LOST IN TRANSLATION by Rob Johnson
One of the most daunting obstacles that my wife Penny and I had to overcome when we moved from the UK to Greece fourteen years ago was learning the language. We’d done our best with a variety of books and CDs for months in advance, but we soon discovered that there all kinds of traps for the linguistically unwary.
In particular, there are many examples in Greek where two words are spelt exactly the same but mean something entirely different, depending on which syllable is stressed. This can lead to some highly embarrassing – and sometimes downright dangerous – situations if you happen to put the stress in the wrong place. For instance, the word for glass is tzámι (TZA-mee) and the word for mosque is tzamí (tza-MEE), which could have proved a little awkward when we needed to order a replacement for a broken window in our camper van.
Similarly, there are many pairs of words that are remarkably similar, such as domáta (tomato) and domátιo (room), and also kounávι (pine marten) and kounιáda (sister-in-law). Unless you’re very careful, therefore, you could easily find yourself phoning a hotel and asking for “a double tomato for my wife and I, and a separate tomato for my pine marten.” Somehow I think you’d be told that the hotel was booked solid for the next several months.
Besides having to be careful with your pronunciation in Greece, you also need to be wary of using slang or idioms when talking to an English-speaking Greek, regardless of how fluent they might be. Since I’d previously taught English as a foreign language, this was something that wasn’t at all new to me. Penny, on the other hand, had had no such background, and I often found myself having to “translate” some of her more obscure words and phrases such as “That’s a different kettle of fish altogether” and “It all went a bit pear-shaped”. She wasn’t entirely happy about my frequently correcting her, but she did get her revenge one day when I inadvertently used an expression that plenty of native English speakers probably wouldn’t even know.
The gaffe happened when we were talking to a guy called Dionysis, who runs our local olive press. We’d been telling him that we were just about to go back to the UK for a week or two and we were desperately trying to get everything sorted out on the land before we left.
‘One of the biggest jobs is getting all the grass cut,’ I said.
‘Yes,’ said Dionysis, ‘and at this time of year, it keeps growing back again as soon as you’ve cut it.’
‘Exactly,’ I said. ‘So with 20,000 square metres [5 acres], you have to start all over again as soon as you’ve finished. It’s like painting the Forth Road Bridge.’
I knew it was a mistake the moment the words were out of my mouth, and Penny shot me a look which could only be interpreted as “Oh yes, Mr English Teacher, and I thought we weren’t supposed to use that sort of language.”
But it was too late. The simile was already out of the bag, and Dionysis pounced on it before I had a chance to explain.
‘So you have your own bridge in England, do you?’ he said, clearly but erroneously impressed.
‘No, not at all. It’s just an expression which means that—’
‘And that is why you’re going back to England? To paint this bridge of yours?’
To Penny’s obvious amusement, I floundered to come up with an explanation of what the phrase means, and eventually Dionysis seemed to understand. Or so I thought.
After we’d come back from the UK, Dionysis and his family invited us to their traditional Easter Sunday celebrations, and after lunch, I was sitting having a drink with Dionysis and some of his brothers-in-law (he has several) when he suddenly announced, ‘Robert has his own bridge in England, you know.’
Five pairs of eyes popped in surprise.
‘No, no,’ I began, but Dionysis was warming to his theme.
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘and he had to go back to England recently to paint it.’
I tried to interject and disabuse Dionysis and his brothers-in-law of the idea that Penny and I must be incredibly wealthy if we could afford to own an entire bridge, but by now, the floodgates were open, and I was bombarded with questions.
‘So how big is this bridge?’ asked one brother-in-law.
‘Well, it’s about two and a half kilometres long, I think, but we don’t actually—’
‘Wow,’ said another brother-in-law. ‘That’s nearly as big as the Rio Bridge.’
‘How many litres of paint do you need?’
‘The thing is, you see, we—’
‘What colour do you paint it?’
‘No, you don’t underst—’
‘Do you do all the work yourselves or do you have help?’
As if my awkward embarrassment couldn’t have got any more acute, Dionysis then threw in that this was our “fourth” road bridge.
Eyes popped even wider.
‘You have three other bridges?’
‘But painting just one of them must be a never-ending job.’
I attempted to explain that this was pretty much the point of what I’d been trying to convey in the first place, but I was interrupted by one of the brothers-in-law insisting that everyone drink a toast to ‘Robert and Penny’s road bridges!’
Penny, of course, has never let me forget the Forth Road Bridge fiasco, and since then, I’ve never once dared to pick her up on her use of even the most obscure of English idioms. With what I consider to be one of the cruellest of ironies, though, I’ve since discovered that a far more durable paint has been developed which means that, in future, the Forth Road Bridge will only need to be repainted once in every twenty-five years. So, there’s another stitch lost from the rich tapestry of the English language, albeit a potentially rather confusing one.