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Peter Constantine discusses the delights of translating and writing in multiple languages in A Babel of Languages

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    The vastness of Peter Constantine’s personal linguistic range is almost unimaginable to most of us. He moves with ease between German, Modern Greek, Italian, Russian, Afrikaans, French, Ancient Greek—and those are just the languages I happen to know about. It’s no surprise that the Times asked Constantine to review Michael Erard’s book about hyperpolyglots, Babel No More—only that Erard didn’t feature him in it. 

    Peter is also a terminal speaker of Arvanitika, a severely endangered language of Greece related to Medieval Albanian. That has led him to engage with endangered languages in Europe and across the world. Primarily known as a literary translator, Constantine generally translates into English, but has also recently published a Greek translation of works by Polish poet Grzegorz Kwiatkowski.

    Lately he’s been channeling his talents in new directions. He is Professor of Translation Studies at the University of Connecticut, and director of the Program in Literary Translation there, which he founded several years ago. He is also the publisher of the new press World Poetry Books, which exclusively publishes foreign language poetry in English translation.

    This April Constantine’s kaleidoscopic debut novel, The Purchased Bride came out from Deep Vellum. The central figure in its shifting perspectives is Maria, a young Greek peasant forced to flee with her family across the mountains of the Ottoman borderlands in eastern Turkey when her village is invaded and ransacked in the spring of 1909.

    A precise and visceral study of what imperial heteropatriarchy does to children who have no hope whatsoever of escape, the novel has all the vivid, telling detail of a war documentary, while the empathetic love that suffuses its portrait of Maria makes it unexpectedly buoyant. We know from the beginning that she will survive no matter what she faces.

    In celebration of The Purchased Bride’s publication, I asked Peter a few questions about the throughlines between life, fiction, and translation.


    Esther Allen: What’s it like to live in such a magnificently expansive linguistic universe?

    Peter Constantine: Growing up with many languages was a helter-skelter sort of experience. I was born in England but spent my childhood in Austria and Greece—mainly Greece. We were a large family, and my parents and grandparents all spoke different languages, each insisting that I only speak their language to them. Battling this was my father, who was a passionate naturalized Brit of Turkish origin. (His Turkish background was a family secret never to be mentioned in public.)

    He insisted that I speak only English. He had been a British major in World War II, and the fact that my Austrian mother and I spoke exclusively in German irked him no end. He hadn’t fought Rommel at El-Alamein only to have to hear the language of the enemy spoken at his dinner table. My parents’ marriage was one long battle, and my mother’s campaign tactics were to speak exclusively in German and to turn his household into a Germanic one, with German parties, German books, German friends, a German priest.

    Dad was not pleased that I spoke Greek either. He felt that every word of Greek or German I knew would trounce an English one, banishing it from my vocabulary, compromising my prospects of growing up to be a British gentleman.

    Dad was not pleased that I spoke Greek either. He felt that every word of Greek or German I knew would trounce an English one, banishing it from my vocabulary, compromising my prospects of growing up to be a British gentleman: a man of leisure in a Savile Row suit driving a Jaguar and sporting an Etonian British accent. In fact, he had me registered at Eton minutes after I was born, which in the 1960s was still the done thing among the British upper classes from which his Turkish background categorically excluded him.

    EA: So it was your family’s extreme linguistic intransigence that inadvertently trained you in hyper-versatility? Did you end up attending Eton?  I can’t imagine they were any less intransigent there….

    PC: I never thought of it that way, but you are right! My family was utterly inflexible when it came to language. Not to mention, none of them would tolerate any foreign words bobbing up in anything I might say to them. As for Eton, that was not to be. I passed the exams and was accepted, but my father went bankrupt and left home rather suddenly at just about that time, when I was ten years old.

    We had lived all those years in a British and Germanic expat bubble in Kolonaki, a privileged and beautifully manicured Athenian neighborhood, and then my mother and I ended up as illegal aliens in one of the shanty towns outside Athens. It was a worrying but very exciting new way of life: one was never sure if there would be enough food to eat, and though we had a tap, there was only water for one or two hours a day. The shanty town was a wild, unzoned area of red mud and olive trees and open fields with shacks and Romani tents.

    There, the true language adventure began. Since time out of mind the area had been an Arvanitic region, and so Arvanitika, one of the non-Greek languages of Greece, was still spoken there, as was Romani whenever the large Roma families would arrive with their orange Datsun pickup trucks and pitch up their tents for a month or two.

    EA: How long did you and your mother live in the shanty towns?

    PC: All in all, about ten years. But two of those I spent in England, from eleven to thirteen where Dad had moved after the divorce. The plan was still that I would somehow go to a good boarding school like Eton, but since Dad had gone bankrupt I ended up in an inner-city school in London instead.

    I arrived there like little Lord Fauntleroy, impeccably dressed and with a posh British accent, since I’d gone to the British Embassy school in Athens. It was a Catholic school, but boys were throwing switchblades at the blackboard, and girls—eleven and twelve years old—would head to the train station during recess to make some pocket money.

    Two things happened immediately: I exchanged my posh accent for that of a rough Londoner, and I started saving pennies, one at a time, till I had 24 pounds, which was enough for a bus ticket back to Athens. My father, now in his mid-sixties, had married a nineteen-year-old Iranian girl. I was about to say “woman,” but she was a teenager, and people assumed that she was my fifteen- or sixteen-year-old sister. The marriage was a disaster, and she escaped to France, my father in hot pursuit.

    Since by then I had gathered my twenty-four pounds, I used the opportunity to escape to Greece. It is remarkable in retrospect that back in the mid-seventies, with the bus crossing all those European borders on its four-day journey to Athens, none of the passengers or border guards wondered why a thirteen-year-old was traveling unaccompanied.

    EA: Was that when you learned Arvanitika, after you got back to your mother in Athens, in the shanty towns? And did you learn Romani, as well?

    PC: We lived along a dirt track just off the old road to Mount Pendelikon, which is where the marble for the ancient temples of Athens came from. The mountain has gaping holes from millennia of excavations. Greek was the main language spoken there, but also Arvanitika. Our landlord was a man in his late thirties, and I was surprised that he had trouble speaking Greek.

    By then, in the mid-seventies, almost everyone was bilingual, and Arvanitika was beginning to fade. I had been exposed to Arvanitika from an early age, since in the 1960s my parents had bought a house in an old Arvanitic village near Lake Stymphalia, where Hercules had fought the murderous Stymphalian birds.

    In the shanty town, there was a lot of Romani in the air, but the Roma remained within their communities and just pitched their tents for several weeks at a time. There was something like a seasonal flow of different Roma groups staying for a while and then moving on. At my school we had a choice between Ancient Greek and Sanskrit, and I chose Sanskrit.

    I was very surprised to come across familiar Romani words in class. When the Roma, for instance, say “Dzhanas Romanes?”—”Do you know Romani”—the Sanskrit word for “you know” is dzhanasi. It’s the same word. It was news to me that the Roma might have come from India—in fact the Roma didn’t know that either. But there were so many words in common.

    EA: You did have formal schooling during this period, then. In Greek?

    PC: I didn’t have a Greek education. I ended up going to Campion, one of the international schools of Athens. The headmaster was a fascinating figure, Jack Meyer. Very British, and very eccentric. He had teachers from all over the world. His first suggestion was that I take Vietnamese classes, that the school would see to it that I could “pass for Vietnamese” by the time I graduated. I was intrigued, but hesitated. His ultimatum was that I must choose Vietnamese or Russian.

    I chose Russian. There was an interesting mix of students. My best friend Natasha’s grandparents had fled Russia during the Bolshevik revolution; she spoke an elegant and aristocratic Russian at home. Among our classmates were also the children of Eastern Bloc diplomats. Natasha’s mother, Lily, was a fascinating figure. We were very close, and she introduced me to the Russian classics.

    The Purchased Bride is indeed a novel and not a memoir; but it is based on my grandmother’s story and that of other women of my Turkish family. My father, who read the first draft, felt that it was very accurate, which surprised me, as I had changed names and places, and had invented characters and situations.

    EA: The narrator says on the first page of your novel that the main character, Maria, is his or her (we never find out much about that narrator) grandmother. It’s a work of fiction, clearly, but this seems to indicate, perhaps, some sort of autobiographical inception. What sort of connection did you have with your own grandmother?

    PC: The Purchased Bride is indeed a novel and not a memoir; but it is based on my grandmother’s story and that of other women of my Turkish family. My father, who read the first draft, felt that it was very accurate, which surprised me, as I had changed names and places, and had invented characters and situations.

    He in fact considered it a sort of biography. I never understood whether what he actually meant was that I had captured the vital essence of my grandmother’s story. I felt that it had to be that. But either way, he recognized the portraits of his mother and his father.

    The first glimmers of The Purchased Bride came some twenty years ago, a good two decades after I had left Greece. I was translating the Complete Works of Isaac Babel at the time. It was not that my work on Babel triggered the novel in any way, but that period was when I first wanted to reach back into my family’s Turkish background. It had to be in a fictional way, as my father—and my aunts in the UK—had turned their backs on their Turkish past and would never admit to it.

    One aunt had even married a Greek man, who throughout their many decades of marriage never knew she was Turkish. I always found that most puzzling. I wondered what had happened in the 1920s and 1930s to have caused this complete rupture, and their extreme attempts to reinvent themselves as Europeans. As a young man my father kept changing his name—to Turkish names at first, and then Greek ones. He also kept changing his age: he was born in 1920, but also in 1919, and 1915. He had paperwork and passports to prove it. Finally, he confessed that he was born in 1914.

    All this in an attempt to escape the past that I touched on in the novel. I tried to research my father’s past, looking through archives and records, but he had managed, quite remarkably, to make any official paperwork that pointed to his birth, or provenance, or schooling disappear. His sisters had done the same. The first sign of my father was as a modern European man, Major Constantine of the British army in Egypt.

    As for my grandmother, she died in 1976 in Cyprus, as a result of the violent ethnic cleansing that forcibly moved Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot populations into the Greek or Turkish sectors of the island. The irony is that though my grandmother was old and infirm and originally Greek, she was considered Turkish because of her marriage, and so was expelled by force from the Greek part of the island.

    I never met her, as she was part of the Turkish past that my father did his utmost to avoid. And to think that we lived in Athens all those years, a two-hour flight from Cyprus.

    EA: You began looking into your family history while translating Babel—but that was not what triggered your interest. What role do you think your career as a translator did have in the writing of this novel?

    PC: Gregory Rabassa, a great mentor to a whole generation of translators, famously said that translation is the purest form of writing. It is one of the joys of translation that you can put all your energy into writing: the translator of a novel need not focus on the nuts and bolts of creating characters or developing narrative structures. The main creative focus can remain on how something is said or narrated.

    After translating the works of Isaac Babel, I signed a three-book deal to translate a contemporary German author I greatly admire; but as I put pen to paper I found to my dismay that I was having trouble connecting with his style and with the plot movements of the novel. It turned out that we were not an ideal fit. Translating these books was a struggle, and I had a great urge to change the directions of the plot, to take charge of what the characters might do or say.

    I successfully resisted, but this urge inspired me to work on my own novel, where I would be free to make my characters say and do what I wanted. I haven’t been similarly tempted since, but that was a great inspiration for my own work.

    EA: Hmmm…. I think I know which books you are talking about. Fantastic that translating novels you had serious quibbles with was the catalyst for writing one of your own. Novelists, beware: your translators are learning from you and may outdo you…

    Beneath the polished, finely crafted surface of The Purchased Bride is a complicated and intricate criss-cross of languages and cultures. Almost every figure we meet speaks a different group of languages, and the novel beautifully and with great subtlety represents the way its characters are constantly confronting linguistic difference and doing their best to communicate across it. And of course you wrote it in a language none of its characters speak. Were you very conscious of that as you were working on it?

    PC: I didn’t consciously give my characters each their own language—but it was very much the way things were in those turbulent borderlands of Asia Minor. Turkey is linguistically quite diverse, and the Ottoman Empire was even more so. Maria, the protagonist, was expected to become Turkish and Moslem, and to shed her old identity, and never speak Greek again.

    There was a trend among Ottoman gentlemen of a certain class to have wives who were not Turkish. One of the underlying fears was that Turkish girls were already formed, and might have meddling families, while foreign girls could be molded to fit a husband’s or master’s taste. For centuries Caucasian, Russian, or Greek girls in their early teens would be purchased and cultivated to be ideal Ottoman wives, or concubines, or servants.

    The worry that a girl might seem unattractive and suspect if she knows Turkish or any Turkic language is a recurring theme in the novel. Maria, who speaks Tatar relatively well—a Turkic language that is perhaps as similar to Turkish as Dutch is to German—has to keep pretending that she knows only Greek. But through her knowledge of Tatar she can often follow what is being said in Turkish throughout all the transactions that lead to her being purchased.

    EA: Did it feel natural to write it in English? Or did you feel the other languages you speak, Greek and Turkish, particularly, tugging at you, annoyed with you for not consecrating your talents to them?

    PC: It did feel natural. Throughout the years I have mainly written in English and translated into English. Though I consider Greek to be one of my native languages, I know very little Turkish. In a strange way I hear the language and feel it, but I don’t speak it.

    It is one of the joys of translation that you can put all your energy into writing: the translator of a novel need not focus on the nuts and bolts of creating characters or developing narrative structures.

    Yet my peculiar connection to Turkish does manifest itself in the novel in oblique ways. I had fun translating some of the newspaper articles of the day spinning out conflicting information about the rumors and scandals that fascinated and delighted Ottoman society of 1909. For instance, the story of the glamorous Madame Claudius Bey who had been murdered “on the high seas” for her priceless pearl necklace.

    After years of striving to be meticulous in my translations I now went at these texts with total abandon, understanding some of the phrases, guessing at others, looking up this and that word, recreating the confusion and excitement of an early-twentieth-century reality show.

    EA: Your portrayal of Maria skillfully captures what it is to be a valuable piece of human merchandise.  She’s a full and complex human being to the reader, but to the people around her, including her own family, her beauty is basically her entire worth. Aside from her luck in the DNA lottery, the other physical asset that confers value on her is her virginity, something we know she has no control over whatsoever.

    PC: My father always felt that his father had shown great kindness to my grandmother in marrying her: a sophisticated middle-aged man condescending to show interest in an insignificant little girl. My grandmother was actually thirteen, not fifteen, as Maria is in the novel. It is perhaps a harsh thing to describe my father’s attitude to his mother in this way, but it was entirely a cultural matter.

    Beauty and virginity were the only two important elements. If either of those had been missing, my grandmother would not have been acceptable. Wit, to some extent, was important too, a worthwhile quality if it could amuse, but unacceptable if it was to be used to challenge the husband or master.

    On reflection, I believe I wrote The Purchased Bride as an antidote to this unyielding patriarchal mindset, which though it belonged to an obsolete, if colorful and intriguing, late-Ottoman society, seemed still so prevalent in the southern European cultures that I grew up in. As a first-generation American literary translator, editor and writer, I felt far enough removed from my European, Greek, and Turkish past, for me to reach back and write a novel that in some ways was connected to that life.


    The Purchased Bride - Constantine, Peter

    The Purchased Bride by Peter Constantine is available via Deep Vellum.

    Esther Allen


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