Is David Sedaris Funny in Greek?

A translator contemplates the challenges and rewards of translating the humor of American writer David Sedaris for a Greek audience.

David SedarisSome years ago I was living in Brussels, and more and more of my friends were French-speaking. I would have conversations, I could say what I needed to say, I could understand what was said to me, but I knew that my grasp of the language was not that good. I could not get the jokes! We would all be together, a group of friends, having dinner, talking, and someone would inevitably crack a joke. Everybody would laugh, and I would go along with the merriment, but really feeling like a two-year-old who laughs at grown-up jokes without having a clue of what is being said.

Humor is a big deal. It’s not a question of knowing the words; there’s a whole world behind it. Every country’s—and in consequence every language’s—take on humor reveals its deeper character, is idiosyncratic, and operates well within a “closed circle.” Seen like this, a whole country can be like a group of friends—they have their own codes, their own jokes—and outsiders are just that: they don’t get it.

I was reading recently that, according to Hong Kong Polytechnic psychologists, polyglots’ personalities change as they switch from one language to another. It makes sense, of course, when one really thinks about it. Each language develops along with the culture that uses it, and each culture is different. And these differences indeed go very deep. They introduce new concepts, lacking, often, from the speaker’s mother tongue; they open up the opportunity to think on a different level, not necessarily higher or lower, but using unfamiliar associations, eventually leading the individual to start adopting traits of personality characteristic of her new linguistic environment.

When it comes to humor, it is evident that we tend to think of some cultures—and consequently the language they use—as “funnier.” British humor is a famous example: it is particular, ironic, condensed, and quite often difficult to understand. But it stands out. It is a kind of trademark, recognizable around the world. The Germans, on the other hand, or the French, are not particularly known for their senses of humor. 

And that’s where the translator comes into play. How can you make all these Germans, French, Greeks, etc., understand another language’s, another culture’s, humor (and vice versa)? Is it even possible? What can one do with all the ambiguous words that so often “make” the joke in the English language? And how many jokes will be “lost in translation”?

I have been translating David Sedaris’s books into Greek for some years now, and I stumble often into the seeming “untranslatability” of humor. Sedaris uses every trick in the book. His material is exactly the kind that needs an expert storyteller in order to make readers laugh out loud instead of crying out loud. He certainly has a way of seeing and narrating the world around him that turns even the most common situations into hilarious, exceptional stories, but that doesn’t mean that he will turn his back to a good pun, wordplay, or any other metalinguistic tool that will turn a simple narration into a killer joke.

The fact that foreigners often sound dumb is fully exploited in these stories, but they can also be read as an homage to the power of translation.

We quickly realize, and especially in his later books, as he evolves as a writer, just how carefully he uses words. Every one of them is weighed, judged, and finally applied when not found wanting. And the fact that a lot of his stories have to do with language says a lot. His “foreign” pieces, quite a lot of stories from Me Talk Pretty One Day, obviously, but also from other collections, turn out to be some of the easiest ones to translate. The fact that foreigners often sound dumb is fully exploited in these stories, but they can also be read as an homage to the power of translation. For what are these characters doing other than trying to convey meaning, from one language to another with whatever—very limited in this case—linguistic tools they have at their disposal? These failed attempts to communicate that result not in understanding but in ridicule demonstrate—in an exaggerated manner—how awfully wrong any translation can turn out to be.

As we said, though, these are the easy parts for the translator. It is not that difficult to find the equivalent—and equally funny—broken Greek, French, or other language. Where Sedaris excels and the translator starts scratching her head is in the use of condensed, multifaceted words or phrases that mean a lot of things at the same time. Unfortunately, some of them, especially when they involve a word that is pivotal in the text and cannot be turned into something else just to suit the translator’s needs, have to lose at least one layer of meaning. The translator is, in these cases, in dire need of a bit of luck and, most importantly, a lot of time, which is not always a given. 

Cultural references, though, sometimes present major difficulties. Greece is a country flooded by American culture. We watch American films and sitcoms, listen to American music. Moreover, Greece does not follow the example of other European countries where foreign films and TV series are routinely dubbed. So Greeks not only get to see American culture but also hear English a lot and thus become familiar with the various cadences and the ways in which speech varies among different regions and groups. This can create a false feeling of really knowing what a country is about. And it’s true: at some level, this really works. Greeks quite often do “get it” when an allusion is made to people or situations, but this can never supplant actually living in the culture in question when faced with obscure cultural references. The translator can let the problematic passage stand as it is and have faith in the knowledge or deductive powers of her readers; try to incorporate a little bit of information in the text, one or two words, that won’t radically alter the text but will clarify the meaning; or use the dreaded footnote. This last solution is always a nightmare for the literary translator, even more when translating humor, where a certain rhythm is necessary and the footnote feels too much like explaining the joke—in other words, “killing” it.

In the opening story of David Sedaris’s Barrel Fever, “Parade,” the narrator tells a story that involves him and various famous people that he not only knows but also had intimate relationships with. Bruce Springsteen, Charlton Heston, and Mike Tyson parade through the narrative, all of them well known to—almost—any Greek reader. And then Pat and Bill Buckley come up, and when it comes to international fame, they cannot compete with the aforementioned celebrities. I toyed with the idea of adding a footnote but discarded it very quickly. I felt that all that preceded the appearance of the Buckleys made it pretty clear that Sedaris is using real people, famous people, as characters in this story. Readers, I decided, should be able to understand this, and if in doubt, they could always google Pat and Bill Buckley.

In one of the stories from Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, though, the problem of a cultural reference was of a very different nature. In “The Toad, the Turtle, and the Duck,” the three protagonists daydream about torturing the black snake that sits behind the counter of some unnamed public service:  

“Or no,” said the duck. “Instead of a cantaloupe, you should have used a watermelon. Then you—”

And here the merry atmosphere soured. “A watermelon for the black snake,” said the toad. “Now you’re just being a racist.”

“No,” the duck said, “I only meant—”

“I know what you ‘meant,’” the toad said, “and I think it stinks.”

“Hear! Hear!” agreed the turtle.

“Yeah, well, to hell with the both of you,” said the duck, and he waddled off, muttering under his breath.

“God, I hate guys like him,” the toad said. “A watermelon. He wouldn’t have said that if she’d been a king snake, and he damn sure wouldn’t have said it if she were a python.”

For an American reader, the reference to watermelon as a major symbol of the iconography of racism is obvious. Greek readers would have found it, if left unexplained, not only obscure but totally incomprehensible. One can maybe tell that there is some kind of racist offense in this connection between the words watermelon and black but not exactly what that is. In order to avoid puzzling readers, I did use the footnote in this case.

Sometimes, though, the translator gets lucky. With no extra work on her part, the translated text may become even funnier and a cultural reference can turn out to be more nuanced in a specific translation. That is the case of David Sedaris’s yiayia. I am sure she must be a very funny figure to American readers, with her black clothes and black scarf, “illiterate in two languages” (as Sedaris puts it), and all her difficulties embracing the American way of life and modernity. Greeks, at least most of them, have actually met the real thing, in the form of an actual grandmother or a distant aunt or other old female family member who comes to the big city from her small village. We have all come in contact with this—almost extinct now in Greece—species. And just like that, with absolutely no effort, a joke that is funny because of its exoticism in English resonates much more personally in Greek. 

These are only some very straightforward examples of what a translator deals with every day. Sedaris quite often uses accents or mispronunciations, playing with the English language’s capacity for ambiguity, driving the translator crazy as she tries to re-create this. I could fill pages with examples explaining in detail how every instance calls for a different line of thought and a different solution. I wish I could say that every solution I have chosen is the optimal one, but there is no universal rule to dictate a translator’s decisions. That’s why no two translators will ever come up with the exact same translation. Sometimes we can find versions that differ as much as if they were written by two different writers who were asked to write about the same subject. In some others, there is only a subtle change of words here and there, a different turn of phrase that lets each translator’s speech patterns appear. 

Like every creative process, translation has to be ready to break its own rules at any time.

When humor comes into play, there is an important factor that cannot be ignored. Is the translator enjoying what he reads? Does he or she appreciate the kind of humor that has to be translated? The question of the lack of choice of what one will translate may seem strange to American colleagues working in a market with such a small percentage of translated literature. But in many European countries, and certainly in Greece, translated literature represents a large share of the market. It used to be a bit more than 40 percent, but, as a result of the recent financial crisis, it is now closer to 30 percent. That means that professional translators have to work around-the-clock and don’t always get to choose what they will work on. In that sense, I feel really grateful that I chose to translate David Sedaris, since I had first enjoyed his books as a reader: not only did I know what I was in for, but I was also looking forward to it, despite the difficulties. This appreciation, of course, can easily be transformed into frustration when something proves to be truly untranslatable, not in the sense that there is absolutely no “matching” word for it, but that some nuances will have to be sacrificed. It is a feeling that a translator learns to accept with time.

Like every creative process, translation has to be ready to break its own rules at any time. There are no certainties, no axioms, other than the self-evident one of faithfulness to the original, which can also be interpreted in many different ways. At the end of the day, translating literature—great, mediocre, or even bad, humorous or serious—demands the re-creation of a work of art. The translator has to be a kind of fantasy writer, creating a new world—a parallel system that does not exist in his language—giving names to its unknown entities, and managing to make everything feel real. And if he succeeds, the one who will laugh last—and best—will be the reader. 

Athens, Greece

Myrsini Gana was born in Athens, Greece. She studied English literature in Athens and cultural management in Brussels, Belgium. She has been translating literature for the last ten years and has translated into Greek most of David Sedaris’s books as well as works by Sylvia Plath, Jonathan Safran Foer, Kate Atkinson, Truman Capote, and others.