Ghoulish Translation: “Zorba the Greek”- Nikos Kazantzakis


Very early in life, I developed a fetish for words and letters and loved enunciating any letter that I came across, some made sense while others did not. Later on, fascinated by the literature and culture of all countries, I tried dabbling around with foreign languages, but soon I became cognizant of my linguistic handicap. My linguistic skills are restricted to English and Hindi and other languages do not register, they just fall through the gaps. I am thus doomed to read the English translated versions of international text.

I recently finished reading the translated version of the Greek novel  Zorba the Greek and am left with a major disappointment. In the novel, Nikos has tried to convey deep philosophical theories through the simple outlook of the character Zorba but the deeper implications have been lost somewhere in the translation. You can feel the great potential of the book but the book, however, fails to leave an impact. The lackluster language devoid of any depth, miserably fails to grip the reader and the book falls short of a travel book. Perhaps it is not just the translation, but also the archaic language in use at that time that results in the language disaster.

While narrating my experience with a friend, my disappointment gave way to shock on learning that my friend was reading the translated version of Pablo Neruda’s Spanish poems. I was seriously shocked to learn that poems are translated. I though poems can only be accompanied by explanatory notes in various languages as in case of Shakespeare. Aren’t poems supposed to be married to the language? How can anyone separate the two? It is like separating fish from water and all you get is the corpse!!

“An author writes to change the world; A poet writes for the love of the language”- Possession by A.S. Byatt

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A dreamer. An intellectual, spoiled by the world of literature trying to find sanity through traveling and expression through Visual Art and writing! Hope you like my expressions on this blog!!

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8 comments on “Ghoulish Translation: “Zorba the Greek”- Nikos Kazantzakis
  1. rider on the storm says:

    I cannot agree more….I think in most of the cases, the impetus for translation lies solely in monetary gains. As far as Neruda’ s poems go, well leaving a selected few others were well and truly incoherent, and the beauty was completely destroyed in translation. But, perhaps the main objective of the translator in this particular case was, to convey the beauty of the surrealistic elements of Neruda’s works.

    • I know great works should be accesible to all and not defined by the boundaries of country and language, but wouldn’t you prefer international movie with subtitles to a dubbed movie? I know books have to be translated as explanatory notes wouldn’t capture all the meaning? But won’t explanatory notes suffice for poems?

      In this case, was the translator able to to convey the beauty of the surrealistic elements of Neruda’s works? Whatever, little I know of poetry, how could the translator have done justice to the rythm of poetry?

  2. rider on the storm says:

    Very true, I personally prefer a movie with subtitles to a dubbed one….As I said only few made sense, others were lost in translation…well the rhythm of most poems was destroyed by some odd choice of wordings, yet the translators (plural in this case) did preserve the surrealistic elements in most poems….so definitely not complete.

  3. ynCkyY says:

    Hrm, Not the best post unfortunately. Sorry to be so blunt! You should try some Norwegian carrot cake ( ) to cheer you up instead.

  4. Misha says:

    Surely it is best to be so fluent in a culture and a language that we can read its literary masterpieces in the original. Few of us can do that, and even then, only in a limited set of languages. There r good and there r bad translations, both of prose and of poems. What makes them good and bad is a wonderful open subject for conversation and debate. There r theorists on translation and there r excellent practitioners too. What i find helpful in posts about translation is to actually not only say what u thought was bad with the translation, but also, to name the good or bad translators that u have encountered, so that we can look for or avoid them. I am looking for a good translation of Zorba the Greek, the one i am reading currently, by Carl Wildman, is indeed not satisfactory to me because of “arcaic” words and turns of phrase. Then again, it was published in England in 1961–55 years ago… Every language changes with the passage of time and thus translations too, have to be renewed, appropriately…

  5. Misha says:

    just downloaded a new translation of Zorba the Greek by Peter Bien and it promises to be the best, most professional, accurate and sensitive translation — judging by the introduction. Will keep u posted 🙂

    • Thanks for the update! Let me know if it does live upto the expectations, then I will also try and obtain this translation!!

      • Misha says:

        Yes, it sure did live up to expectation. What a difference a new translation makes. In addition to an erudite, careful and sensitive translator, one also has to look at the date of the translation. I am currently reading “the last temptation of christ”, which he translated in the 80’s i think? And though good, to my mind, it too already needs a new edition 🙂 Enjoy!

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