I love the old ‘Bee Gees’ songs. Do you remember the one about ‘words’? You don’t need to be an Einstein or a Gertrude Stein to know how words can trigger bells in the mind of a writer. I thought of the song the other day while checking bonus points from my local supermarket. When you live in a country which has three official languages – Greek, Turkish and English, that fact often provides fodder for an article.
Both my kids whose father died when they were six and eleven (and now have kids of their own) worked as translators while studying in order to earn much needed cash. At the time videos were emerging in Cyprus and there was work for translators. The quality of the work depended on how well the translator knew English and Greek because it was not uncommon for bad mistakes in Greek spelling or incorrect interpretation of what colloquial words really meant to appear on screen.
I worked at the first video club in Cyprus, which was opened by a friend of my late husband. I wrote synopses for the films and was savvy on every aspect of hundreds of movies. Always a big movie buff, I was in heaven. I was even asked to do a column for a local English language newspaper on the subject that I really enjoyed doing. Thus, the kids and I had free access to all the films that came in. The age gap between my son and daughter meant material had to be suitable for both. We were watching a mild action movie one evening which caused us to erupt into laughter. The reason was not the script; it was the subtitles running below the pictures.
Having grown up in Howth, Dublin and a keen visitor to the late, great Sutton Cinema from a very young age, I was more than familiar with American accents and words. The translator apparently was not. We were ‘down south’ with the good ole boys and the youngest of the group was referred to as ‘Purty Boy’. So, the script was littered with references to the ‘pretty boy’. The subtitles were littered with the word ‘fart’…which, in Cypriot-Greek, is pronounced ‘purtos’. Thus the translator gave the poor actor flatulence the script writer had never intended.
In fairness, it has to be said that the majority of Greek Cypriots speak good English. Education is a high priority here. When I was teaching English as a second language I used to keep labels and brochures from various electrical items to show my class how at best, bad translation could give you a good laugh or at worst, cause instruction confusion.
Years ago, there was a water bottling company which did not last long. One reason might have been the fact that, again, incorrect spelling created a question mark. What the copy writer, who apparently did not own a dictionary, wanted to be taken for source, had in fact, written a phonetic ‘sewers’. I don’t think too many people would rush to buy water ‘bottled at our sewers’!
So, why did my supermarket bill and two words thereon make me smile? A couple jumped out at me. The first was coslow. Had I accidentally bought some exotic foreign product? It stumped me for a second until I realised it was coleslaw, which was correctly printed on the product. And the next brought to mind a film shown in Cyprus ad infinitum at Easter time, in which Kirk Douglas, he of the clenched dimples and muscles, plays the hero of a slave revolt. There on my neatly printed list stood ‘Cream of Aspartacus Soup’. Oh lowly asparagus, how exalted you have become…and not in the least revolting either.