King of Kings
By Keti Akhalbedashvili
Who decides what a text means? And how much can be lost in translation?
‘უბრძანა: “ნუ სტირ, ასულო, ისმინე ჩემი თხრობილი:
დღეს შენ ხარ მეფე არაბეთს, ჩემგან ხელმწიფედ ხმობილი’
‘Then he said: “Weep not, my daughter, but hear what I’m about to say:
You are a king, named by me a sovereign today.’ — “The Knight in a Panther’s Skin”
I was only seven years old when I was gifted my first copy of the epic poem, describing the coronation of Tamar, the powerful King of Georgia, who was a woman. Not being able to comprehend Medieval Georgian, I would quickly skip through the masterpiece that I then deemed boring, and land on an illustration of King Tamar. I studied the piece carefully in awe. Sitting on her marvelous throne, her dress illuminated by precious stones and fabrics, Tamar gazed down as the most respected men of the Georgian intelligentsia bowed down to her. Her ornate dress and intimidating gaze were enough for my seven-year-old self to be enthralled by the King, who never really dethroned from being a subject of my fascination.
Years later, having learned to read Medieval Georgian, it was not the sparkly jewelry and vibrant dresses that caught my attention, but rather her title that read “მეფე”—a King. A title that tore down the walls of gender norms, broadening my idea of what I could achieve as a woman. Without realizing it, I had grown up believing I could be anything, even a King.
In most modern languages, the title is associated with a male ruler, but the terminology was not so constricted in medieval Georgian. In order to avoid puzzling readers, however, her title is often translated to Queen Tamar in English. Seeing this interpretation frustrates and saddens me. The meaning behind her title, along with the impact it had on my identity as an ambitious young woman, was lost. Its purpose was to signify the excellence of her reign, not only among female monarchs but monarchs in general. I mulled over the pitfalls of adapting cultural references into a different language. Who decides what a text means? And how much can be lost in translation?
During March of this year, deep into the hole of boredom and monotony from weeks in quarantine, I revisited books that I used to enjoy when I was younger. Particularly sensitive to nostalgia (considering I was deprived of any experience that required stepping out of my apartment), rereading the Odyssey brought up the same questions that bothered me when I first read the book.
I think of reading as a superpower. Stephen King describes the writer-reader relationship as telepathy. “We’re having a meeting of the minds,” he wrote his memoir On Writing. For this reason, I have always prided myself on being a sensitive reader. I admired the bittersweet intimacy between the writer and her audience—with the text providing a bridge, creating a silent conversation from one mind to another. Upon contemplation, I realized I hadn’t experienced this intimacy when reading some of the ancient texts that held the most importance to me. I wasn’t metaphorically present to Homer’s telling of the adventures of Odysseus and Achilles, nor was I connected to Plato as he recited the wisdom shared in the Symposium. Instead, by reading the translator’s interpretation of the works, I was seeing them through a filter.
I decided that learning to read Ancient Greek would be the advantageous use of my time that I would otherwise spend scrolling through Twitter or re-watching Parks and Recreation for the second time that month. By the end of the year, the months of struggling to grasp the concept of declensions paid off, as I am now able to translate the myths I so deeply admire.
I have come to appreciate translation as a form of art itself, as it is the great conjunction of all that is important to understand a certain culture. The convoluted sentence structure of Ancient Greek that once seemed chaotic turned out to be my favorite, yet the most challenging, part to interpret. I noticed it highlighted the lyricism of the ancient language, something so hard to grasp in modern languages, which are constricted with grammar rules. I came to see this lack of structure as a reflection of their society that valued freedom. I am finally able to grasp the concept of Eros, Philia, or Pragma that would all be under the same label of love in English. Single words, such as panaōrios, which invoke an entire myth—these can never have the same significance in English.
Ancient linguistics serve as a map to ancient antiquity. Understanding a language opens a gate to a perception of the world that was vastly different from ours. It gives me access to the mind and soul of the storytellers. It gives a King her rightful title.
We all hear urban legends about our younger selves from our parents, each year we repeat the same anecdotes about the one funny phrase we used to say when we were three, or how we wanted to be a fireman or an astronaut. My parents alike, never really stop telling the story of how when I was little, I would claim that my dream was to be a King.
Every time I have dinner with my I am reminded of this. I decided to write it all down, as I thought it to be an interesting connection to my studies now.
As I was writing about the importance of language and the beauty of reading, I realized the importance of inspiration and a comfortable state of mind. To find the correct use of language, that would allow me to express myself properly, I needed to seek inspiration.
The photos contain a few of the moments I documented during the writing process that helped me access the mind and soul of my own story.
Keti is a young New York-based Georgian-American writer. She can most frequently be found writing in her journal, filling the pages with anecdotes from her life. Keti's writing explores her experience growing up between two cultures. Through the medium of essay writing, she deals with themes of identity and self-discovery. Taking inspiration from different art forms such as film and literature her work serves as reflections and responses to the great works of the creators she admires.