GTAGE: The Tsipras Edition Part #3

By: | Post date: 2017-10-28 | Comments: No Comments
Posted in categories: Linguistics, Modern Greek

In two previous posts, I had gone through the Golden Treasury of Anglo-Greek Expressions (GTAGE) approach to Alexis Tsipras’ odd translation of the Greek saying

We’ve eaten the donkey—and the tail has been left over for us. (Or: We’ve gone and eaten a donkey; are we to get stuck on the tail?)


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

This is the third iteration, using the material in Tripranslate: The useful app that translates 13 most wise proverbs into Tsipras English. The material is not as rich there; in fact, in patches it’s lame (and there are better suggestions in the comments). But there’s a couple of interesting bits still; and I had said I was going to do this a couple of weeks ago.

I’ll pause to comment on the site it comes from: Luben?

Luben is a transliteration of λούμπεν. Λούμπεν in turn is a word that originates in a Latin-alphabet language, and that’s not what it sounds like there. It’s lumpen:


Of or relating to social outcasts.
Of or relating to the lumpenproletariat.

Lumpenproletariat is a term that was originally coined by Karl Marx to describe the layer of the working class that is unlikely ever to achieve class consciousness and is therefore lost to socially useful production, of no use to the revolutionary struggle, and perhaps even an impediment to the realization of a classless society. The word is derived from the German word Lumpenproletarier, “Lumpen” literally meaning “miscreant” as well as “rag”. The Marxist Internet Archive writes that “[lumpenproletariat] identifies the class of outcast, degenerated and submerged elements that make up a section of the population of industrial centers” which include “beggars, prostitutes, gangsters, racketeers, swindlers, petty criminals, tramps, chronic unemployed or unemployables, persons who have been cast out by industry, and all sorts of declassed, degraded or degenerated elements.”

The word is used in English, but it shouldn’t be that surprising that, especially in its truncated form, it is far more commonly used in Greek.

Ancient Greek /mb/ and /mp/ ended up pronounced in Modern Greek as [mb], and many dialects of Modern Greek, such as Cretan, ended up pronouncing it as [b]—as do Standard Greek speakers under 60. The distinction between [mb] and [b] is not phonemic, which means that native speakers of Modern Greek are unaware of it: they’d have no reason to think that /lu[m]ben/ is actually <lumpen> originally.

(They would of course differentiate them if they’re bilingual with one of those languages; manuscripts from the Cretan Renaissance in Latin script, for instance, do differentiate <mp>, <mb> and <b>—to the extent that editions of those texts in Greek script (Fortounatos) resort to diacritics to differentiate them. But to pick up on the spelling of <lumpen>, you’d have to be either bilingual in German, or bilingual in English plus exposed to Marxism in English.)

I’m going to quickly dispatch the Tsipranslate offerings consisting purely of replacing random animals with “camel”:

Σκυλί που γαβγίζει δε δαγκώνει: A camel that barks does not bite
“All bark and no bite”, the original being “a dog”.
Το λέω στο σκύλο μου κι ο σκύλος στην ουρά του: I tell it to my camel and my camel tells it to its queue
Original: I tell it to my dog and the dog tells it to its tail.
Του δίναν γάιδαρο και τον κοίταζε στα δόντια: He was offered a camel, and he was looking it at its teeth.
Original: “donkey”. Corresponds to “looking a gift horse in the mouth”
Τρία πουλάκια κάθονταν: Three little camels sitting.
Original: “little birds”. The phrase is a misconstrual of a ballad, with the typical use of magical animals in ballad:

Τρία πουλάκια κάθονταν στου Διάκου το ταμπούρι
το ’να τηράει τη Λειβαδιά και τ’ άλλο το Ζητούνι,
το τρίτο το καλύτερο μοιρολογάει και λέει
Three little birds sat at Diakos’ fort.
One watches Livadia, the other watches Zitouni [Lamia],
the third and best one laments and says…

Because the birds are looking in different directions, the phrase now proverbially means to someone being absent-minded, not paying attention.

Κάλλιο γαϊδουρόδενε παρά γαϊδουρογύρευε: Better camel-tie, than camel-toe
Original: Better to tie up a donkey than to go looking for a donkey, with the oddity of making “tie a donkey” and “seek a donkey” single verbs. I guess “camel-tie” made “camel-toe” inevitable.

A few more are deliberate misrenderings of ambiguous words:

Μαζί με τον βασιλικό ποτίζεται και η γλάστρα: Together with the monarchists the pot is also watered
Properly: “Together with the basil plant, the flower pot also is watered”, referring to unintended benefits for third parties. (Do we have a saying for that in English.) Basil means “the royal plant”, βασιλικός, and the adjective “royal” is also applies to royalists.
Η περιέργεια σκότωσε τη γάτα: The weirdness killed the camel
Curiosity killed the cat, of course; Greek uses the same word for the active sense (curiosity, finding things curious), and the passive sense (weirdness, being found curious by others).
Σιγά τον πολυέλαιο: Slow the very oil
An old, old instance in GTAGE: πολυέλαιος “many-oil” is the word for a candelabra, which consisted of multiple oil lamps. There is a large class of “slow the X” expressions, meaning “big deal!”, all of which are also popular in GTAGE; “slow!” there means “take it easy,” so “take it easy on the eggs/the vegetables/the candelabra” is (somehow) a proverbial encouragement not to become overwrought.
Αλλού βαρούν τα όργανα αλλού χορεύει η νύφη: Elsewhere hurt the organs, elsewhere dances the bride
“The instruments strike up in one place, the bride dances in another.” Organon (which is cognate with ergon “work”) is the Greek word used for an instrument in general, and for a musical instrument in particular; that’s why pipe organs (reintroduced to the West as a Byzantine present to Charlemagne’s father) are called that. Organs of the body are so called because they are also considered to be instruments. Musical instruments are struck in vernacular Greek, and thence they strike (up) intransitively. Which the GTAGE rendering mangles in turn to the organs hurting.

As commenter Apostolos Zafeirakoglou pointed out, “Guys, you’ve made a little mistake. νύφη in English is “camel”.

Ο σκοπός αγιάζει τα μέσα: The guard justifies the media
As far back as Homer, the word skopos was ambiguous between someone doing the watching (a watchman, a guard), and something you watch out for (a literal target, a mark for an archer, in Homer; the metaphorical meaning “aim, intention” dates from Plato.)

Media in Greek are μέσα μαζικής ενημέρωσης “means (of mass communications). In rendering media as “means”, Greek is merely recapitulating the metaphor of Latin media: as a channel of communication, they are what is in between the sender and the recipient, and the mechanism through which the communication happens.

So. “Guard” is ambiguous with “aim, intention”, and “media” with “means”. This is of course merely “the ends justify the means”; and the Tripranslate translator has betrayed his familiarity with the English version: the Greek says not “justify”, but “sanctify, hallow”.

As indeed pointed out by commenter Anna Paparizou Fatsi: it should read “the guard saints the media”.

This is also a misrendering of a kind-of ambiguous word, if you allow misaccentuation:

Σπίτι δίχως Γιάννη προκοπή δεν κάνει: A home without John Paki does not make
“A house without a John in it will have (“make”) no prosperity (/prokoˈpi/).” If you mis-stress /prokoˈpi/ you get the accusative of the proper name Prokopis /proˈkopi/. The current president of Greece is Prokopis Pavlopoulos, and his nickname is Pakis.
I didn’t think that was funny, but several people on Facebook seem to have.

And that leaves this:

Τον αράπη κι αν τον πλένεις το σαπούνι σου χαλάς: The afroamerican as much as you wash, your soap you break
“If you wash a moor, you’re wasting [ruining] your soap.” The original is as old as Aesop (Washing the Ethiopian white). The less problematic current rendering of the sense is from Aesop’s contemporary Jeremiah in the Hebrew Scriptures, about leopards changing their spots; but Jeremiah also used the same expression as Aesop: “Can the Nubian change his skin or the leopard his spots?”

I momentarily contemplated leaving this one out, but of course that would be whitewashing itself. Yes, the saying in current Western society is reasonably construed as racist. No, the saying in ancient society—and I’d suggest even in early modern European society—was exoticising rather than racist per se. (“How strange, black people have a different skin colour, which is emblematic of people’s nature not changing” vs “Black people have a different skin colour, which is emblematic of them being filthy or morally corrupt.”) The Wikipedia article has a good run down of how the interpretation of the saying evolved to the worse in Western Europe.

Of course, if you don’t see black people in daily life, it’s easy to exoticise them; the appearance of the arapis “moor” in Greek folk tale in fact is all about exoticism. (That’s also why I’m rendering arapis as the old word Moor in this context.) Sometimes the Moor is benevolent, sometimes he is malevolent; but consistently, the Moor is otherworldly, and supernatural: he occupies the same role as ogres or fairies occupy in other fairy tales. He’s not an ordinary human like the Greeks and Turks that show up in fairy tales.

If you don’t see black people in daily life, sure; it is worth pointing out, though, that Greeks in the Ottoman Empire did have the opportunity to see black people—Sudanese Muslims that moved to Greece, either as slaves or as porters. In fact, the vernacular word for black people, arapis, is derived from Arab. There was a recent article on the black Greeks of the village Avato in Thrace; the khalikoutides of Crete, who ended up expelled to Turkey as Muslims, are better known. The black Greeks of Thrace have plenty of prejudice to recount (“What are you doing here?”); and the fact that χαλικούτης in Cretan now means “filthy, outcast” is likely not just a reference to the poor living conditions of the Sudanese porters in Khania.

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