Μιλώντας για τη μετάφραση (στα αγγλικά όμως)
Posted by sarant στο 25 Σεπτεμβρίου, 2014
Την Κυριακή που μας πέρασε μίλησα στην Αθήνα ως καταληκτικός ομιλητής (ή όπως αλλιώς λέγεται το closing speaker) στο 2ο Συνέδριο της Διεθνούς Ένωσης Επαγγελματιών Μεταφραστών και Διερμηνέων, IAPTI όπως είναι το ακρώνυμό της (στα αγγλικά). Από εκεί είναι και η φωτογραφία αριστερά. Δεν θυμάμαι τι έλεγα και σήκωσα έτσι το χέρι μου, σαν να μετράω είναι. Δίπλα μου η πρόεδρος της IPATI, η Αουρόρα Ουμαράν (Αργεντίνα).
Μίλησα βεβαίως στα αγγλικά, κάτι που δεν το κάνω καλά και δεν μου είναι και ευχάριστο -και γι’ αυτό δεν θα ανεβάσω το ηχητικό αρχείο από την ομιλία μου, αλλά θα παραθέσω μόνο το κείμενο. Αυτό που κυρίως με ενοχλεί όταν μιλάω στα αγγλικά είναι που δεν μπορώ να μιλήσω πολύ γρήγορα και να απομακρυνθώ πολύ από το γραμμένο κείμενο. (Στα γαλλικά νομίζω ότι μιλάω με μεγαλύτερη ευχέρεια, άσχετο αν κάνω κάποια λαθάκια στα γένη κτλ.)
Δεν είπα μεγάλες σοφίες, ούτε ανάπτυξα σε βάθος κανένα θέμα: πιο πολύ πετούσα από το ένα στο άλλο, χωρίς να στέκομαι πολύ. Πολλά από αυτά που είπα, τα έχω ξαναγράψει σε διάφορα άρθρα εδώ (αλλά στα ελληνικά). Από την άλλη, νομίζω ότι η ομιλία είχε ειρμό και δεν κούρασε, παρόλο που κράτησε σχεδόν μιαν ώρα.
Εδώ παραθέτω ολόκληρο το κείμενο που είχα γράψει -στην ομιλία μου παρέλειψα καναδυό παραγράφους (που τις είχα κιτρινισμένες από τα πριν, σαν υποψήφιες για κόψιμο) όταν είδα ότι ξεπερνάω τον χρόνο που μου είχαν διαθέσει. Επίσης, έχω προσθέσει προς το τέλος κάτι που ήθελα να το γράψω αλλά τελικά άλλαξα γνώμη επειδή δεν μου ακουγόταν καλά. Μόνο που τώρα το βάζω στα ελληνικά, κι ας χαλάει την ομοιομορφία, γιατί βαριέμαι να γράψω αγγλικά. Είχα και κάμποσες διαφάνειες, που τις παραλείπω (εκτός από μία) γιατί δεν ξέρω πώς να τις ανεβάσω.
To ξέρω ότι είναι τεράστιο και είναι και στα αγγλικά, αλλά ίσως έχει κάποιο ενδιαφέρον.
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I want to thank my friend Maria Karra and the International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters for inviting me here as the closing speaker to your conference, which is quite a great honor –and pleasure, I must say– for me, and obviously I want to thank all of you who have gathered here.
As you have heard, I am a Greek translator working for the European Parliament in Luxembourg. Many people, although I have told them time and again that I work as a translator in Luxembourg, still keep asking me whenever we happen to meet in the street, “Still working as an interpreter?” or “How’s life in Brussels?” You see, they confuse translators with interpreters, probably because the latter are more visible on television, and they identify the EU with Brussels, as Luxembourg is probably too small to remember. Fortunately I don’t have to explain to you of all people the difference between a translator and an interpreter. As to the second topic, Luxembourg may be small and it may lie in the shadow of Europe’s capital, Brussels, but for us translators it is at least equally important as Brussels, if not more important, since there are more EU translators employed in Luxembourg than in Brussels.
In fact, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg can probably claim the highest number of translators per capita in the world; moreover, it can boast of being perhaps the only genuinely trilingual country in Europe. Belgium and Switzerland are also multilingual countries as official languages go, but in reality they are more or less composed of monolingual territorial entities, while all Luxembourg regions are uniformly trilingual. Luxembourg is also the EU member state with the highest proportion of foreigners among its residents, and by being host to several EU institutions Hence, for the lover of languages Luxembourg is the place to live.
Before going on, I would like to apologise for my English: public speaking in a foreign language is not my strong point but I hope that I won’t tax your patience. I am not going to use my mother tongue, because then some of you or most of you would say “It’s Greek to me!” in the figurative sense, that is, unintelligible.
This English expression dates from the Elizabethan period (it is used by Shakespeare in Julius Caesar) when knowledge of ancient Greek was restricted to some well-educated scholars. However, the origins of the English expression are older, since we find the equivalent in Latin: Graecum est; non legitur (it’s Greek, I cannot read it), also in plural: Graeca sunt, non leguntur. This is not a classical quote, because Romans knew their Greek; it is a medieval one. In the Middle Ages, knowledge of Greek declined in the West, so it is said that the monks who would copy Latin manuscripts in the libraries of monasteries and abbeys, whenever they happened to come across some Greek quotation they could not read, they would omit it, writing in the margin: Graecum est, non legitur: it’s Greek, hence unreadable. According to some authorities, the expression was coined by Franciscus Accursius (Francesco d’Accorso in Italian), an Italian lawyer of the 13th century who used it when drafting a compilation of Roman law and his peers found it a very convenient excuse for obscure Latin passages as well, so the expression caught on all over Europe, where Latin was extensively used.
We Greeks obviously know our Greek, so when we can’t make head or tail of a text, we usually say “Αυτά είναι κινέζικα. This is Chinese”. Other people choose other languages as the epitome of unintelligibility. For instance Germans say Das kommt mir Spanisch vor (This is Spanish to me) and on this first slide (φαντάζεστε τι θα είχε η διαφάνεια) you can see a selection of other equivalent expressions in various languages. Chinese is the language most often chosen as the hardest one.
As you see, foreigners speak a language that we cannot understand, that sounds gibberish to our ears, although it is totally intelligible to them – that’s why translators and interpreters are used. This notion of incomprehension is quite old. Ancient Greeks coined the word βάρβαρος (barbarian) for foreigners who sounded to them as if they said ‘Bar-bar-bar’ (blah-blah we might say nowadays). The term was initially used without any derogatory meaning, but it soon acquired pejorative connotations, especially after the Persian wars – so, barbarians were portrayed as uncouth, uneducated people. Classical Greeks were proud that they were free men while barbarians were ruled by a king. The word βάρβαρος was borrowed in Latin (barbarus), whence English barbarous and barbarian. But barbarians were not only uncivilized, they were also strong and potentially noble, unspoiled: hence the word brave and the (initially Italian) exclamation bravo!, that also have their origin in barbarians, at least according to several sources.
But I digress. What is important is that the foreigner speaks a strange language and it is not by chance that in many languages the words for ‘foreigner’ and ‘unfamiliar, unusual’ are cognate – for instance, in English we have stranger and strange, in French étrange and étranger. And if Greeks were surrounded by barbarians, Arabs had Ajams, i.e. those who didn’t speak the Arabic language correctly, who were illiterate or mute, a term that came to mean the Persians – so in modern Turkish acemi is a clumsy person, a meaning shared by the Greek ατζαμής. It is also worth noting that in Slavic languages the Germans are named Nemets (and variants thereof), which literally means a mute, and by extension someone who can’t speak like us; a foreigner. And according to most sources, the word gringo, a term used in Spanish-speaking countries to denote an English-speaking foreigner, usually an American, is a variant of griego, the word for ‘Greek’, a term that was used in Spain in the 18th century for someone who spoke Spanish with a foreign accent.
Definitely, those people are strange, they don’t speak our language, they are uncivilized, clumsy, barbarians!
Incomprehension breeds confusion and hatred. Mutual comprehension is no guarantee for peace and harmony, but it helps a lot along the way. This is where interpreters and translators come into the picture. It was during the Ottoman Empire that our profession rose to its highest status ever, when a dragoman (or tercüman in Turkish) performed not only linguistic but also diplomatic duties (in fact, spying and international intrigue also came into play).
So, top-echelon dragomans were the equivalent of ambassadors, and the office of the Grand Dragoman was not dissimilar to our modern Foreign Office, that is to say a Grand Dragoman was the equivalent of the Minister of Foreign Affairs. It is worth noting that the first to be named Grand Dragoman, or Divan-ı Hümayun Baştercümanı in Ottoman Turkish, was a renowned polymath, Panayote Nikoussios, an ethnic Greek from the island of Chios, nicknamed “the green horse” because of a proverb that says that it is easier to find a horse of green color than a sober man in Chios. Starting with Nikoussios, all Grand Dragomans were Phanariot Greeks, until the Greek war of independence of 1821.
Modern translators can certainly not boast of such a glorious status as those dragomans of the Ottoman period but at least our job-related risks are mitigated because back then you could very well lose your job and your head at the same time. However, those of you who belong to my generation can perhaps claim that we lived during a watershed period of the translating profession. In our professional lifetime we witnessed several important changes, cataclysmic changes one might say, in the way we perform our job. Gone are the good old typewriters, we have computers now with enormous productivity gains.
Then, we have the Internet, which can bring to us a previously unimaginable wealth of information and knowledge with just a few keystrokes. And then, we have also witnessed how the use of translation memories has revolutionized the profession, although from the translator’s point of view they are probably a mixed blessing. And finally there is another evolution that might be regarded as ominous or at least as a menace; and I mean, of course, the emergence of machine translation, i.e. texts translated by computers.
Machine translation is a huge and fascinating domain but I haven’t studied it enough to be able to discuss it. For the moment, it is extensively used on the Internet, as a very cheap and fast, but rather unreliable way for e-businesses to translate their web pages, giving to all of us some good laughs. Recently, we discovered a Slovakian e-shop that used MT to translate its extensive catalogue into all EU languages, using English as the intermediate language. This gave some hilarious translations, some of which should be X-rated, because, for instance, a child toy in the form of a donkey was translated from Slovakian into English as ass, and then the MT software picked the other sense of ass when it translated from English to Greek and other languages.
One might say that the culprit here was the use of an intermediate language. Statistical machine translation systems use parallel corpora for source and target languages to achieve their good results, but good parallel corpora are not available for all languages. An intermediate, or pivot, language constitutes the bridge between two languages to which adequate parallel corpora are not yet available. Translating via an intermediate language is considered something to be avoided, because it introduces additional mistakes and ambiguities. However, it has to be said that some translation masterpieces in literature have been produced despite the use of an intermediate language. It is also worth noting that my organization, the European Union, which is by far the biggest provider of translation services, has adopted the use of pivot languages as the only means to keep translating costs under control and still offer full multilingualism with 24 official languages.
This measure was introduced in 2004, when, with the big enlargement of the EU, 10 new countries, mainly from Central and Eastern Europe, joined the club. Until then, there were 15 member states with 11 official languages, which meant that there were 11*10 = 110 language combinations. Even then, it was barely manageable: in the European Parliament we had quite a hard time trying to find a Greek-speaking translator who knew Finnish. However, after the enlargement, the task became simply impossible. How can you find enough competent Greek translators who can translate from Lithuanian or Hungarians from Maltese? With 28 member states and 24 official languages (after the accession of Croatia in July 2013) there are 24*23=552 language combinations, five times more than in the days before 2004. So, the system of controlled multilingualism was introduced, which entails the use of an intermediate or pivot language, usually English or French. A Latvian text is translated into English and then retranslated from English into all other languages. After some ten years, this system has proved its efficiency because the sad truth is that, while all official EU languages are equal, some are more equal than the others, or at least they are used much more often in the originals. In the European Parliament, which is probably the most diverse linguistically of all the EU institutions, 60% of the originals that come for translation are in English, another 15% in French, 5% in German, 3.5% in Italian and 3% in Spanish (2012 figures), so the five “big” languages represent a percentage of 86.5% of the originals, and all other languages, 19 of them, account for a mere 13.5%.
In our departments, we have in place some special procedures to minimize the problems generated by the use of pivot languages. However, the biggest blunder I have encountered so far in our translating work in recent years was not due to the use of intermediate languages but to a combination of cutting-edge modern technology and plain old sloppiness. In this slide you can see a page from the Official Journal of the European Union. It is the Annex of a decision concerning the technical specification of inter-operability relating to the operation subsystem of the trans-European high-speed rail system. That’s the title although it probably needs further translation, from EU jargon into plain English. Well, on that page you can see a list of countries and their respective railway companies and, lo and behold, just after Tunisia and before Turkmenistan there lies a country named Κρέας Γαλοπούλας in Greek, that is “turkey meat” in English!! What happened? The original obviously read “Turkey”, but our colleague was translating with a translation memory and the software cannot distinguish between the country named Turkey and the bird named turkey (after all, the bird was named after the country because it was thought that it came from there). Those allegedly perfect matches are shown in green on our computer screen and, after having worked for several hours, the translator fell into the green trap and accepted the translation proposed by the software, so this blunder was printed in the EU Official Journal, No. L 84/26.3.2008, p. 92.
It is not the first time that the bird named turkey has caused a translation blunder. I remember some years ago, I saw a tag on a shirt that read “Fabriqué en dinde”, which was the French translation of “Made in Turkey” – but dinde is the French name of the bird, not the country! The joke goes further if we think that the French word dinde is an alteration of d’Inde, initially poule d’Inde, meaning “from India”. In fact, the various names of this bird in various languages are quite an interesting topic: for instance, in Portuguese it is named perú, because they thought that it comes from there, in Bulgarian and in some Northern Greek dialects it is called misirka, i.e. coming from Egypt, while in Arabian they call it dik rumi, that is a Roman (i.e. Greek) rooster.
Translators are apt to spot such linguistic trivia, because they always live on the interface between languages. Acting as mediators between different languages and often being polyglots, translators and interpreters are perhaps among those who have the most acute perception of the phenomenon of linguistic borrowing. You see, no modern language is an island; languages and peoples have come into contact from time immemorial and they have been enriched by mutual borrowing. We sometimes hear that linguistic borrowing is detrimental to a language, that it represents a menace for the survival of the borrowing language. I beg to differ.
In my opinion, unlike financial borrowing, which in fact can lead a household to ruin or a country to bankruptcy in extreme cases, I suggest that linguistic borrowing is a source of enrichment for the recipient language. In fact, the English language, which contains the richest vocabulary of all languages, owes this richness to the fact that it never stopped borrowing avidly from all other languages, even in recent decades, when it has gradually assumed a dominant position globally. English is not afraid of extensive borrowing – and it does not just borrow the word along with the thing; sometimes it gives an entirely new meaning to the word borrowed. For instance, two English words that Greek has borrowed are: tank (the armoured war vehicle) and shampoo (the stuff with which we wash our hair). Both words, however, are not native English, they both are Indian loanwords: a tank was initially a reservoir of drinking water, and shampoo came from a verb that meant “to massage”. People sometimes say that ancient Greeks did not deign to borrow from other languages but this is not true. There are a lot of loanwords in Ancient Greek, such as αρραβών (engagement), χιτών (tunic), σινδών (shroud), αγγαρεία (enforced labour), μάγος (wizard) or παράδεισος (paradise) – the first three are of Semitic origin, the other three come from Persian – not to mention the so-called pre-Hellenic borrowings, such as θάλασσα (the sea) or σύκον (fig).
Two of the above-mentioned Persian loanwords, μάγος and παράδεισος, were next borrowed by Latin and have become international. The Greek word παράδεισος first occurs in the works of the historians Ctesias and Xenophon, in the 5th c., adapted from the Avestan pairi.daeza, to denote large enclosed gardens with lush vegetation and abundant waters, kept by the King of Persia or other noblemen for their rest and recreation (hunting etc.) The scholars who translated the Pentateuch into Greek a couple of centuries later, chose the word Παράδεισος for the Garden of Eden and the word caught on and became international via Greek and Latin.
As you see, there are some loanwords that have made a long journey into both space and time. I am particularly fond of one such Oriental word that has travelled widely. I guess that most of you play chess or at least know the rudiments of this beautiful game. As you know, when a player makes a move that places the opponent’s king in immediate peril, he announces “check”. This is a loanword that can be traced to the Persian shah, meaning “king”, and in fact the last Shah reigned in Tehran as recently as 1980, when he was toppled by the Islamic Revolution.
The Persian word was borrowed into Medieval Latin as scacus, eschec in Medieval French, whence English chess, the name of the game. In French, eschec meant the game and also the move that threatens the king. The meaning gradually broadened to mean “obstacle, difficult position, failure”, so now in modern French chess is échecs (plural, with an -s at the end), and failure is singular échec. In English, the name of the king-threatening move took the form Check! and here the meaning has also gradually broadened to mean a harmful event that causes you to stop, then a sudden stoppage, then a token of ownership used to check against loss or theft, and the verb to check took the meanings of ‘to stop someone, to hold someone in restraint, to control someone’ and this is how we have all the modern meanings of this multifaceted word, including medical check-ups, check marks or bank cheques (which initially were a check against forgery or alteration). We also have the word checker, a chessboard, but also «pattern of squares». Under the Norman kings of England, the word referred to a cloth divided in squares that covered a table on which accounts of revenue were reckoned with counters, and which apparently reminded people of a chess board. This gave us the word exchequer, the government department responsible for the management and collection of taxation. All these words and all those meanings sprang from the beautiful game of chess and its dominant piece, the king or shah!
Loanwords are quite an interesting topic but there is a special category of loanwords that I personally find quite fascinating, and this is the so-called reborrowings. In Greek we call them αντιδάνεια, while Germans call them Rückwanderer or Rückentlehnungen. We have reborrowing when a word travels from one language to another and then back to the originating language in a different form or with a different meaning (sometimes passing via other languages as well).
To give you a couple of examples, the French word budget is a loan from English budget, however the English word, that initially had the meaning of a “leather pouch”, is in turn a loan from Middle French bougette, diminutive of Old French bouge “a leather bag, wallet, or pouch”.
Another well-known example is Dutch boulevard, a loan from French boulevard, which in turn is a loan from Dutch bolwerk, meaning “bulwark, bastion”.
While the phenomenon of reborrowing is probably present in all languages, it is perhaps more frequent in Greek, because the Greek language has a long history and because Greece stands at the crossroads between Europe and Asia. Some examples of reborrowing in Greek:
The Greek word for sofa (a loanword from Turkish, by the way) is καναπές, which is obviously a loan from Fr. canapé – whence also the English word canopy. However, the French word ultimately comes from Greek κώνωψ. This is Ancient Greek for mosquito – the Modern Greek word is κουνούπι. But how on earth did a word denoting an insect give another word denoting a piece of furniture? It is not so difficult. In fact, in Hellenistic Egypt, where mosquitoes were a plague, people couldn’t sleep without mosquito curtains round their couches. Those mosquito curtains were named κωνώπιον, and the word spread in Latin as conopeum, canopeum, meaning initially the mosquito curtains; gradually, it also came to mean a couch equipped with those curtains or with suspended covering – this is where the English “canopy” comes from. Gradually, the word came to mean any reclining couch, without curtains, hence the French canapé, which was reborrowed into Greek as καναπές, and also as καναπεδάκι, a diminutive, which means the piece of bread or toast on which small savouries are served – I guess the word also exists in English.
If canapé is a westward reborrowing, there are a lot in the other direction. For instance, the Greek word for hazelnut is φουντούκι. This is a loan from Turkish fındık, which comes from the Arabic bunduq. The Arabic word, however, is a loan from the Greek ποντικόν, from ποντικόν κάρυον, a nut from Pontus.
Perhaps the loanword that made the longest journey, both to the East and to the West, is the Greek word σόμπα (stove). This is a loanword from Turkish soba (with the same meaning) but this is only the last link in the chain. The journey begins with the ancient Greek τύφος, a word with multiple meanings, including a kind of fever, but also ‘smoke, steam’. This word was borrowed by Latin and a Vulgar Latin word, extufa (steam bath), passed to Old Slavic (stuba) and Old German (stuba, whence also English ‘stove’) and then to Hungarian (szoba), then to Turkish and then to Greek to close a journey of some 20 centuries all over Europe.
I am fascinated by reborrowings for another reason: those long-travelling words show how illusory it is to maintain that a language “owes” something to another language because it has borrowed a part of its vocabulary from it. When you see the complex give-and-take relationships involved in such long word journeys of borrowing and reborrowing, there emerges a web of mutual enrichment, where intermediate languages, such as Latin in many of our previous examples, have also played a decisive role. With Greece being deep into debt in recent years, a German historian, Leonora Seeling, proposed to raise a special levy of 5 cents for each Greek word used by Europeans (5 cents um Griechenland zu retten). This was a useful gesture in a period when the German press was filled with attacks against the “Lazy Greeks”, but obviously such a tax would be unfeasible for many reasons, one of them being that there are a lot of parties involved in linguistic borrowing – wouldn’t they also claim their share of the 5 cents for each loanword?
However, it is an obvious fact that all European languages contain words of Greek origin. For Greeks, this is a source of legitimate pride. Some of my fellow Greeks are not content with this contribution, so there has developed a special branch of para-researchers who strive to find Greek etymologies in all the languages of the world, even exotic ones. A University professor (an economist, by the way) has written a book in which he supposedly “proves” that almost all the words of the English language are loanwords of Greek origin, including basic verbs such as I can, I do, I am or exclamations like Hello! and he claims that these borrowings are the result of contacts with Greek navigators in the mists of time. Needless to say, all those “researchers” refuse to accept the Indo-European theory. For my part, I have a special word for this laughable attitude, I call it portocalism, as a tribute to Gas Portokalos, the Greek restaurant owner in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, who, if you remember, was constantly trying to find Greek origins in each and every word, including, for instance, kimono, the Japan garment, which allegedly comes from Greek χειμώνας, the winter, because in winter it is cold, so we put on a kimono!
No, Greek language is not the “mother of all languages”, in fact no language can even come close to such a claim, but, as I said, a considerable part of the vocabulary of modern European languages is of Greek origin. We could distinguish three categories of such words, a) neologisms created by scholars and scientists using Greek roots, prefixes and suffixes, for instance telephone from τηλε, which means ‘far’, and φωνή, which means voice; b) learned borrowings, i.e. international words deriving from the vast Greco-Roman pool, such as tragedy, philosophie, geometrische, lírica, and c) popular borrowings, which may have changed considerably in appearance, sometimes to the point of being unrecognizable.
To give just one example, it is not at all obvious that a word like calm has a Greek origin. This Greek word is καύμα “heat” (especially of the sun) borrowed into Late Latin cauma “heat of the mid-day sun”. And because at noon, when the sun is burning, is a time when everything rests and is still, the Old Italian word calma underwent a shift in its meaning and came to mean “tranquility, quiet”, and then it spread westwards into French and English with this new meaning. It is also worth noting that French chômage (“unemployment”) comes from the very same Greek word, just as Spanish quemar “to burn”.
There are some English words of Greek origin which have not changed much in appearance compared to the original Greek word, but their meaning has changed almost diametrically. For instance, what is a sycophant? The English word means “a servile flatterer”. However, the Greek word συκοφάντης, quite similar to the English one, means something quite different, “a slanderer, an informer”. (By the way, the traditional explanation that it originally meant an informer against the unlawful exportation of figs cannot be substantiated). The Latin sycophanta had the same meaning as the Greek. The semantic shift from ‘slanderer’ to ‘flatterer’ occurred in English around the 16th century and it is not difficult to imagine how. The powerful men of the era were surrounded by servile flatterers who were also busy spreading rumours about the opponents of their bosses, so sycophants took on a new meaning.
Now, imagine a Greek amateur translator, for instance an enthusiast who has the hobby of translating subtitles for specialized websites and who comes across the word sycophant. He has not encountered the English word before, but it is a “Greek” word, so our friend thinks he knows the meaning – why bother to look it up in the dictionary when the meaning is “obvious”? So, our friend mistranslates sycophant as συκοφάντης – and this has happened more than once, as you can imagine.
Our amateur colleague was the victim of a quite interesting linguistic phenomenon called false friends. An amateur translator working on a difficult text is not unlike a traveller passing by unknown territory without a GPS or even a good map. He finally finds a local and asks for directions, and then he follows these directions eagerly and to the letter – only to find out, kilometres later, that he has taken a completely wrong turn. That’s how false friends work.
False friends are pairs of words in two languages that look or sound similar but differ significantly in meaning. Some false friends arise from linguistic borrowing, as was the case with sycophant, in other cases there is a common ancestor of the two words. For instance, the joke says that, if an English lady sends a parcel by post to a friend of hers residing in Germany, she’d better write PRESENT on the parcel and not GIFT, because in German gift means poison, so the Custom officers could destroy the parcel. The two words are written and pronounced the same way, but the meaning is radically different. However, they do have a common origin, because in Old High German gift was the act of giving, a sense that still survives in the word Mitgift “a dowry”. It is from this word that the English word evolved, with the meaning of “present”. However, in German, as well in Scandinavian languages and in Dutch, the word gift underwent quite a substantial semantic shift as it came to mean “poison”. This change was partly euphemistic and partly due to the influence of Greek δόσις “a portion prescribed”, literally “a giving”, used by Galen and other Greek physicians to mean an amount of medicine. By the way, the same euphemistic shift also occurred in the case of poison, French poison, which derives from Latin potio “a drink”.
Gift is perhaps very well known so translators wouldn’t fall victims to it, but other false friends are more insidious. To give some other examples, English actually has not the same meaning as its French cognate actuellement (which we would translate as currently) and English eventually is different from French éventuellement (which we would translate as possibly) and there is a huge difference in stature between the US Secretary of State and the French Sécretaire d’État, who is a minor figure in government.
Translators should always be vigilant for false friends, even beyond the well-known cases. False friends are especially dangerous if the translator has not complete mastery of the target language. This is what happened in the European Parliament some years ago. In November 2002, Prestige, a Greek-operated oil tanker, sank in the Bay of Biscay, off Galician coasts, causing a big oil spill, in what still remains the largest environmental disaster in the history of both Spain and Portugal. The European Parliament appointed a special commission to investigate the disaster. The MEPs interviewed all concerned persons, including the Greek captain of the ship. Since the head of the committee was a Dutch MEP, he drafted his report in Dutch, from where the text was translated into the other official languages of the EU.
The Greek captain claimed that, if the Spanish authorities had allowed the vessel to be brought into harbour, the sinking and the pollution would have been avoided. In his report, the Dutch MEP quoted the captain’s point of view, using the expression maakte de bedenking, that is “he was of the view that…”. It seems that the translating agency that did the translations didn’t have a Dutch-speaking Greek translator, so they gave the job to a German-speaking colleague. The snag is that in German the word “das Bedenken” means “doubt, misgiving, qualm”, so the Greek translation read that the captain “expressed doubt that the pollution could have been avoided”, which is roughly the opposite meaning. As a result, the next day a Greek MEP, noting the divergence of the Greek text from all other texts, spoke about “a fifth column in the Greek translation division” – but, as I said, the job had been done by an external contractor.
Because Greek is an old language with a long story, we Greeks have managed to have “internal” false friends as well, i.e. cases when the same word has different meanings in Ancient and in Modern Greek. Non-Greek classicists who know Ancient Greek better than 99.9% of Greeks are prone to fall victims of these false friends, when they try to communicate with Greeks in (Modern) Greek. I have a funny story about such a case. A friend of my parents’, a writer, used to write witty pieces in his local newspaper. He had a pen friend, a German classicist who was a subscriber to the newspaper. In one letter, his German pen friend wrote to him: “I had a good laugh with the ridiculous piece you wrote the other day”. The German classicist used the word γελοίο, ridiculous; not a nice thing to say to someone. At first, the Greek writer was offended. Then the coin dropped: his correspondent was using the word γελοίος in its ancient Greek sense meaning ‘funny’. Over the centuries, the meaning evolved into ridiculous. Greek translators of Ancient Greek text into Modern Greek also regularly fall into the same trap. You see, we Greeks sometimes like to boast that many words of our language are essentially the same since the time of Homer or Sophocles, but we fail to observe that a lot of these words are not essentially the same, because their meaning has changed, sometimes radically; just to give you another example, the word σεμνός in Modern Greek means “modest, demure, unpretending”. In Ancient Greek it meant “august, stately, majestic” – almost the opposite. (Note that σεμνύνομαι, a verb still used in Mod.Gr. keeps the old meaning ‘be proud of sth’)
Another fascinating facet of any language, which also poses some problems to translators, are idiomatic expressions. People use idioms to make their communication more lively and to express fine nuances. Being polyglots, translators are also aware of the fact that different languages use different idioms to express the same situation. For instance, when it’s raining very heavily and for a long time, in English people say “It’s raining cats and dogs”; in Greek it is βρέχει καρεκλοπόδαρα, i.e. it’s raining legs of chairs, while in French il tombe des cordes, i.e. ropes are coming down. As you see, the Greek and English expressions emphasize the intensity of the rain while the French one points out its density, saying that the rain is continuous (the same image also exists in Turkish: sicim gibi yağmur). Other expressions emphasize the quantity of the water, for instance the German es giesst wie aus Eimern, or the Spanish llueve a cántaros or the English it rains buckets. Eimer is a bucket, while the cántaro is another recipient (a jug) but the image is the same.
Sometimes, there are variations in the same image, for instance to express the notion of achieving two goals with one action, Englishmen kill two birds with one stone, while Greeks use guns and specify exactly the species of the bird – it is two turtledoves that we kill with one shot: μ’ ένα σμπάρο δυο τρυγόνια.
In some cases, idiomatic expressions are identical in two or more languages, or have only minor variations, either because the underlying image is very common, for instance “white like snow”/ “άσπρο σαν το χιόνι”, or because both expressions stem for a common ancestor, usually in the Bible or the classical tradition, for instance the expression add fuel to fire, jeter de l’huile sur le feu, ρίχνω λάδι στη φωτιά, Öl ins Feuer gießen, echar leña al fuego.
Although idiomatic expressions are sometimes classified together with proverbs, what distinguishes them from proverbs is their translatability. Idiomatic expressions usually cannot be translated directly: imagine an English translator translating a Greek novel where a character uses the expression βρέχει καρεκλοπόδαρα into “it is raining chair legs”; not even funny. The reader would tend to interpret the sentence literally, since its metaphoric value is not obvious. This would be a bad translation, but no translator would do such a thing, not even Google Translate: it gives the equivalent, raining cats and dogs.
However, what do you do when there is no exact equivalent? In that case, we sometimes prefer to express the meaning without resorting to an idiom, perhaps compensating elsewhere for the liveliness we failed to convey.
On the other hand, proverbs lend themselves much more easily to literal translation. A picture is worth a thousand words. There is no such thing as a free lunch. You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. The dogs bark but the caravan goes on. This translatability is the reason why in every language there are published collections of international proverbs but there is no collection of international idioms.
Now, there is perhaps an exception to what I said before about idioms: sometimes, when there is no exact equivalent of an idiom, and when the idiom paints an obvious and lively picture, we may be able to translate it, perhaps adding something like “as they say in English”. Some years ago, some journalist translated literally into Greek the expression about a politician having skeletons in the closet or in the cupboard, and the resulting Greek expression, κρύβει σκελετούς στη ντουλάπα του, being lively and clear, has caught on. You see, in Greece we also had politicians hiding some shameful secret of their past, but we didn’t have the expression to describe it. This, however, may be the exception rather than the rule.
Yet another trap awaiting the unaware translator is when the source text contains references to titles of obscure works. Translating titles is not a rewarding task, because at best you can expect to avoid criticism. You have to find out how the title has been translated in the target language, but you won’t get any praise for it, only criticism if you fail. In the pre-Internet days, this was a Herculean task with uncertain outcome, especially because titles lack context. Nowadays, only the most obscure titles resist a good Internet search.
Εδώ είχα σκοπό να αναφέρω μερικά μαργαριτάρια σε μεταφράσεις τίτλων, όπως για παράδειγμα τον πίνακα Le jugement de Paris, Η κρίση του Πάριδος, που αποδόθηκε «Η δίκη των Παρισίων». Και σαν παράδειγμα πολύ δύσκολου τίτλου, το Trust D.E., που ήταν ο τίτλος μιας σοβιετικής τζαζ-όπερας ή κάτι τέτοιο στη δεκ. του 1920, που χωρίς συμφραζόμενα και χωρίς διάθεση να ψάξει η μεταφράστρια των Απομνημονευμάτων του Σοστακόβιτς τον μετέφρασε «Εμπιστεύσου τον Δ.Ε.», ενώ ο τίτλος είναι από νουβέλα του Έρενμπουργκ, και πρόκειται για τραστ. Κι αυτό όμως δεν αντέχει σε μια αναζήτηση με το γκουγκλ. Θα αναφέρω σε άλλο άρθρο μια περίπτωση όπου το γκουγκλ ΔΕΝ βοηθάει.
The Internet can help in other ways as well. For instance, when I was young I translated the Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett’s crime novel. At some point, the detective, Sam Spade (played by Humphrey Bogart in the movie version), speaks to a young conman who has come to San Francisco from New York and tells him “Baumes rush?” This is quite opaque. It took me several long days searching here and there, to find out what this cryptic question meant. Nowadays, with a simple Google search it is easy to find out that: Senator Caleb H. Baumes sponsored a New York law (the Baumes Law) which called for automatic life imprisonment of any criminal convicted more than three times. Some criminals would move to a state that didn’t have this law in order to avoid its penalty should they be caught again, and this was known as a “Baumes rush,” because of the similarity to “bum’s rush.” Back then, I was quite proud when I finally found out about Senator Baumes, so I entered all this information in a footnote to inform the reader about it. At least I was correct. Other colleagues were not so lucky.
For instance, in the distant past, there was a Frenchman who translated the novel “The Spy” by James Fenimore Cooper, and he reached a point where a man is represented as tying his horse to a locust. Now, locust is the well-known insect, also called the grasshopper. But there is also a kind of tree, named the locust-tree, which is sometimes shortened to locust as well. Not understanding that locust was the locust-tree, our unlucky colleague translated the word as “sauterelle” (i.e. grasshopper) and, feeling that some explanation was due, he gravely explained in a note that grasshoppers grew to an enormous size in America, and that one of them, dead and stuffed, was placed at the door of the mansion for the convenience of visitors on horseback!
Another case where the translator, vaguely conscious that his version lacks intelligibility, increases the fun by volunteering explanations, is that of another Frenchman who rendered a “Welsh rabbit” (in one of Sir Walter Scott’s novels) as “a rabbit of Wales”, and then inserted a footnote explaining that the superior flavour of the rabbits of Wales led to a great demand for them in Scotland, to which place they were consequently forwarded in considerable numbers. Just in case, a Welsh rabbit (or rarebit) is neither Welsh nor a rabbit, but it is a kind of melted cheese on toast.
Nowadays, such mistakes would have been easily avoided thanks to the Internet, but I claim that the Internet is also indispensable to translators and interpreters for another reason: Ours has long been a lonely profession. The Internet gives us the unique opportunity to reach out to colleagues all over the world for mutual help and networking and to communicate with experts in every conceivable field. We also have our professional forums, such as Proz.com or its Greek equivalent, Lexilogia, where we can find help in our enquiries and get to know other colleagues.
It is this desire, to get to know some more colleagues, that has prompted me to come here and speak to you, so I want to thank you for listening to my speech so patiently. Thank you.