Palimpsest, Or the Art of Saying Almost the Same Thing

By Dimitris Psarrás*

Translation is "indirect speech hidden behind direct speech." That is how Susan Petrilli, Professor of Philosophy and Language Theory at the University of Bari, defined the art of translation. On the other hand, Gérard Genette, French literary theorist and one of the creators of narratology, goes beyond when reflecting on the subject of translation, comparing it to palimpsest, which in Ancient Greek means "recorded again." In other words, according to Genette translation is a text that nonetheless maintains traces of a previous writing―that of the original author―that have been expressly erased to give room to the writing that exists today―that of the translator.

Without a doubt, these are two very illustrative definitions that create an image of what exactly the work of a translator consist of. In "Experiences in Translation," Umberto Eco defines translation as "The art of saying almost the same thing." However, this "almost" could be the subject matter of thousands of books. This "almost" is as flexible as a feline body. Because of this "almost" there have been accomplishments or scathing failures in literary. This "almost" brought on disputes and feuds between authors and translators. This "almost" has been reflected in theater plays that were loved or hated by the audience.

With this article, I initiate a series of reflections on the work of literary translators in general and theater translators in particular. It is a subject I have always been passionate about, not only because I'm a translator myself, but because it demands a somewhat "bipolar creativity." The thing is that translators are always the horse that carries authors to their subordinates, they're always torn between being faithful to authors and fighting the urge to correct them and show them the right way.

"Translating has always been like walking on a tightrope.  "

Having said that, I'm in no way trying to undermine the work of an author, nor that of a translator. It's more than that; I believe that translators contribute a lot to the growth of a text and that of its author. Translators are readers, just not an everyday reader. They're are careful and curious readers. Readers who want to understand everything and, since they were not the ones who have thought about what a piece or novel has to tell, they have to understand things that maybe not even the authors themselves can clarify.

While translating a play of a living playwright, there were many times when I wrote down questions that I was able to clarify with the author as I was polishing the first draft. During this process, sometimes authors are surprised with the questions or reflections that translators have had about their work.

The thing is that authors have many unconscious elements that they spit out onto the paper and then take for granted; these are the things that demand a hefty decoding effort from translators. Translators not only have to take ownership of the mental process that have spawn that day in the mind of the author, but also decode them and transform them into words and images that are susceptible to trigger the same sensations in readers or spectators of the translation, just as the original text has triggered those sensations in the respective readers or spectators.

Translating is always like walking on a tightrope.  You must know the point in which this adventure can statistically arrive at a safe harbor, so that you can avoid falling into the abyss. This idea is reflected in a quote by American poet Robert Lee Frost: "Poetry is what is lost in translation." Differences aside, it could also be applied to theater.

To that effect, I have a very illustrative anecdote about what happened to me during the Alicante Contemporary Theater Festival in November 2012. Due to a professional defect, I suppose, it is impossible for me to watch a scene of a play without reflecting on translatability throughout the length of a reading. One of the plays we, the translators, saw in Alicante was Antonio Rojano's "Fair Play." It is indeed a wonderful script that was luckily put together by a very good cast―it was by far the play that I enjoyed the most during the event.

However, after seeing it, I tried hard to find the magic behind that play. I talked to my translation colleagues about it and realized that, actually, what had fascinated me the most in that play was the fact that the characters, which were soccer players working in an international setting, spoke Spanish differently, mixing different accents from Spain and Latin America that contributed to a throbbing rhythm.

So, I started to think what it would sound like in Greek and the result frustrated me.  In other words, I realized that, in this case, the American poet's words were bluntly confirmed: What I liked the most about that play is what would be lost in translation...

Editor's Note: This article was originally published in Spanish at

DIMITRIS PSARRÁS studied Translation and Interpreting at the Montpellier III Paul Valéry and March Bloch Universities in France. He is fluent in French, Spanish, Catalan, English, and Greek―his native language. He has worked as a translator and interpreter at the Cervantes Institute in Athens and the Ramon Llull institute in Barcelona, as well as the Thessaloniki International Movie Festival in Greece. He has also contributed with several Greek publishers and different translation and interpreting agencies both in Greece and abroad. With María Jatziemanuíl, he founded, a website dedicated to theater in Spain and Latin America. He has translated 25 plays from Spanish, Catalan, and French to Greek, many of which have been seen in theaters in Greece and Cyprus. Additionally, he has translated Greek works into Spanish and Catalan. He is a member of the International Theater Institute (ITI).