Mrs. Sirmans reveals the difficulties of translating The Agony of Survival.
When and how did you meet the author Spyros Vrettos?
I was “introduced” to Dr. Vrettos on August 1996 in Athens by his friend, Dr. Constantine Santas, but I have not actually met him in person. Dr. Santas told me that Dr. Vrettos wanted me to translate his book into English.
Why did you choose to translate the book The Agony of Survival?
It was a great opportunity for me to practice my new degree in English, and to gain experience in my first translation project.
What translation problems did you face? How did you solve them?
Translating The Agony of Survival was like writing a new book, while maintaining—as much as possible–the author’s style, language, and narrative tone as well as keeping in mind the American audience, their culture and language idioms. It was an arduous task that involved research in dictionaries, thesauri, and other reference books in both English and Greek. When I started the translation, I had to handwrite it because, at the time, I did not own a computer or was close to one. Dr. Santas’s secretary typed the whole manuscript.
The main difficulty was the very long sentences—several as long as an entire paragraph—with other parenthetical sub sentences that carried details and minor or major information. I read those sentences several times to understand their connotation, then, I broke them into smaller, less complicated sentences. Knowledge of syntax, therefore, was very important.
Another difficulty was the specialized vocabulary that included terminology from chemistry, technology, biology, philosophy and other disciplines. I had to treat those terms with specialized dictionaries and online research, and double check on their spelling and meaning. There were also the short passages of ancient Greek, Latin, Italian, and French poems. For those, I asked some friends, knowledgeable in those languages, to translate them.
What was your collaboration with the author during the translation of the book?
During the translation of the 1st edition of the book, I collaborated only with Dr. Santas. It wasn’t until 2007 when the 2nd edition of the book was published that my collaboration with Dr. Vrettos started. We communicated constantly by email answering each other’s questions because I had to include the changes of the 2nd edition to the translation of the 1st edition.
A particularly good moment during the translation of the book and a particularly difficult moment?
Good moment: The “aha!” moment when I could find the right English word of a Greek word. And of course, the end of the translation was the best moment. I thought, I knew I could do it. Difficult moment: When I would get stuck on one word or complicated sentence. It was frustrating and time consuming to find the answer.
What emotions did you experience during the translation process of the book?
Excitement to translate my first book and work on written words; pride that I was chosen for this translation; satisfaction that the translation would reach the American public and that the author would be known to the American people. Translating is like writing a new book. I felt like a writer!
Which colors would you choose to paint the book if you were a painter?
I would choose black which is associated with grief, death, and evil. It also conveys elegance and sophistication. I would top black with red and orange flames to represent hell—earthly and religious. The combination of black with red or orange gives a very aggressive color scheme. Red means fire and danger. Combining red with orange also means joy and creativity. Last, I would use blue, which is a universal color with calming effects.
Spyros Vrettos is a Greek writer. However, his book is a book of universal interest. In your opinion, which are the main ideas of the book that address today’s humans?
The book raises several questions about the fate of modern humans. We are at the edge of self-destruction because of the development of technology. We live in a poisonous environment that causes lethal illnesses like cancer; we suffer massive devastations like floods or hurricanes; we are attacked by terrorists; we are vulnerable to death and we try, by any means, to avoid it.
What particular messages could be referred to the people of America today?
The American people are hard workers who have made great discoveries in science and technology, so they can live a better life. Unfortunately, they never stop to rest and enjoy the fruits of their hard work. Instead, they turn to prescription drugs, vitamins, antibiotics, steroids, antidepressants—what I call “happy pills”—to deal with the fatigue and the stress of their daily lives. The Agony of Survival could convey the message that Americans can use their intelligence positively to control the environment, to lead healthy lives, and to experience the joy of life.
Is there art in the story? What meaning does the author attribute to it?
The prose of the novel is realistic, but also artistic and poetic. There’s joy of creation, beauty of nature, love, thirst for life, bodily attraction and beauty, imagination, and poetry. Art is expressed mainly through Danae, who is “the personification of joy.”
Under what circumstances this book can be an optimistic book for the reader, for humans?
Despite the environmental changes that threaten our survival and deteriorate our health, we were gifted with the intelligence to manipulate nature to survive and to “cheat” on death. Scientists constantly search for ways to improve and lengthen our lives. The optimism of the book is that when facing a survival threat, we have the ability and the means to avoid it or fight it.
Would you translate another book by the same author if it was proposed to you?
Sure I would.
Which protagonists embodied more the agony of the story?
All four protagonists are aware of the earth’s impending extinction and they agonize to escape their daily perils, and to survive. But Aris lives this agony more intensely than the rest of them. He is obsessed with using the “detectors” to check their products and surroundings. Despite his great efforts, he doesn’t escape death. Ironically, he dies of cancer.
Did you feel that the presence of some protagonists of the book or some situations influenced your life to a degree?
It was Danae who had an effect in my life because her zest for life and creativity pushes me to “stop and smell the roses.” To enjoy the little things in life like walking my dog and to strive to live a better, healthier life. Also, the scene of hell in the movie tells me that the real hell is the one we, humans, live, the one we create.
It is known that through the centuries, literature has influenced beneficially the life of humans. Do you believe that the quality of literature can influence to a degree the culture which is shaped around us?
Literature is an important part of our education. It’s a form of communication that shapes our lives and transmits our social experiences to future generations. It helps us understand ourselves, others, community values, and the world. Literature nowadays is multicultural and it brings people of different cultures together. Through literature, we can travel anywhere in the world we want without leaving our home. We can learn how society thinks and we can relate to the story’s characters and situations.
The joy of life is certainly an emotion of vital importance. Do you believe that The Agony of Survival triggers humans to support their lives and their environment so that they face this life in the present and the future, feeling secure and personally happy?
Humans are endowed with the intellect and the freedom to avoid daily hazards, to find ways to escape threats, and to choose how they live. That’s the trigger in The Agony of Survival. Humans can live a happy and secure life if they embrace nature and protect it.