For the inaugural entry in the Ever-Shifting Lexicon, I had the honor of talking to Eugenia Triantafyllou from Athens, Greece, author of fabulously weird stories like “The Giants of the Violet Sea” and “My Country is a Ghost”. Eugenia’s fiction has been nominated for the Ignyte, Nebula and World Fantasy Awards.
SH: Tell me about your multilingual background. How did you end up writing in your third language?
ET: I was born and raised in Greece. Greek is my first language. But because my mother had been an immigrant in Belgium for almost two decades before she had me, she insisted that I learn French as soon as possible in case we needed to move back. She ended up teaching toddler me with pictures from magazines since I couldn’t yet read or write in any language. Then at school we were taught English and French, and that would make English my third language chronologically, but currently the one I am speaking with the best proficiency, besides Greek.
As an adult I moved to Sweden to be with my partner (Not Belgium! Who knew?) and I was taught Swedish at the school for adults, which helps immigrants learn basic Swedish to be able to work and study as fast as possible. I got all the way to a graduate level with Swedish. The fact that I lived in Sweden helped a lot of course. That would make Swedish my fourth language. My college degree is in Tourism and Hospitality, which meant we had courses with Italian, German, Russian and Turkish (of which I remember almost nothing). That is more or less my history of multilingualism.
I ended up writing in English because things in Greece seemed quite bleak as far as getting published was concerned, whether it was short stories or novels. The market is generally small but the genre market is even smaller. Greek writers are usually not compensated for their short or longer fiction unless they are established. In recent years, we’ve had a lot of vanity presses appear which did not help on the monetary compensation side of things, but it did produce more genre novels and collections than ever before. Still, publishing in English helps me get paid for my work and puts my stories in front of a wider audience.
What’s going on when you write? How are you navigating between your languages?
When I write in English I try not to think of any other language and what the equivalent of my abstract thoughts would be in that other language. I try to convey my thoughts directly into English sounds as much as possible. I say sounds because sometimes that’s what comes to my mind. The sound of the word instead of the word itself.
Many times I happen to have the right sound but the wrong word, and I have to do some research to find the right word that goes with that sound. It’s because if I cannot remember the word, at least I have the imprint of its sound from a sentence I read a while back and try to use it in a story. Of course, you can’t avoid a dictionary or a translation engine completely. And sometimes synonyms don’t mean the exact same thing, so I have to be careful which ones to choose. But I think I have the hang of it now more than ever before. For me writing in another language is more about the musicality of the language than the words, it’s more about the rhythm. I am not good at using elaborate prose, so rhythm, musicality and voice is what I rely on to make my prose unique and interesting in a second language. Simple but rhythmic, descriptive but interesting with strong images.
How do you think your first language affects the way you write in English? Does it feel like dead weight, or is it enriching what you do?
As I said I try to write directly in English as soon as the thought/concept comes to my mind. But still I don’t think I escape thinking as a Greek when I write. I might manage to avoid thinking in Greek but I still think like a Greek. That means that sometimes the rhythm and the way I phrase things, or the syntax and the similes I use are not the same ones an English-speaking writer would use (or perhaps someone with another first language).
Furthermore I have noticed I feel more and more comfortable with using Greek names for my characters, and when I don’t use them, I don’t know how to approach them anymore. I think this is another example of how sounds/language can affect us subconsciously and make the stories we write more intimate and familiar to us or not.
How do you feel about English as a lingua franca of sff? What’s the cost?
English as a lingua franca carries its own historical weight and colonialist legacy, along with many other European languages. In Greece when I was a child, French was considered more broadly used and essential, but growing up, that changed. Who knows what the lingua franca of the future will look like? English itself changes in time like every other language.
But putting all of this aside, for me the question is why not have more translations? If it were easier for Greek novels to be translated into English and other languages and find a similar—even if not exactly the same—audience, it would open the path to so many interesting new voices of sff writers from Greece and from practically every country in the world. English acts as a gatekeeping language only because there aren’t more translations happening. If there were, English would be the path through which different cultures and experiences would be known to the western audience and in turn to the rest of the world, like a domino effect.
For now, there are some of us, international writers, who write directly in English, and this is a push for diversity in a way. I see sff magazines being more open to marginalized voices in general and I hope this trend continues and perhaps opens a small window for translations. Not every writer whose first language is different than English can transition into writing literature in English. It’s definitely not the same as just speaking the language. It needs more. And frankly they shouldn’t have to. I feel that translations might help the scale tip balance more and open up opportunities both for writers and readers.
Did you encounter obstacles to writing in English?
This is a difficult question because I feel like the obstacles I encountered existed before I started writing in English rather than while I did. There were of course the usual obstacles like trying to ease myself into the new language like a suit that sort of fits, but you have to make some adjustments to your body type. I spoke and understood English before with good proficiency, but writing literature in another language is a different beast. It requires of you to find your voice there too. And the voice might be quite different even if it shares some common elements. At first trying to write literature in English made me tired quite fast and my stories were more summarized. But as I settled and found my voice — by reading and copying by hand other people’s fiction and expanding my vocabulary — it became easier to delve into the nuances of each story, plot, and character.
But the first obstacle was believing I could actually write literature in English. In Greece there was a mentality that a person who is Greek cannot write competently in another language. At least that was the prevalent belief in the sff circles when I was thinking about writing in English — that still might be the case although some things have progressed. There was in fact a translator who told me that I could not possibly write in English because I had not lived in an English-speaking country in my life, even for a year. Therefore, according to him, I could not really understand and conquer the language like a native speaker. The answer is of course that I didn’t want to write like a native speaker but as myself, but I didn’t know the answer back then, and for a little while it did fill me with doubt. Thankfully lately, seeing that some Greek writers are getting recognition abroad, more and more people are translating their stories into English, or write them directly in English. Even those who didn’t think it was possible. And those who don’t try it themselves, they hire translators. This is a step forward that makes me feel positive about the future of Greek sff.
Of course there will be obstacles when you are approaching a foreign audience that is not used to contemporary Greek writers and still carries the images of Greek mythology through many retellings. Then there is the eternal dilemma about how many Greek words I can use in my text and keep the level of clarity I want. Or the question of whether a foreign audience can connect with deeply Greek settings/stories. All of these and more are obstacles. But I still believe that my personal obstacle of whether I’d be able to write in English and have a voice or not, was the greatest one I overcame.
Is there a piece of advice or some resource you’d like to share with writers who are considering writing in another language?
I love doing mentor writing texts. That is studying another writer’s text/story and then writing it longhand. For me the obstacle is not only learning better the prose, but also internalizing the meaning of certain words in the text and how to use them more creatively but not too creatively to make their meaning obscure. That balance is a real challenge in a language that is not your first. Practicing with the mentor texts really helped me delve into the meaning of the words (some of them I already knew and some unknown) and how they can be combined in English in unexpected ways to create a uniqueness in the prose. And of course, to expand the vocabulary. I used mostly short stories from contemporary authors whose work I had read and admired, and I wanted my voice to have something of their own. It will never actually echo the mentor’s voice/prose as much as someone would think because you are sill the one writing your story. But delving into another’s story like you are its writer helps a lot with the voice and the flow of the language in your own.
Are you planning to be published in Greek, too?
I started writing fiction in Greek at the age of twenty-six. A year after that I switched to writing in English. Seeing as I said before that the Greek market is not very welcoming or easy to navigate if you are a new writer, I almost immediately turned my attention abroad. I do have a small hope that some day I will be able to publish something in Greek, but it is not something that’s on the forefront of my plans at the moment.
What’s a favorite word (or concept) in Greek you wish you could transfer to the language you write in?
I think there are many concepts that cannot be translated one hundred percent but if I could choose one, I think I would go with philotimo. The word itself is a combination of the words philo (φιλώ) which means to love and timi (τιμή) which means honor. So a translation would be “the love of honor” but the real meaning has a lot of deeper social, cultural and emotional implications.
This word appears both in Plato’s Republic and in the letters written by Apostle Paul and its meaning has obtained many layers over the many, many years it has been around.
In a contemporary Greek setting though, it has a specific interpretation. It’s when you go above and beyond to help someone just because you can and you think it is the right thing to do, even at your expense sometimes (time, money or otherwise). But not doing so would not dishonor you because you didn’t have any obligation to help in the first place. You just do it out of philotimo. In a country like Greece that has a lot of structural shortcomings, sometimes it feels that things still work because of people’s philotimo. It’s when people take the extra step and put effort into something they believe. You could just say it is doing good, doing the right thing.
Philotimo is also used to describe the unconditional love and respect a child might have to a parent. As a child I used to hear that I had philotimo when I was offering to help my mother with chores, or an elder person who might have needed something but could not help themselves. In a way it is a moral compass for children that shows they understand from an early age what doing good means.
Thank you so much for talking to me about the rhythm of language and learning from other voices!