GTAGE: The Tsipras Edition Part #1

By: | Post date: 2017-10-22 | Comments: 4 Comments
Posted in categories: Linguistics, Modern Greek

Before I stopped posing on this blog six years ago, I’d inaugurated GTAGE, a series on comically literal translations of Greek into English, motivated by’s Golden Treasury of Anglo-Greek Expressions. I think these are useful in teaching Greek, because they help illustrate some at times unexpected discrepancies between Greek and English.

In his recent trip to the US, Greek PM Alexis Tsipras gave a talk to the Brookings Institute, during which he mangled a Greek proverb. I’ve linked to Nikos Sarantakos’ blog account of it; as a Greek language blog, Sarantakos is obligated to comment on it, although there has been some controversy over whether Sarantakos’ commentary was more benign than it has been for malapropisms by politicians he doesn’t support. Since εδώ λεξιλογούμε δεν πολιτικολογούμε (“we talk lexicography here not politics”), as Sarantakos’ blog used to say 😉 , I’m going to pass by whether Tsipras’ English has improved or not since he made PM, whether he should have availed himself of an interpreter, and whether he is a cooler PM than his predecessor.

The proverb he inexplicably mangled was Φάγαμε τον γάιδαρο και μας απόμεινε η ουρά, “we’ve eaten the donkey—and the tail has been left over for us.” The version I’m more familiar with may be a little less opaque: Εδώ φάγαμε τον γάιδαρο, στην ουρά θα κολλήσουμε; “We’ve gone and eaten a donkey; are we to get stuck on the tail?” In case that was still opaque: if we are to undertake something large and distasteful (like, for example, eating a donkey), we should not hesitate and get stuck on minor details towards the end (like, for example, eating the donkey tail).

The point of the proverb, of course, is that eating a donkey is gross. For some reason, Tsipras avoided mentioning the donkey at all. The proverb does have a variant with an ox, and he didn’t mention oxen either. He decided to mention camels instead.

(If he thought Americans would consider eating camels less gross than eating camels, he didn’t know his audience well. If he was avoiding the word ass for donkey, we’ve been able to do that in English for the past four centuries. If he’d forgotten the English for “donkey”… well, at least that’s somewhat more plausible.)

The other thing Tsipras seems to have forgotten is the word for “tail”. He didn’t say “tail”. He said “queue”.

Now, in Greek, and for that matter in French, where queue comes from, a queue is a tail. Still, queue is clearly the more marked sense compared to tail; it’s a decidedly odd thing to mistranslate. (Unless Tsipras’ French is much better than his English.)


There is an expression in Greece, “We have already eaten the camel, now we have the queue.”

… As it so often does nowadays, social media went bananas, coining new Tsipras-isms, many of them on Twitter with the hashtags #tsipranslate or #tsipras_proverbs. The GTAGE thread in shows that this kind of thing has been going on for a while. And as I did with GTAGE, I’m claiming these for paedagogy.

I start with the Facebook meme. In the next post, I’ll graduate to someone’s continuation of it on Facebook. And then I’ll go through a listicle of them.

Years and Zamania I have to come to America.
Greek has plenty of loans from Turkish, but it has a lot less of them than it used to. Because of the campaign to get rid of Turkish and Italian loans in Greek, many loanwords are now forgotten entirely. A few of them survive only in a single formulaic expression; and if people understand them at all, it is only by context.

φελέκι is such an instance. People say γαμώ το φελέκι μου “fuck my felek!” still, and if they don’t say it, they’ve certainly heard it. But that’s the only time they’ll use felek, and they’ll have no idea what it actually means: in fact the first four Google hits I get for φελέκι are the Wiktionary definition (hit #3), and no less than three articles explaining “what is the felek that we all keep fucking?” (It’s the Turkish for “misfortune”, from Arabic falak “globe, wheel of fortune”; and the hellenised variant γαμώ την ατυχία μου also circulates.)

zaman is also such a word. In Turkish it means “time, period”, and it derives from Persian zamān. If you google, you’ll see that it used to be used somewhat more widely; e.g. μια φορά κι ένα ζαμάνι “at one time and one zaman” = “once upon a time” (the only expression now is μια φορά κι έναν καιρό “at one time and one season”); or the Cretan folk song ζαμάνια το ’χα να σε δω “it’s been zamans since I’ve seen you.” (2:06 of the recording by Nikos Xilouris.)

Even when it was used more widely, it would be paired with a Greek word: μια φορά κι ένα ζαμάνι, where ζαμάνι has been replaced by καιρός; and in Xilouris’ folk song, it’s paired with καιρός itself:

Ζαμάνια το ’χα να σε ιδώ καιρούς να σε ανταμώσω,
και αγρίεψες μου σαν μουρλή και πώς να σε ημερώσω
It’s been zamans since I’ve seen you, seasons since I’ve met you;
you’ve gone wild on me like a madwoman. How am I to tame you now?

Now zaman survives in only one fixed  expression, which again pairs it with an equivalent Greek word: χρόνια και ζαμάνια έχω να Χ, “I have years and zamans to X” = “it’s been ages since I’ve X.” The object years and zamans has been fronted before the verb, for emphasis; it adds to the emphasis already provided by the repetition in “years and zamans”.

If the meme writer doesn’t know exactly what a zaman is in Greek, he’s hardly going to know what it is in English either. And after Tsipras’ GTAGE torrent, that’s the word the hapless Trump gets stuck on.

You’ll notice another oddity in the phrase though. Greek can express the notion of “it’s has been [duration] since I have [done X]” with an impersonal predicate, close to English: Έχει πολλά χρόνια που δεν επισκέπτονται τα χωριά μας Βούλγαροι και λοιποί Βαλκάνιοι “it has many years (= it has been many years) that Bulgarians and other Balkan peoples don’t visit our villages.” Greek also allows the construction to be personalised, raising the embedded subject: Έχω πολλά χρόνια που δεν ασχολούμαι πλέον με την κριτική του κινηματογράφου “I have many years that I am no longer involved in film criticism.”

Those constructions use relative clauses and the present indicative tense in the negative, as you would expect for a description of what has in actuality not been happening in that time. But Greek also permits the perfective  subjunctive to be used instead in the affirmative: that expresses what could or might have happened in that time, but still hasn’t: Έχω πολλά χρόνια να ψηφίσω με την καρδιά μου “I have many years that I (could but haven’t) voted enthusiastically.” The perfective (aorist) subjunctive is how you would express an intent, a goal: θέλω να ψηφίσω με την καρδιά μου “I want to vote enthusiastically (but I can’t).” In this context then, “I have zamans that I should have seen you” (ζαμάνια το ’χα να σε ιδώ) expresses an unrealised goal, not just the fact that the event hasn’t happened.

If you’re being subtle in linguistic explication, you translate this subjunctive with a modal verb, “that I should have seen you”. But GTAGE does not rely on subtle linguistic explication. The default translation of the Greek subjunctive is the English infinitive, and that’s what the meme puts in Tsipras’ mouth, with the fronted object likewise left in place.

So, to re-English the expression in stages:

  • Years and zamans I have to come to America
  • I have absolute years and zamans to come to America (the fronting was for emphasis)
    • The true English equivalent of the fronting would have been a cleft: It’s years and zamans that I have to come to America. But that’s going to clash with the impersonal predicate I introduce back in later.
  • I have absolute years and zamans that I have not come to America (recast the prospective subjunctive into the retrospective indicative)
  • It has been absolute years and zamans that I have not come to America (un-raise the personal subject)
  • It has been absolute years and zamans since I last came to America (using the actual idiomatic English for duration of inaction)
  • It has been absolute ages since I last came to America (using the actual idiomatic English for long periods)

Phew. The rest of these are going to be a lot easier.

Last time I was here I saw the Christ soldier.
We have actually already seen this proverbial expression in GTAGE, “he saw G.I. Christ”:


Again, GTAGE levels syntactic subtlety for comic expediency: είδα το Χριστό φαντάρο is actually “I saw Christ as a conscript”, where the low-ranking conscript is an Everyman figure. As I commented back in 2010, seeing Christ as a lowly Everyman is very sound theology, but nonsense as far as the folk understanding of Christianity goes, which only gets the God part of Christ:

For someone to see with their mind’s eye Christ voided, as a lowly Everyman (and as a contemporary Everyman at that), they must be pretty far gone. Accordingly, the phrase is used to indicate that someone has been driven to extremes, that he has been pressed or worked so hard, that he is hallucinating, and seeing manifest absurdities.

I come back like the unfair curse
Some deliberate mistranslation here: “come back” is one of the meanings of γυρίζω, but the original meaning, and the one intended in the proverbial expression γυρίζω σαν την άδικη κατάρα, is “to go around, to wander”. The expression refers to someone wandering ceaselessly and pointlessly, without any rest, as if haunted by a curse—and an unjust curse at that. (We couldn’t very well sympathise with the person if the curse was deserved.)

So Tsipras is complaining that he is stuck wandering the globe, as if for a kind of undeserved penance.

Not so far from the truth, you might say.

because it breaks her to me
GTAGE is obscurantist enough without spelling mistakes: μου τη σπάει is “it breaks her to me”, not “it brakes her to me”.

The expression means “it pisses me off, it shits me, it upsets me”, and it joins of others: μου τη δίνει “it gives her to me”, μου τη χαλάει “it ruins her to me.” There’s a dummy subject here, “it”; it usually refers to a situation we find unpleasant, although does have an example with a personal subject instead: Και πάντα χαμογελάει από πάνω και παίρνει και το μέρος του μπόση έτσι χωρίς λόγο απλά και μόνο για να μου τη σπάσει! “And he keeps smiling and taking the boss’ side, for no particular reason, just to shit me.”

GTAGE of course delights in this kind of expression because of its dummy indirect object, which is feminine. Such feminine indirect and direct objects occur far and wide in Greek expressions, where they refer to someone’s good mood: cf. έλα να τη βρούμε “come let us find her” = “let’s have a good time”, and/or “let’s have sex”. In fact you will see it sometimes elaborated as τη ζαχαρένια μου “my sugary one” μη μου χαλάς τη ζαχαρένια μου “don’t ruin my sugary good mood.” The missing feminine noun could be anything from χαρά “joy” to καλοπέραση “having a good time” to ησυχία “peace”. (I’m reluctant to admit διάθεση “mood”, as not vernacular enough.)

The indirect object is another misalignment between Greek and English: μη μου χαλάς τη διάθεση “don’t ruin to me the mood” (“don’t ruin the mood for me”) maps onto “don’t ruin my mood”, with the indirect object used where English would use a possessor, to indicate the person affected. μη μου χαλάς τη ζαχαρένια μου of course uses both possessor and indirect object; but if you use an indirect object, it’s easier to drop the object: “don’t ruin the mood for me” > “don’t ruin it for me” vs “don’t ruin my mood” > ??“don’t ruin mine.”

Of course, the indirect object is more benefactive than recipient, and “don’t ruin it for me” would be more comprehensible than “don’t break it to me”. But where would the fun in that be?

We owe our horns to the banks
Way before the alt-right revived it, the English language used to be preoccupied with cuckoldry as an insult, and Shakespeare used to be full of references to horns as veiled digs at people around infidelity. Greek hasn’t moved on from “horns” the way English had; and κέρατο “horn” is still used to refer to cuckoldry.

It also refers by extension to something or someone that we find infuriating; that corresponds to English fucker or fuck. The example from Wiktionary is: μου ’βαλε αυτό το κέρατο στο χολ και έκλεισε όλο το διάδρομο “she put that fucker in the hallway and blocked the corridor”.

Wiktionary also notes the usage here: τα κέρατά μου “my horns = my cuckoldries” refers to a very large quantity of something—and given the negative connotation of “horn”, the large quantity is a bad thing. The example given there is από την ώρα που ήρθε έχει πιει τα κέρατά του “since he got here he’s drunk his cuckoldries” = “he’s drunk to monstrous excess”. In the meme, Tsipras complains that Greece owes the banks “its horns = its  cuckoldries”, i.e. a monstrous amount of money.

but we make three-blanket parties
Like zaman, the adjective τρικούβερτος is limited to fixed expressions; this time, two of them. The only two things that can be τρικούβερτος are fights (καβγάς), and parties (γλέντι).

The words for fight and party are Turkish, but τρικούβερτος is Venetian: having three covertas. The only sense of coverta that survives in Greek now is “blanket”, so unless you’ve gone to a dictionary, the only possible explanation of τρικούβερτος is “having three blankets”. Which makes no sense either for fights or for parties.

As explained in Wiktionary (and, again, in any number of helpful online articles—as with “what is the felek that we all keep fucking?”), a coverta was also the deck of a sailship, and warships up until the 19th century were typically three-deckers. So if either a fight or a party was a three-decker (τρικούβερτο), it involved all three decks of a ship—meaning its full crew, both sailors and officers.

No, the meme creator likely didn’t know that. I didn’t either! Even if he did, he’d have pretended not to: three-blanket parties sound better.

Catch the egg and give it a haircut, you know.
It wouldn’t be GTAGE if it didn’t have a slight mistranslation: in πιάσ’ το αυγό και κούρευ’ το, the first verb could be “catch”, but it can also be just “take”. The proverb refers to something being a waste of time—as pointless as trying to give an egg a haircut. The proverb does not also need to conjure up ideas of breaking eggs mid-air. Unless this is GTAGE.

Meme Tsipras looks incoherent in English (“… Zamania?”), and not that much more coherent in Greek. But, even if the meme author was grabbing for hard-to-translate proverbial expressions hither and thither, there is a narrative there:

  • I haven’t been to the US in a very long time.
  • Last time was very unpleasant. (He is after all a committed Eurocommunist; and his embrace of Trump has been seen as enough of a betrayal by the Greek Left to have earned him this cartoon by Arkas, with a communist partisan from the Greek Civil War holding up a red banner of capitulation.)
  • He has come back to the US like someone condemned by an unfair curse to wander the world—pointlessly.
  • He has come back to US under duress—the situation in Greece is pissing him off.
  • Greece is massively in debt.
  • But Greece parties like Nelson’s crew after Trafalgar.
  • It’s all as pointless as giving an egg a haircut. (Where “all” includes Tsipras’ visit.)

You know something? I think the meme author has made Tsipras come across as more self-aware than they intended…


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