Visit the blog
announces a new imprint

Search Articles

Search Authors

Advanced Search

Join our Mailing List
Thursday, August 01, 2002


Lost in Translation

Some twenty-odd years ago, when I first visited Greece, I was amused when reading the incomprehensible English-language tourist brochures created by the GNTO (Greek National Tourist Organization). There was, I thought then, something quaint and curiously charming about their impenetrability, something I wanted to believe was revealing of what I thought (wrongly) might be the complexity either of a Greek mindset or the Greek language, neither one of which I made any claim to understand. I poured over sentences that contained no subjects, found subjects modified by profoundly bizarre adjectives, discovered verbs last used in the seventeenth century, and realized that I’d slipped into some surrealistic realm in which language had come, it seemed, to be used – not intentionally, but quite successfully – to obscure meaning. And I was always reminded, trying to deconstruct some sentence in any GNTO brochure that simply could not be diagrammed, of Luis Bunuel’s amiable, witty response when he was asked whether he knew English. “I speak it,” he quipped without missing a beat, “but I don’t understand it.”

The GNTO never made a similar admission, but going back to circa 1980, it’s altogether possible no one ever asked. The tourist trade then was but little over a decade beyond those first backpackers who had wandered about the likes of Santorini, asking to sleep on people’s terraces because there were no rooms to let, no pensions, no hotels, and the GNTO was busy mapping out – read: advertising – what would become the cash cow of beaten tourist-paths to the islands, particularly the Cyclades. And like any national tourist board, the GNTO was intent, and understandably so, upon bringing tourists to the country’s capital and to sites that already had a cache: Delphi, Olympia, Sparta, Corinth, Crete, Rhodes, Corfu. Thessaloniki, as Greece’s second city, was also on the tourist track, as were Meteora (for the adventuresome monastic sightseers) and Mt. Athos (for the male half of the world). But it was sun and sea, islands and island-hopping, that the majority of tourists found particularly irresistible, and so it was sun and sea the GNTO couldn’t help but promote, pushing – whether by design or default – tourism in the direction of certain islands, as well as reinforcing already existing mainland tourist patterns.

Advertising is, quite simply, the business of restriction: take a product, give it an identity, build brand recognition and (by extension) loyalty. The GNTO followed the rules of this game, as well as heeding the stricture of never exceeding one’s grasp. Greece was the product, and the GNTO built on an identity already succinct: the Parthenon, Epidaurus, Delphi’s and Olympia’s ruins, Knossos, Thessaloniki’s White Tower, Meteora’s monasteries, Mt. Athos’s icons. It added Mykonian windmills and whitewashed Cycladic villages as exclusive backdrops for Greece’s people, who were frequently depicted clad in clothes (if I can refer to costumes as everyday wear) more appropriate to a Dora Stratou performance than to life in the twentieth century. It worked. And tourism – whether despite or because of the GNTO makes no difference – flourished.

If it hadn’t, perhaps the GNTO would have expanded its horizons to include – and market – places (in the majority of the country) off the beaten paths. If it hadn’t, perhaps the GNTO would have thought about creating tourist brochures that read better than materials that seemed thrown together as part afterthought, part evil necessity; perhaps it would have stopped relying on a linguistic recipe whose main ingredient is carelessness and main spice incompetence. And then again, if tourism hadn’t been successful in those places most advertised by the GNTO, those places in Greece overlooked by the GNTO would have never demanded a piece of the tourist pie.

Demanded, and finally, after so many years, granted. For the GNTO has been decentralized, which means that each of Greece’s prefectures is now responsible for promoting tourism in its respective corner. The core of the old GNTO held onto Athens/Attica, and its 1994 brochure for Thessaloniki/Halkidiki is still being used by Greece’s second city. But if the brochures created by the tourist boards in places such as Serres are any indication, decentralization is the best thing that’s happened to the GNTO in a long time, and it may become the best thing that’s happened for tourism in the whole of Greece at present. This isn’t to say there aren’t kinks: no national identity standards have been established; there seem to be no guidelines relating to publications; the quality of design, typography, and printing varies widely; and the English is often stilted. But the provinces are proving themselves clever, probably having thought long and hard on how to promote tourism if they ever got the chance. The result isn’t perfect, but, for my money, the GNTO’s Athens/Attica and Thessaloniki/Halkidiki brochures – conceptually as well as linguistically – can’t hold a candle to those from the prefectures of Serres and Xanthi.

To wit, the following are two consecutive sentences from the first page of the Athens/Attica brochure, in which Athens is touted as the “centre of all centres in the world”:

Is the city of the Olympic Idea, the city of artists, cultural channel, scientific centre, East and West for each voyager, the crossroads of every major event, for the active, and the fashion person, that is in for avid sophisticates, the Parthenon of all and for all. Artistic happenings, festivals, conventions, athletic competitions, celebrations, entertainment events choose Athens, prefer Athens as their venue.

Huh? Assuming the problem is a matter for a grammarian, read on, say, from the next page, where semantics raises its ugly head (and in which Athens is suddenly claimed to be a thousand and one cities): “Athens is always another city. A city that does not resemble Athens. Yet it is always the same Athens.” And now, on the third and final page dedicated to Athens, whose body copy begins with what is certainly not a rhetorical question: “So, what did you learn from Athens?” The answer is a bit mangled, and then becomes a directive:

Let yourself get lost on the bus or while walking, go to neighbourhoods unlisted in the official programme, stroll through utrodden [sic] by tourists [sic] paths, knock at an unfamiliar door, rent a boat, keep your eye out for unknown spots (most of which will be known), find a forgotten ‘tavernaki’, take a walk on Mars Hill (Arios Pagos) or around the theatre of Herod Atticus, but also amble through the crooked lanes of an old residential district, by day or by night. In order to get to know Athens you have to lose your way. Even if you don’t find Athens, you’ll surely find yourself.

No matter where you go, there you are – that much, I get. Athens is a difficult city, one I know well and happen to love despite the fact that it is constantly and, yes, correctly, rated (annually, and based on quality-of-life criteria, by the European Union) as the worst city in Europe in which to live, which makes for what the advertising industry calls a very hard sell indeed. But the GNTO has sold it short, and in a way that would be unacceptable for any other European capital: imagine Paris or Madrid or Rome or Lisbon being portrayed as a place you “went wild,” “got tipsy,” “calmed down,” a place in which you should let yourself get “lost on the bus” (anyone who has ever taken a bus in Athens would howl at the thought of that as actually being something enjoyable, not to mention exciting, to do).

But the GNTO has also sold the tourist short, by representing the traveler (referred to as “you”) as someone whose sightseeing program includes staring at evzones, taking “a look” at parliament, exchanging “niceties with hundreds at a reception or two,” “distinguish[ing] yourself at that conference you attended,” and “excel[ing] at the Olympic Stadium.” It’s babble, with lots of not-very-remarkable photographs. The most curious of these are of a dance class (no caption) and of two badly dressed models in a contorted position (see photo above) that makes them look as if they are joined at the hip (no caption). And then there is the photograph (no caption, of course) of a smiling woman, who perhaps is supposed to personify the part of the text that promises: “You can find Athen’s [sic] smile everywhere: in an ancient theatre, in a modern exhibition hall, at a sports event, down by the sea, high on a mountain top during a guided tour, at a concert, around the table in a tavernaki, in a garden during a posh reception, in a little alleyway, in a spacious square, behind the mast of a sailboat or next to the column of an old temple. Or somewhere near a contemporary sculpture.”

Or maybe in the copywriter’s head. To be quite honest, Athens is not a city of smiling people, and Greeks do not greet strangers by smiling; but why a smile should even be considered a main attraction for tourists is beyond me. A tourist who would want to seek out a smile in a little alleyway only arouses my suspicion. And – this, for both GNTO writers and any hapless tourist who might take the GNTO at its word – no one should go knocking on any stranger’s door in Athens. Greeks may be hospitable, but they’re not stupid. At least not stupider than residents in Paris, Barcelona, Tokyo, New York, Copenhagen, Buenos Aires, and the rest of the world’s urban centers (despite being more unfortunate for having themselves portrayed as such).

The GNTO’s old brochure for Thessaloniki/Halkidiki, perhaps because it predates postmodern ad copy, is briefer, more comprehensible, and less vacuous than the decentralized GNTO’s Athens/Attica brochure. It is also – for one moment, and in one sentence that covers the entirety of 400 years of Ottoman rule – insane. For after it is stated that Thessaloniki was the second city (after Constantinople) of the Byzantine empire, and (to paraphrase) became a repository of Byzantine architecture and art, comes the breathtaking conclusion that: “After this illustrious era, the enemies take over.” No timeline is mentioned, no names are given: Thessaloniki’s history becomes a black hole, and “the enemies” seem to do nothing but puncture an otherwise seamless era.

“But each time, after each catastrophe,” comes the next sentence to confuse the reader further (after which times? which catastrophes?), “Thesssaloniki reexalts her splendour, dressed in her eternal garment of ancient and Byzantine glory.” No mention that Thessaloniki was a major city of the Ottoman empire, or that the symbol of the city, the White Tower, was designed and constructed by the Ottomans, or that Thessaloniki never stopped flourishing under Ottoman rule. And after the city “reexalts” itself, it becomes modern: “Today Thessaloniki with its University and the International Trade Fair – a crossroads for peoples’ friendship and collaboration – is a lively modern city bustling with life and movement.” And a place where, “At every step you can hear the heart of Thessaloniki throb. A heart that is immortal both in sorrow and in joy. A friendly heart to all – the Greek and foreign alike.”

I’ve never heard Thessaloniki’s heart throb. I’ve never thought, even for a moment, that Athens is the center of all centers of the world (I’m not even sure what that means). And I don’t think the GNTO is doing – or has done – justice to Greece’s two most important cities, or to tourism in Greece. Looking at the brochures produced by the prefectures of Xanthi and Serres, it seems that I’m not alone: in these there are no heartthrobs, no claims to be the center of any universe, and no smiles (although the vitriol doesn’t seem to have lessened). There is a good deal of information (in Xanthi, the Treasure of Thrace, perhaps too much) and an attempt at intelligent presentation that better integrates text with images. Why would a tourist come here?, these two regional tourist boards seemed to have asked themselves, tabling out of hand the two answers (Why not? Who cares?) that most characterize the Athens/Attica and Thessaloniki/Halkidiki brochures.

Two problems remain, however: English (translated or otherwise) and nationalism. Just as important as the fact that the brochures produced by Serres and Xanthi are more navigable, more appealing, and more informative than the GNTO’s Athens and Thessaloniki brochures are the fact that they’re not always coherent. And – despite a glimmer of sensitivity to the reality that much of the rest of the world only recoils at nationalist cant, at least in travel brochures – the Serres and Xanthi brochures aren’t jingo-free.

The prefecture of Serres, for instance, has produced two distinctive brochures, one on the area’s monasteries and the other on its traditional settlements; but the auspices under which the two brochures were created are listed as “Prefecture of Serres” on one and “Prefectural Self-Government of Serres” on the other. Both are well designed, the former in a more conservative manner (which I like to think was a conscious reflection of its subject matter), with accompanying maps. The monasteries brochure (in English only) includes 13 monasteries, each presented with its history, including its fate under the Axis occupation (in Serres, the Bulgarians were the occupiers). But phrases such as, “with God’s help, the Holy Monastery started to blossom again,” grate on the eyes of secular readers, as sentences that make no sense grate on the mind. “In 1332 the abbey became STAVROPIGIAKI,” part of St. John Prodromos’s copy reads, “(i.e. under the direct auspices of the Patriarch) and Patriarchal.” Another example: “The new invasion” – as opposed to an old? as opposed to other invasions? – “of the Bulgarian armed forces in 1941 completed the devastation of the Monastery, of the sacred treasures and the massacre of the monks.” But buildings are discussed in architectural detail, information on the availability of cells or existence of guest houses (including those which accommodate only organized groups) is invaluable, and the attempt to separate out hearsay from fact is admirable. Despite needing a copyedit, the brochure is a fair attempt to draw attention to its subject – and takes its subject seriously. Photographs are captioned, and one monastery looks nothing like the next or preceding one.

Sadly lacking are certain details that are seminal for travelers (where to call for further information, for one), which are not missing from Serres’s trilingual (Greek, English, German) “traditional settlements” brochure, in which architecture is presented as cultural/historical expression. Of the 15 villages featured, seven have been designated “traditional” by the Greek state, meaning that they are historically preserved areas in which construction is zoned to restrict any development that does not conform to the architectural integrity of the villages. And the term “traditional” is defined as more than an appellation governing construction: “They [traditional villages] were built under certain historical conditions and in the course of time developed either into refuges that protected the people from the raids of invaders and the threat of looting, or into centers of local agricultural, stockbreeding, or industrial production and commercial transaction. These settlements reflect and give expression to various life styles, social relations, the ways the relations of production were organized, as well as technical methods, esthetical [sic] preferences and cultural trends.” The brochure’s architectural information ranges from building materials, traditional colors, and categories of buildings (“the open rural house, the closed rural house, the gentleman’s house, and the refugee’s house”), and its photographs are the work of someone who obviously loves line and texture. (Less occasionally than in the monasteries brochure, but perhaps more brutally, a sentence confounds: “The traditional settlements…appear to have a linear arrangement of the buildings along the roads [sic] axes, irrespective of their orientation and are usually vertical to ground.”) Each village is given its own spread, with a very brief history, a listing of the buildings under preservation, useful telephone numbers and websites, and information on traditional guest houses and cooperatives.

I’ve never traveled through Serres, but now – primarily because of the traditional-settlements brochure – I intend to go. I went to Xanthi, however, some dozen years back; given the current prefecture of Xanthi’s English-language brochure, I now know what I missed. I didn’t hike about the Nestos river, wander Lake Vistonida, search for the feral horseherds in Livera, or visit Pomak villages: I didn’t have any information at hand about these things at the time. I recently complained to my husband that, back when I’d visited Xanthi, the GNTO wasn’t interested in promoting tourism in such places, and so I had traveled blind.

As long as the reader doesn’t pay any attention to the first page of introductory copy, which is pure obfuscation, and ignores sentences such as, “There are plenty of little and big fish in the rivers, the lakes and the sea,” anyone who reads Xanthi, the Treasure of Thrace will probably want to visit Xanthi as well. The five-page history of the region (as opposed to that of Thessaloniki, which only gets six paragraphs in its brochure) is far better presented. It includes occupiers who are named (Ottomans, credited with developing tobacco-growing, Germans, and Bulgarians), while multiethnic life is praised in a place in which Armenians, Pontians, Pomaks, and Turks (referred to as Muslims in the brochure) – but no mention of Roma, who are numerous and sedentary – have long resided next to indigenous Greeks. The worst that can be said for this brochure is that its nationalism can get ugly, that it needs copyediting, and that readers will be tempted to begin pulling their hair out upon coming across sentences such as, “In 1913, …Antikas fell a [sic] victim to the Bulgarian rage” and “Xanthi…was liberated by the Greeks after 550 years of a life of servitude to the conquerors.”

I don’t remember whether Xanthi had a tourist office when I was there in 1989; if it did, I got more information about the town itself (not to mention insight into barlife and the flesh trade) from the residents of the Hotel Lux, where I stayed a few nights, who happened to be very poor girls from the Dominican Republic living in some form of sexual captivity. In Komotini (I was wandering through Thrace that summer), the next town over, there was certainly no tourist office, so I ended up in the police station looking for an area map; the cops had one, under glass on a desk, which I had to study as an officer pointed out the outlying Greek villages and warned me away from the Turkish ones.

Those days are over, at least for 12 of the 13 prefectures (Athens/Attica remains in the grip of the GNTO), but these prefectures need to look long and hard at what the GNTO did and did not do for them, and what it hasn’t done for advertising Greece to the world. If none of them can remember one GNTO campaign (and I can’t), they all need to consider the true meaning of decentralization and let go of GNTO precedents, careless translation practices, and parochial visions of history, Orthodoxy, and tourism. The Serres traditional-settlements brochure comes close to being the model that can be improved upon.

The GNTO in turn should take a look at what Greece’s regional tourist boards – in Evia and Magnesia, in Xanthi and Serres, and everywhere else – are creating. And it should take a long, hard look at what it has created, in English, for a tourist market that it (mistakenly) takes for granted – or, worse, holds in contempt – and for which these regions will compete. Maybe it should reinvent itself in that city that it claims “is neither the beginning, nor the end”; if it can’t do that, maybe it could reinvent in its advertising parlance Athens itself, and try to define the city with a little more dignity and little less speciousness in something that resembles the intelligibly written word. If the GNTO can’t do any of that, it needs – quite seriously – to get on the telephone with the tourist board in Serres that created the traditional-settlements brochure and hire those people.

Melanie Wallace is a novelist and frequent contributor to Her latest novel, The Housekeeper, was published by MacAdam/Cage in April.
Page 1 of 1 pages