It’s All Greek To Me: Why Authors Need Cultural Consultants
Are you writing a book set in another country and that uses words in that language? How about cultural elements? Then my guest today, Maria A. Karamitsos, is going to explain why you need a Cultural Consultant! I’m sure you’ll enjoy reading Maria’s informative post full of tips on how to write about other cultures.
It’s All Greek To Me
It’s all Greek to me. I’m Greek. I hear this phrase often with Greek language and things to do with Greece. This Shakespearian idiom means people don’t understand something and often concerning a foreign language. What does this mean for a writer? Well, if you’re writing a book set in another country and use foreign words and include cultural elements, to avoid errors, you need help from someone who speaks that language and knows the culture.
As a Greek speaker, an avid reader, a book reviewer, and a writer and editor, I’ve seen many books and articles written about Greece, set in Greece, or with Greek subject matter that fall short in this area. But you’re thinking, “A big house published that book,” or “I spent a lot of money on professional editing. What do you mean there are errors?” The truth is, even the best professional editors can miss these issues because they don’t have experience with the language and culture. I see this happening often in terms of Greece, so I’m sure it does with other languages and cultures.
Why Is This Important?
You’ve researched thoroughly. And what did you add to your characters and story to make them believable, to bring them to life? Details. It’s those finer details that lend authenticity. Getting them right elevates your story from good to outstanding.
Who is your target reader? If you’re penning a book set in another country, with characters from another country and/or culture, a good portion of your target market are people from that country/culture. You don’t want to hurt the sales of the book–and future works.
We never want to undermine our precious work, the work we’ve toiled and researched countless hours. That’s what these errors do.
How Does This Happen?
Let’s examine some ways.
- The editor isn’t familiar with the language, country, and/or culture.
You’re thinking, “A competent, professional editor, someone recommended, would catch it!” Not necessarily. Many times, editors without experience with a language and culture, rely on the author’s research and knowledge that these things are correct.
- Foreign languages are complex. You can’t translate literally.
Languages are nuanced, and sometimes poetic. With Greek, there are on average eight distinct ways to say something. Word usage depends on context. Some will check programs like Google Translate, but the results can be disastrous. While they’re good for a general idea about something (say an article or a post on social media), please do not use these translations in your work.
I’ve worked in Greek-American media for 18 years, and for four, I published a digital magazine. Once, a writer sent me an article for publication. A non-Greek, but a lover of Greece, she sprinkled in Greek words. I flagged multiple instances of incorrect usage. She argued that she looked them up and verified them. For example, she used the Greek verb for charm. She wrote “mayévo,” which can have a negative inference. It was also incorrect in context. The word she wanted is, “ghoitévo.”
Perhaps you asked someone who speaks that language how to say something. While this is a step in the right direction, I’ve seen writers get tripped up here because they didn’t provide context.
- The author spent time in that country and listened to people speak.
With a language as complex as Greek with words with difficult pronunciations and sounds, it’s possible to mishear. So when someone said the name for a Cretan spirit is Tsikoudiá and you heard and repeated, ‘tsoukouda’, which stuck in your mind and you used it, you’ve made a mistake. I’ve even observed Diaspora Greeks who don’t speak the language hear a word like koumbaRo, which is a man who has a relationship with you because of a religious sacrament (i.e. wedding sponsor or godparent), and say it and write it as koumbaDo. That’s what their ear hears. There’s no D in there—the Greek character is ρ which makes the R sound. That word with the “D” doesn’t exist.
Years ago, an author friend emailed me while penning a novel set in Greece. She asked, “How do you say, ‘Congratulations’ in Greek?” I asked for context. “A wedding,” she explained. “In Greece someone said synchartia to me when I got a book contract.”
Well, my friend not only got the word wrong (syllables missing) but she also selected the wrong word. Although syncharitiria means congratulations, a Greek would never say that at your wedding.
- The choice of character names led to questioned authenticity.
Editors won’t question character names since authors have specific reasons for selecting them. But did you know that the name could trip up a reader? And not just in the “I knew a nasty person with that name” kind of way. A name flub, messes with the authenticity of the character, leading the reader to doubt other elements.
Here’s an example. I read a book with scenes set in Asia Minor in the early 1900s. The protagonist’s last name originated from Cyprus instead of Asia Minor. This distracted me; then I started questioning other things. It’s a fascinating story, the historical elements on point. But every time I read the last name (and it came up often) it took me out of the story. NOTE: Naming your character with a name from another region changes your story.
- Selected word(s) makes sentence(s) impossible.
Last month, I read an amazing historical novel set in Greece. The author wrote, “… and the yiayias were nursing the babies.” Greek speaking readers–or anyone with Greek friends–would get stuck on the impossibility. Yiayia is the Greek word for grandmother. So, unless these were young grandmothers who’d just given birth, I’m not sure how this would happen. The book was published by major house and no doubt edited by a professional, but the errors got through because people weren’t familiar with the language.
- Cultural misuse.
Another author penned a manuscript for a novel set in Thessaloniki, the protagonist born and raised in that city. She described a character, “…wearing a Sariki, a traditional adornment worn by men in Thessaloniki.” She sent it to me, as a beta reader. I questioned the use of sariki. She said she saw a picture of a Greek man wearing one and it was “intriguing.” Oops. Sariki is a netted scarf worn by men on the island of Crete. Crete is the southernmost Greek island, and Thessaloniki is a city in northern Greece–each with very distinct culture. It may sound minor, but it’s a tremendous mistake. Chances are you won’t see a man from Thessaloniki wearing a sariki–well, unless he’s from Crete or bought one there as a souvenir. But again, that changes your character and story.
- A misspelling or misplaced accent mark changed the meaning.
In Greek, you can move the accent mark or even change one letter and it alters the entire meaning. For example, take the Greek word, filo. Accent placement can alter the meaning: FEE-lo (fílo) means a male friend, but could also be the flaky pastry sheets used in many Greek dishes (in Greek characters they have different spellings); and fee-LO (filó), means I kiss you. Big difference, right?
What Do I Do?
So what do you do?
Hire a Cultural Consultant. I know. You’re thinking you already spent–or will spend–a ton on different phases of editing, and now I’m telling you to spend more money on a consultant? Yes. Because you want your story to be the best it can be.
Likely part of your target market are readers from that culture, and you don’t want to turn them off. You may be viewed as a cultural ambassador, and you don’t want to provide inaccurate info! You publish a book to make money. And you want to grow your audience and publish more books. You don’t want to give anyone a reason to stop reading or to discount your otherwise amazing work.
What Do I Look For?
- Hire a person who speaks the language, knows the culture, and the country.
Choose someone of that culture. Someone who has lived in that country for many years can also be helpful. Language and culture are multifaceted.
- Check their qualifications.
Have they done this work before? Discuss past projects and their experience with said language, country, and culture.
- Send the entire manuscript.
Discuss the story with the consultant. He or she needs to know the story, the setting, the character dynamics, your goals, the context, etc.
This service shouldn’t break the bank either. Consider it cultural proofreading.
While this may seem nitpicky or you believe that readers won’t pick up on the errors, you don’t want to be the author that writes, “I’ll have some krazi” instead of “I want some krasí.” Krasí is the Greek word for wine. Unless you want some “crazy.” But that’s a whole other story.
If it’s all Greek to you, work with a Cultural Consultant. And oh yes, don’t skip the editing.
Questions? Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
More About Maria
Maria A. Karamitsos has been a positive voice in Greek media since 2002. She was the founder, publisher, and editor of WindyCity Greek magazine. For 10 years, she served as the associate editor and senior writer for The Greek Star newspaper. Her work has been published in GreekCircle magazine, The National Herald, GreekReporter, Harlots Sauce Radio, Women.Who.Write, Neo magazine, KPHTH magazine, XPAT ATHENS, and more. Maria has contributed to three books: Greektown Chicago: Its History, Its Recipes; The Chicago Area Ethnic Handbook; and the inaugural Voices of Hellenism Literary Journal. She’s a sought-after book reviewer and enthusiastically promotes books set in Greece, those with Greek subjects, and books by Greek authors. As a Greek Cultural Consultant, Maria helps authors with Greek references in their work. She’s currently editing her first novel. Learn more at mariakaramitsos.com.
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