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Interview

Finding the right tone and style – Claire Papamichail on translating Auguste Corteau

Jennifer Barclay talks with acclaimed translator Claire Papamichail on what drew her to translation, the shifting tastes of Greek readers, and her experience of translating a heart-breaking and fascinating novel like The Book of Katerina into English.

Claire Papamichail was born in Athens, Greece, in 1963. She studied Sociology and has been working as a literary translator for more than thirty-five years, during which time she has translated over 300 works. Two of the books she translated, Bleak House by Charles Dickens and The Comedians by Graham Greene, were shortlisted for the National Translation Award and the English-to-Greek Translation Award respectively. She lives in Athens and loves Branston Pickle and clotted cream.

Jennifer Barclay was born and raised in the north of England and she studied Ancient Greek at school and English Language and Literature at university. She has taught English in Greece, she was employed as a literary agent in Canada and as editorial and rights director at a British publishing company before moving to a tiny Greek island in the South Aegean, where she works from home as a writer and editor. She loves enjoying the outdoors with her dog, has written for many major publications in the UK and is the author of several books, including most recently Wild Abandon: A Journey to the Deserted Places of the Dodecanese. You can read more about her work on octopus-in-my-ouzo and jenniferbarclaybooks.

The Book of Katerina by Auguste Corteau, translated by Claire Papamichail
(Parthian, 2021)

With the support of the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union


J: Hi Claire!

It was a pleasure working with you on The Book of Katerina by Auguste Corteau, and I’m happy to be talking translation with you today.

C: Hello, Jennifer. The pleasure was all mine!

J: You’ve had an illustrious career, creating award-winning translations of Charles Dickens and Graham Greene. You studied Sociology at university and during your studies, you worked at Compendium Bookshop – a favourite haunt of mine when I was a teacher of English in Athens in 1990! At what point did you think you would become a translator? Is there anything in your personal background that pointed you in the direction of translating as a career?

C: It wasn’t some great epiphany, haha! I wanted to live independently, had to find a job to support myself and the only thing I knew very well was English. So, my cousin’s husband, who was a reader for a literary agency, introduced me to a couple of publishers. I used to read A LOT, both English and Greek literature, so that helped me. After the first book, I knew I had found my dream job! Never regretted it!

J: You must tell me how you developed your love of Branston Pickle and clotted cream. I find when I am editing a book that involves food, I often develop a craving for it, whether it’s cheese sandwiches and cups of tea, or spicy noodles – which can be a little inconvenient.

C: When I was living in London, between 1994 and 2000, I discovered Branston Pickle with brie on crackers! Still miss it, still ask friends from England to bring me a jar or two… It reminds me so much of those happy years. As for clotted cream, who doesn’t like clotted cream?!

I have to admit that my great love is literature… But I have to say that I enjoyed translating most of the books.

J: You’ve worked with a range of Greek publishers and a vast range of classic and contemporary literature from Jane Austen to Sebastian Faulks to Marian Keyes. You also translate social sciences, business and psychology books. Do you have a favourite type of project to work on? Are there any books that stand out as favourites of yours, or books that have been particularly well received by the Greek audience?

C: I have to admit that my great love is literature, especially English literature of the 18th century. Dickens will always be my favourite author and I feel honoured when translating him despite the many difficulties. Bleak House has been an ongoing long seller for 12 years and I am always thrilled when new readers discover the book and its author. Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning was also very well received by the Greek readers. Those two books are my favourites – they entailed a lot of work and emotion. But I have to say that I enjoyed translating most of the books that I have been assigned.  

J: Has the taste for literature in translation in Greece changed at all during your career? What are you working on at the moment?

C: I believe that readers have started to appreciate more the classical writers – on the other hand, the Scandinavian noir reigns supreme! At the moment, I just finished translating Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi which was shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, and I’m working on the Levant Trilogy by Olivia Manning [the sequel to the Balkan Trilogy] and on the new book by English-Cypriot writer Alex Michaelides, The Maidens, a psychological thriller. Also, I’m putting the final touches to Our Mutual Friend by my beloved Dickens.

J: So, let’s talk about The Book of Katerina by Auguste Corteau, which you translated last year to be published by Parthian Books this year. Had you heard about The Book of Katerina or its author, before you were asked to take on the translation? Petros Hatzopoulos, the pen name for Auguste Corteau, also works as a translator, so maybe your paths had crossed?

C: I had read the book when it was first published in Greece, of course, because I found the whole story fascinating. And Petros is a very well-known author, translator and activist. I knew him as a friend and it was a great honour when he asked me to translate it.

It was very difficult for me, trying to find the right word, the right tone, not to betray Petros’s unique style, a mixture of sadness and subtle or not so subtle sarcasm.

J: You usually translate from English to Greek. Is The Book of Katerina the first book you have translated from Greek to English? Were there any particular challenges in that process – is it much different from the process of translating into your native tongue? I remember we discussed certain Greek jokes which you said simply wouldn’t translate into English.

C: It is the first book, yes, but I have also translated a few poems and a couple of short stories for magazines some years back. It was very difficult for me, trying to find the right word, the right tone, not to betray Petros’s unique style, a mixture of sadness and subtle or not so subtle sarcasm. I can’t stress enough the help that Petros and you offered so generously. I am really grateful and hope that my work on the book won’t disappoint.

J: I loved the voice of Katerina, which dominates the storytelling. Katerina, who is based on the author’s mother, uses some great turns of phrase, sometimes crude, sometimes Dorothy Parker-esque in its sly scathing wit. And I loved the satire – some of the characters are hilariously awful. But it’s also a very sad book. And it opens with the narrator dead, admitting to committing suicide. Does that affect the tone of the book?

C: For me, it does. Through the whole narrative, you can never forget that this is a dead person speaking, freely, at last, telling her own truth, from her own perspective. Sometimes you feel compassion for her, other times she makes you angry, but the fact that she’s dead now gives a special edge to all of it, in my opinion.

J: The book takes us through several generations across the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. At the start, a poor, 25-year-old Jewish woman is practically ‘doomed to spinsterhood’. Do you think in some ways it illustrates changes in society over the course of that period?

C: Of course, it does, in many ways. We see it in the attitude towards women, first and foremost, and how different were the living conditions of the Horianos family according with their standing in society. We clearly see the difference between the lives of the parents and the lives of their four children. One thing, though, remains the same. The concept of ‘male superiority’ and the negativity towards homosexuals.

J: I’ll quote a sentence that begins one of the early sections: ‘When four siblings out of four end up on medication by the age of forty, something very bad must have happened during their childhood’. Does the family Horianos depicted in the book seem outlandish or typical, or a bit of both?

C: Something in between. All families have their secrets, their black sheep, the skeletons in their closets –and some of them don’t know how to deal with them, so the children sense this sort of darkness and react accordingly to their dispositions. In the past, few parents resorted to psychotherapy in order to try and face their problems, so the impact was great on the offspring –sometimes, therapy was not even available, only numbing drugs. Although, I must say that most Greek families are a bit dysfunctional.

I believe that the book is mostly about love… Motherhood is a complex situation and I think that the book depicts it beautifully.

J: Katerina clearly thinks of her various family members as mad and sometimes evil, and it seems to me she thinks a lack of genuine love is to blame. Is the book in some ways about love and motherhood, as well as madness and illness and murder?

C: I believe that the book is mostly about love – what happens when we don’t have it, or when we have too much of it, or when we don’t appreciate it, or when it’s not enough to solve the problems that arise. Motherhood is a complex situation and I think that the book depicts it beautifully, especially in the contrast between Katerina’s mother and Katerina.

J: It’s quite an outrageous book – would you agree? Who would you like to give a copy of this book to?

C: I wouldn’t call it outrageous, I would call it heartbreaking. And I would give a copy to all those people who ‘think’ they had a difficult childhood because of a few rows or disagreements with their parents…

J: Can you pick a favourite part for us and explain why?

C: Katerina’s parting note to her son. Because she loved him no matter what, despite all her personal demons, and she wishes to perpetuate this love. Also, she acknowledges his love – and this fact must have been very important to him, especially after the way that she died, absolving him in a way from any blame.

J: Thank you so much, Claire.

C: Thank you, Jennifer, it was a pleasure!

Auguste Corteau’s The Book of Katerina translated from Greek by Claire Papamichail will be released in June 2021. You can pre-order it here.

One reply on “Finding the right tone and style – Claire Papamichail on translating Auguste Corteau”

That’s a very interesting conversation and makes one want to read the book (which I am about to do). Much love to you Clare. I much enjoyed meeting you in Athens.

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