation very fast,” Laskaratos said. “As a translator, you have all the time in the world, but you are required to find the best translation.”
Laskaratos cautioned that though interpreting demands accuracy because of potential diplomatic consequences, translating literature requires absolute accuracy as well.
“As a translator, if I translate a book and you buy the book I’ve translated, and you happen to know both languages, and you see the mistake, and you say what an idiot he is, I’m not there to listen to it,” Laskaratos said.
According to Laskaratos, translation allows a window for readers to experience the history of a place.
“I think history and the events influencing a country and its people always play a major role in the evolvement of its literature,” Laskaratos said.
Times like these are making history for Greece, so the need to make its literature more accessible is more pressing than ever—and Aiora Press is leading the charge. Perhaps with more available modern literature, readers might be able to understand the complex set of problems assailing Greece today–and be more equipped to make a difference.