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Lina Protopapa: inside the world of an award-winning literary translator

As a translator, what differences and advantages do you notice when translating short stories as opposed to other forms of fiction?
A short story can be far less daunting to approach than longer forms of fiction. Translating a 20-page story is often less intimidating than a 200-page novel. At the same time, though, short stories afford a translator fewer chances to get it right, so to speak. In a short story, the tone and style and atmosphere must be established more quickly than in a novel. Another difference lies in their readership. Short stories in translation can travel more easily than longer forms of fiction. They tend to be eligible for competitions before they find a publisher, can be easily submitted to online or print magazines, and they’re also easier to teach than novels or plays – one common use is in creative writing programmes.

To be successful, short stories require a richness and precision of language. What are the challenges of preserving this as a translator?
Finding the right word, the right sequence of words, the right sound, tone and style are challenges that a translator faces every time they find themselves with a new text. To tackle these challenges effectively is, perhaps, even more important with short stories, where the translator has limited space. There is no formula that ensures this is done correctly – each case needs to be dealt with separately, and each necessitates its own negotiations. One of the tasks that the translator is called upon to carry out is to continuously hold count of what is lost in a translation and to constantly be on the lookout for ways to remedy such losses. Sometimes these losses can be dealt with periphrastically and other times they can be remedied through the introduction of notes, or other times yet the translator can make the choice to keep a word in the original, and rely on context to ensure meaning.

You aptly describe translation as building ‘almost the same’ house. With what is it important for a story to be furnished, for readers of the English language to feel at home?
If I were to add a further layer to this house metaphor, I’d say that it’s important for a translator to strike that fine balance between, on the one hand, making the reader feel at home and, on the other, reminding them that this new home is actually somewhere far away. In other words, to create in the reader a sense of familiarity, but without obliterating the difference of the source text. Readers feel at home, I think, when they are able to work within the logic of their own language. But a translated text can still be understood by readers of another language while also accommodating instances of rupture. I find, therefore, that a translator is sometimes called to intervene inside the text in order to make the transition from culture to culture as seamless as possible, while sometimes intervening in order to make sure that a reader does not mistake seamlessness with sameness.

What existing short story would you like to have translated?
I really loved Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties. I would love to translate any of those stories into Greek, especially The Husband Stitch and Mothers.

Can you recommend a short story by another writer in translation for our readers to discover?
I recently read and loved Bruises, a beautiful story about adolescence, love, friendship, and identity-formation written in Spanish by Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro and translated into English by Lawrence Schimel.

While our own Award cannot accept stories in translation, we do encourage writers anywhere in the world to enter. What words of encouragement would you offer to authors thinking of submitting?
The life of any fictional piece is always unpredictable, as is the life of a translation. It is hard to know how people will interact with a story, how they will respond to it, what feelings it will elicit – it’s all a very mysterious thing. A story that may seem very local may prove to stir the feelings of readers elsewhere. This is what translation keeps showing us. And this is also what my experience as the translator of this year’s Commonwealth Short Story Prize winning story has shown me.

Death Customs by Constantia Soteriou deals with a very specific and complex issue, very much rooted in Cypriot history, yet it proved capable of transcending the national and cultural confines of Cyprus to resonate with readers and judges from around the world. We are witnessing an exciting literary moment, with the canon expanding in every direction and with readers embracing literature of every provenance. I would encourage those who write stories, wherever they are in the world, to give their stories a chance to reach other sets of eyes and ears – expert ones, no less – and submit their story to the Sunday Times Short Story Award.

How do you think winning a short story competition can impact on an author’s writing?
I have never won a competition as a writer, but winning a competition as a translator reminded me of the power of both literature and translation and reaffirmed my awe for them both. This reaffirmation of what literature can do is immensely inspiring and empowering. The exposure to a larger audience is, of course, a bonus.

Lina Protopapa is a translator and cultural critic. She translated this year’s Commonwealth Short Story Prize-winning story, Death Customs, by Constantia Soteriou. She lives in Cyprus. Submissions for the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize close on 1 November;

Interview by Laura Mell

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