Saturday, July 9, 2011

Safely Lost in Translation

Woodcut print by Gustave Dore
Researching a new murder mystery can be fun.  Especially when it’s placed in Greece and you’re looking for the perfect spot to do the deed. Or find the corpse(s).   Deep blue seas, wispy white clouds, green-brown hills, blood-red blood.  Yes, finding the site is fun.   Mainly because it’s something you can do without confiding your purpose to a soul beyond your own. 

Saying, “Hi, can you suggest the perfect spot for a dismembering moment,” is not likely to get you the same sort of warm response as, “Your spanikopita are the best spinach pies I’ve ever tasted.”  [Note: On the off chance that it does, take a hint from Sweeney Todd and dine elsewhere.]

In that spirit, I’ve taken to fading in among the anonymous tourists driving and hiking about Greece until the moment I come across that spot my deep, dark mysterious mind always told me must be out there.  Then, voilà, let the mayhem begin.

Having said all that, some plot elements can take hold of your mind that by their nature necessitate a far more adventuresome sort of exploration.  Like when a little voice in your head says, “Hey, genius, why don’t you make the robbery of the millennium pivotal to your story.”

When will I ever learn that the most dangerous voices are the most flattering ones?   And of that lot, the worst by far are those blithering away inside your own head—even more so than that of an agent hot to represent you.

Don Quixote (Honore Daumier)
But the trouble with imagination is that once it takes hold the most difficult aspirations turn irresistible.  I’ve been told that Quixotic characteristic passes with maturity. 

To get to the point of all this, the novel I’m working on requires a detailed understanding of security surrounding one of the least know treasures in the world—if you’re not Greek—in order to make the leap from reality to the impossible not that far.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
To do that, I needed to speak to an insider, someone with intimate knowledge of the target.   And so, at the beginning of this week I set off on my quest with a friend (let’s call him Sancho) who knew such an insider (let’s call her Dulcinea).  My friend had read all of my books and knew I was working on a new murder mystery, but had no idea why I was interested in learning about the treasure.

Guy Fawkes Conspirators (Crispijn van de Passe)
“If Dulcinea wants to know the purpose of the meeting, tell her I’m an American writer working on a book about the hidden charms of Greece and could not possibly write such a book without including their priceless treasure.” 

I had my questions and my approach all prepared and worked out in advance. Sancho assured me that Dulcinea spoke perfect English because my Greek could not carry off the type of in-depth, subtle fishing expedition I had in mind.

“Perfect,” I once again learned, was an imperfect word.  Dulcinea’s English was as perfect for getting around an English language country as mine was for ordering a gyro in Greece.  Within thirty seconds Sancho was serving as interpreter.  I told him to translate my questions and her answers exactly as they were spoken.  He assured me he would.

I began with carefully phrased general questions of the type intended to make everyone comfortable.  They would run on for several sentences, Sancho would nod and say four words to Dulcinea who’d give him a two-word reply, followed a several-line editorialized answer from Sancho to me. 

I was getting nowhere fast.

Nope, not the Hope,
After ten minutes or so, Dulcinea suggested we leave her office to see the treasure that was the purpose of our visit.  Let’s make the image simple: think breathtaking, spiritual, priceless and very portable.

As we stood in front of the treasure, I tried a few more subtle questions, all with the same result.  So I switched to a different tack.

Nor Fort Knox
Me:  “Where do you keep the treasure when it’s not on display?”

Sancho to Dulcinea to Sancho to Me:  “In a safe over there.” She pointed to a two-meter tall, cloth-covered rectangle.

I walked to the cloth, pressed my hand against it, felt the steel, moved my fingers to the hinges and then the handle.  “Is it bolted to the floor?”

S to D to S to Me:  “Yes.”

I asked if I could take few photographs and Dulcinea said, “Yes,” a rare honor according to Sancho.  I nodded and smiled to Dulcinea then began photographing the skylights, windows, doors, and floor.

Dulcinea said something to Sancho, “She wants to know what you’re doing.   The treasure is over there.”

I said, “Sorry,” and quickly took a few of the treasure.

Sancho said, “Are you done yet?”

“There must be more security for the treasure than just that safe.  Ask her.”  Sancho hesitated.  “Just ask,” I said.

This time it was Dulcinea who gave the lengthy answer and Sancho four words back to me.  “A lot, plus guards.”

“What time do the guards change shifts?”

Sancho said to me in English, “Are you out of your mind.  Don’t you know what she’s thinking?”

“Just ask her.”

He did. Dulcinea’s answer was quick and guarded.  “It varies.”

Sancho and Dulcinea looked like two bank tellers waiting for the masked man to hand them the note.

I smiled, “Can they be bribed?”

This time it was Sancho who went on for a full minute.  Dulcinea smiled and held out her hand to me.  She was thanking me for my lavish praise of her kind assistance and wishing me the best of luck with my new cookbook.

I'm still laughing.



  1. It seems that Sancho is a treasure. If he translated your questions accurately, it would be awhile before you got to see anything beyond a small room with bars.

    Having the word "prescient" applied to ASSASSINS OF ATHENS and PREY ON PATMOS, I hope that no one makes off with the treasure anytime soon. If so, you will be described as "perpetrator."

  2. Sancho is indeed a treasure or at least that's how he's been describing himself to his wife and everyone else since we got back from our adventure.

    He's also asked me to write a book in which he wins the lottery.


  3. Very funny, Jeff, and I admire your nerve. I'd never have been able to muster up the courage to ask her about the guards' shift change, not in a million years. I admire -- from a distance --people who are willing to go to prison for their art.

  4. Great stuff Jeff. Reminded me of when I interviewed an old swedish man who didn't speak a word of English. His son did, so he translated. I asked whether things were much different now than they used to be in the business he worked in. Cue ten minutes of animated chatter between father and son in Swedish, including one prolonged laughing fit, lots of head shaking, a cigarette smoked, mad hand gesticulations and at one point he slapped the table emphatically.

    Then his son turned to me and said 'Not much.'

  5. LOL, Dan. Some ask me what its like living in a land where there is so much said that I don't understand. My answer is simple: "Heaven."