The first time I noticed it was back in 2000 when I attended a friend’s wedding. «Να ζήσετε,» I wished his exuberant bride.
“And to yours,” she responded.
“What?” I asked, taken aback.
«Και στα δικά σου,» my newlywed friend translated, whereupon I was able to place the response into context. Up until that moment, I had been unaware of the general trend, then in its infancy, of Greek-Australians rendering Greek stock wishes and expressions into English.
Attending subsequent nuptials closer to my own wedding day, I would be accosted by well-wishers exclaiming: “The time is good” or “Good times” or “Good timing”.
Perceiving a look of incomprehension upon my visage, they would add by way of elucidation: «η ώρα η καλή,» casting a glance of pity for someone who was unable to understand something so self-evident.
The story I often retell, of a particularly earnest young lady who upon learning that I was affianced, hastened to wish me “Good Crowns” (καλά στέφανα), may well be apocryphal, if it were not for the fact that it actually happened, outside Psarakos Market in Northcote, subsequent to her enquiring as to whether or not I had “given logies.” It was a calque that led me to the conviction that all married Orthodox faithful, are by nature of their wedding ceremony, implicated as monarchists, whatever political opinions they may proclaim they hold.
My friend then proceeded to warn me against entering the institution of marriage rashly and seeing that she could not dissuade me from my chosen path, sighed in resignation: “May God kiss you.”
“What?” I exclaimed.
«O Θεός να σε φιλάει», she elucidated.
“You mean, «Ο Θεός να με φυλάει;»
“Yeah, that’s what I said,” she shrugged, highlighting the problem of literal translation into a language that distinguishes not between the hypsilons, iotas, and the etas of the vowel species.
On my own wedding day, relatives and friends were most anxious to wish me “Many years” and of course, “may you live,” which is also quite handy, when one is entering into what one hopes, will be a life-long enterprise. One particularly imaginative and thoughtful friend, wished me “a happy, flower strewn life,” which, by now attuned to the linguistic trends of the times, I was able to decode as the traditional blessing: «βίον ευτυχήν και ανθόσπαρτον». The brilliance of this blessing lies in the fact that the nature of the flower is not specified, so that one is already aware of the fact that life is not a bed of roses. Ever since, I have tiptoed through the tulip fields of my life, with glee.
Soon enough, translated Greek phrases began to appear in all manifestations of my Greek Australian life, even though I still could not understand the reason for their existence. Obviously, the creators of the English calques understood the meaning of the Greek they were translating, so what was the need for their creation in the first place? Was it linguistic arrogance, deriving from an assumption that the recipient of their wishes would not understand the ubiquitous Greek? Was it a desire to expunge Greek from the daily discourse of the Greek-Australian? Or rather, was it that here, before our own unsuspecting eyes, a deep, dark nefarious plot was unfolding, having as its sole aim, the subversion of the English language as spoken in Australia by semantic and cultural constructions from one of its most important minority groups?
Granted, linguistic consternation is compounded by the fact that despite being born and bred in these climes, among many of us, our compendium of standard wishes for Australian social events is rather limited. This especially applies to applicable wishes for other ethnic minorities, whereupon many of us, fall upon literal translations of Greek originals. However, visiting a friend who has just had a baby and wishing them: “May she live,” only to have the formerly beaming mother snap: “What are you trying to say? That my baby is sick?” is a most sobering experience and not for the faint hearted. Some expressions of yesteryear, reflecting antiquated values of old, are best kept within the community. It does not do, for example, to wish a pregnant non-Greek friend: “And with a boy” («και με ένα γιο»). Attempts to wish someone outside the tribe «και με έναν πόνο», rendered as: “And with one pain,” will elicit looks of mystified indignation. Similarly, wishing a pregnant feminist: “Good Freedom” or “Happy Liberation,” («καλή λευτεριά»), a most singular event I have borne witness to, is not advisable, no matter how culturally sensitive she is, unless you are able dexterously to turn the discourse to a discussion of Mao’s revolutionary tactics.
For some reason this linguistic conundrum, has crossed the semantic divide, into our own community. Funerals are a case in point. At any given funeral these days, there will invariably someone who will come to wish the deceased’s relatives, “Life to you.” Turning to the assembled mourners, they will address them by wishing “Life to us.” («Ζωή σε μας/ζωή σε σας»). At one particular funeral, the attempt to preserve the Greek second person plural, indistinguishable in English, led to the rendering “Life to youse.” Similarly, at one of my uncle’s funerals, one of the attendees solemnly wished me: “Life to your words.” At first, I took this as an observation as to the deadness of my prose and it was only upon reflection that I understood this to be a valiant attempt to render: «Ζωή σε λόγου σας», into the English.
Some of the more philosophical have been heard to comment: “He has left us years.” («μας άφησε χρόνους»), while sipping coffee in their relatives hitherto disused σαλόνι, while the more religiously minded will cluck “Memory eternal” («Αιωνία η μνήμη»), and may even venture a tentative, “May the soil that covers him be not so heavy,” («ας είναι ελαφρύ το χώμα που τον σκεπάζει») spoken at a funeral of a friend’s father, before a massive granite sepulchre. Some phrases that sound innocuous in Greek, assume interesting connotations in English. “May God forgive her” («Θεός σχωρέσ’ την»), implies that the deceased was of dubious moral fibre, having possibly committed a crime of a magnitude beyond the capability of mortal man to grant absolution, while the unspeakable vile hybrid “May God αναπαύσει him” and the bereaved who respond “Same to you” are considered by local linguistic purists, the desolation of abomination as spoken of by Daniel the Prophet.
As we have been in this land for a while now and include within our inner sanctum members of the erstwhile periphery, there is always a performance element to our rites of passage. Proving that the linguistic phenomena explored herein are not limited just to the Australian born, there is an increasing tendency among first generation Greek-Australians with limited facility in English, to translate their laments, for the benefit of non-Greek συμπέθεροι, γαμπροί and νύφες present in the audience. At a recent funeral, a bereaved widow who lamented in a heartbreaking wail, in broken English: “o black jockey where you take it him?” («πού τον πας μαύρε καβαλάρη»), was enjoined by her son to calm herself, she broke away from him, screeching: “No, let me cry my husband,” (όχι, άσε με να κλάψω τον άντρα μου), followed by a spine tingling howl: “what now will I happen, the black widow?” («τι θα απογίνω τώρα η μαύρη χήρα;») arguably because subtitles were not included in the funeral package.
In times recent it appears that our tendency to create English calques is seeping into the next generation of Greek-Australian migrants. I recently bore witness to one of those migrants, who had just become an Australian citizen receive the following benediction from one of her peers: “Good citizen,” corresponding to the Greek «καλός πολίτης», offered to young Greeks upon their discharge from military service. As for the creation of calques in the opposite direction, from English into Greek, «μη μετράς τις κότες σου πριν κάνουνε hatch,» is a perennial and surprisingly often used Greek-Australian favourite.
I myself am not immune from the process. Some years ago running to my car to avoid a paring fine, I found a sneering parking inspector preening himself before my vehicle. As I approached him, he began to issue a ticket. Incensed, I shouted spontaneously: “Hey, why are you writing me?” a literal translation of the Greek «Γιατί με γράφεις». Looking up, he burst out laughing, for he too was Greek. Granted, he cancelled the ticket, but for reasons known only to Fate herself, I keep on running into him everywhere and he never fails to remind me of the glibness of my expressions, and expressing the desire to hear some more. As for that prospect, I say: “Good wines,” («καλά κρασιά»).