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 »  Articles Overview  »  Language Specific  »  Greek Cultural Keywords: Language Reflecting Culture Through Vocabulary
 »  Articles Overview  »  Art of Translation and Interpreting  »  Translation Techniques  »  Greek Cultural Keywords: Language Reflecting Culture Through Vocabulary

Greek Cultural Keywords: Language Reflecting Culture Through Vocabulary

By Maria Karra | Published  03/31/2006 | Language Specific , Translation Techniques | Recommendation:
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Maria Karra
Միացյալ Նահանգներ
հունարենից անգլերեն translator
Անդամ է դարձել՝ Sep 2, 2000-ին։
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Greek is a language with a rich vocabulary which includes a large number of cultural keywords; these keywords are words that reflect cultural values, beliefs, or even history. Such words are often very difficult to translate in another language and the translator has to explicitly render them by including footnotes, or explanations in parentheses, or by using the technique of adaptation to find corresponding terms in the foreign language that would evoke the same feelings in the target audience.

As a speaker and lover of the Greek language, I have chosen to examine some Greek cultural keywords in this review and elaborate on the values they express. These words are:

μάγκας / μαγκιά

The equivalent of the word "εκκλησία" (ecclesia) is given as "church" in dictionaries (Hyper Lexicon 1998, p. 1052). However, this word does not merely refer to a building or to the institution of church. Eκκλησία has a historical, cultural, and even political connotation in the Greek culture and represents an important part of Greek life. It should be noted that 98% of Greeks are Orthodox (according to the CIA factbook). When a Greek speaker uses the word εκκλησία, it is usually implied that he refers to the Orthodox Church. As regards the historical connotation, εκκλησία reflects the importance that the church played in the war of 1821 between Turkey and Greece and its help with the education of Greeks during that period. As regards the cultural connotation, εκκλησία is part of everyday life. Most Greeks are baptized Christian Orthodox in the beginning of their life, and are brought up with Christian values. Until recently, religion and denomination were declared in Greek identity cards. As far as the political connotation is concerned, εκκλησία has undoubtedly great power in Greece. Even though it is the people who make the decisions through the parliament and the prime minister, εκκλησία (and here I mean the clergy and in particular the archbishop) has the power to influence people and thus influence indirectly Greece’s political life. As an example, in 2001 the archbishop organized public protests against the government’s decision to remove the religion entry from identity cards. Although the government did not change its decision, these large gatherings of the crowd and the insistence of the clergy showed that εκκλησία can get involved in government decisions and has great power over the Greek people. How should this word be translated into English in order to reflect the above concepts? The word church cannot cover all the values included in εκκλησία. One could use the word "orthodoxy" in order to express the religious and cultural aspect. But how could we express the political and historical connotations? The rendition in another language would depend highly on the context and the translator would need to be very familiar with the Greek culture in order to find the appropriate equivalent.

A "καφενείο" is something that I have only seen in Greece. It is a type of traditional coffee shop that one finds very frequently in Greece. I have had to translate this word into English and I struggled to find an equivalent. It does not express a cultural value, but rather an aspect of Greek life and, depending on the context, it may express a cultural belief. The closest English term to καφενείο is "coffee shop"; however, the people we find at this type of coffee shop are usually retired men; this is a place where they can pass their time, meet their friends and play traditional board games while drinking coffee and smoking. Because of these activities, the word καφενείο has acquired another connotation in the Greek language: it is used to denote a place without any organization or rules, sometimes not very clean, where people waste their time instead of being productive. Therefore, translating the phrase "don't treat our home like a καφενείο" (which a mother could say to her son) by "don't treat our home like a coffee shop" would not reflect the feelings or connotations that exist in the word καφενείο. A possible rendition would be "treat our home with respect".

Another cultural keyword, which refers to ancient rather than to modern Greek culture, is "δωδεκάθεο". This is a compound word from "δώδεκα" (twelve) and "Θεός" (God) and it refers to the twelve Gods in whom the Ancient Greeks believed. These Gods were related to every-day activities and common things and values (such as the sea, fire, wisdom, family, wine and joy), and were thus an important part of Greek life. The names of ancient Greek Gods are commonly used in every-day language in Greece in relation to cultural values and beliefs; the name "Δίας" (Zeus) is used to denote hospitality, the name "Αθηνά" (Athena) is used in the Greek equivalent of the expression "Man proposes, God disposes". Thus, it is not only the word δωδεκάθεο that can be characterized as a cultural keyword, but also the names of ancient Greek gods.

A word which I have always had difficulty in translating into another language is the interjection "αμάν". Greek-English dictionaries give the words "oh dear!" or "gosh!" (Hyper Lexicon 1998, p. 967) as equivalents, but a Greek speaker would be far from satisfied with these renditions because they do not reflect the feelings and the cultural elements involved in the word αμάν. It comes from the Turkish word aman and due to the long contact of the Greek and Turkish peoples, this word (like numerous others) has been adopted by the Greek language where it is used very frequently. It is difficult to explain the meaning of this word not only in a foreign language, but also in Greek itself. We learn its meaning by relating it to the context in which it appears. It is a word that Greeks learn in the same way that a child learns words in his/her native language, i.e. without looking at their definition. In his dictionary (Modern Greek Dictionary 1995, p. 63), the Greek linguist Emmanuel Kriaras gives example phrases where this word is used, instead of a definition: Aμάν can express:
- begging; e.g. "Aμάν, stop reproaching the poor child”
- surprise and admiration; e.g. "Aμάν, what a beautiful woman!"
- sadness and exasperation; e.g. "Aμάν, I can't take this anymore!"
In the first case (where begging is expressed), this word could be rendered in English by a stressed "please". In the second case (surprise and admiration), it could be rendered by "oh my goodness", "oh dear!", or even by the informal "wow!". It is in the third case that αμάν is difficult to translate. It is this αμάν that comprises feelings of pain, suffering, exasperation, anger, disappointment. I will attempt to express its meaning by explaining a derivative: the noun "αμανές". Emmanuel Kriaras gives the definition "slow oriental song where the interjection αμάν is repeated; [from Turkish emane]" (p. 63), and in Stafylides's Hyper Lexicon we find the English rendition "a kind of love song (with oriental music)" (p. 967). However, αμανές is more than a simple love song; it is a sad love song which only talks about lost or impossible love. The feelings of anxiety and exasperation that arise due to an impossible love are one aspect of the meaning of the word αμάν. Aμάν is a cry for help, it is an attempt to remove the pain from one's heart. It is a very powerful and deep word that reminds Greeks of their roots and their contact with the Turkish people and culture.

Recently, in a Greek-Spanish translation internet newsgroup of which I am a member, a translator asked how to render the noun μάγκας ('magas) in Spanish. It is difficult to render this word not only in Spanish but in any language. We (the rest of the newsgroup members) offered various rendition options, but we all agreed that none of them was an exact equivalent. Mάγκας is a person who exhibits a certain type of behavior, and μαγκιά is this behavior. For μάγκας, Stafylides's Hyper Lexicon gives the following equivalent terms: 1. street urchin, 2. irregular soldier (in the 1821 revolution), 3. cunning, rascal, tricky, and for μαγκιά it gives cunning (behavior) (p. 1131). However, cunning behavior is too simple a rendition. Mαγκιά is an attitude, not only towards people but also towards life; it is itself a way of life. Mάγκας is a noun which usually refers to men; E. Kriaras gives the following definitions: 1. soldier who belonged to a team of irregular soldiers in the 1821 revolution, 2. man living in the margin, having provocative behavior, 3. man who pretends to be brave (p. 823). An examination of the history of the word μάγκας may help to understand its meaning: it was first used in the revolution of the Greeks against the Turks, which took place in 1821. After four centuries under Turkish occupation, the idea of a possible revolution was secretly developing among the Greeks. Groups of soldiers started to form in many villages, trying to organize strategies against the Turkish sultans who were in charge of their villages. Other soldiers, however, decided to get away from their towns or villages and live in the mountains, from where they would often come down and "surprise" the Turkish soldiers who did not know their location. These Greek soldiers did not belong to an organized group; they were independent and did not follow any rules or strategies. Nevertheless they were brave and fought for their freedom. The contemporary meaning of the word μάγκας encompasses the concept of being independent and refusing to obey to rules; in addition, μάγκας is a (usually young) uneducated man who spends his time in the streets, does not dress properly, does not conform to the rules of society and is indifferent to laws. This behavior is due to the fact that this man wants to appear tough; here is the biggest difference between the contemporary meaning of the word and the meaning it had when it first appeared: in the revolution, a μάγκας was brave; today, a μάγκας tries to appear tough by using bad language and sometimes violence, while in reality he may be cowardly.

Another cultural keyword which originated during the years of the Turkish occupation and was frequently used in the 1821 revolution is the noun "παλληκάρι" (an alternative spelling is παλικάρι). This word denotes a very brave man with strong faith and values. Like those soldiers characterized as μάγκας in the revolution, a παλληκάρι was a soldier who left his home to live in the mountains, from where he would fight the Turkish soldiers. The difference between μάγκας and παλληκάρι is that a παλληκάρι belonged to a group of soldiers and had a leader whose orders he followed; in addition, the word παλληκάρι denoted a man with very strong faith in God and very strong values, such as love for his country, love for freedom and for independence. These values are not included in the notion expressed by μάγκας in its older and contemporary meaning. In modern Greek, the notion of hunger for freedom no longer applies to the word παλληκάρι, since Greece is now free and independent; however, this word still denotes a brave man with strong ethics and values, who will fight for these values. Another use of this word applies to male children. We often hear Greeks use phrases such as "He has a daughter and two παλληκάρια". This use does not simply denote one’s sons, but young men, usually tall and mature, of whom parents are proud.

The notion expressed by the name Ιθάκη (Ithaca) is closely related to the Greek culture. The closest rendition in English would be "homeland"; however, there are notions in Ιθάκη that the word "homeland" does not encompass. Ithaca is a Greek island in the Ionian Sea. In Homer's Odyssey we read that it was the homeland of Ulysses. After the Trojan War, which lasted ten years, Ulysses struggled to return to his island. He went through hardships and suffered during another ten years before he could finally return to Ithaca, next to his wife and son. These hardships included storms, fights against the Cyclopes, efforts to resist the spell of the sorceress Circe and the singing of the Sirens, among others. In the modern Greek language, Ithaca represents the homeland from which one has been away, the homeland missed, the native land far from which one has been suffering; it represents one's home, family, and friends. In addition to homeland (location/environment), Ithaca represents a psychological and sociological notion: it represents life without suffering, one’s normal way of life in the case one has acquired harmful habits such as drinking or drugs; it can also represent the innocent life of a child that is free of worries and pain. Thus, the phrase "to return to one's Ithaca" is commonly used in Greek to refer to the return to such ways of life. As an example, one of the biggest drug-detoxification clinics in Greece is called "Ιθάκη". This name was selected because "Ithaca" inspires hope and optimism; the allusion to Ulysses’s island implies that even after many years of hardships and suffering, one can still return to one’s initial way of life, to one’s home and family, to one’s healthy existence.

Another word which comes from Greek mythology is the name "Κέρβερος" (Cerberus). Cerberus was the three-headed dog that guarded the entrance to the underworld, Hades. This monstrous creature permitted spirits to enter Hades, but did not allow them to leave (Encyclopedia Mythica 2002). Very few were the spirits which were able to escape (such as Orpheus and Hercules). According to the Online Plain Text English Dictionary, in addition to the literal meaning (i.e. the watchdog of Hades) Cerberus in English signifies "any vigilant custodian or guardian, esp. if surly". In modern Greek, the name Cerberus includes this meaning, but it may also have a positive connotation. Cerberus often signifies a very tall, strong muscular person; this does not include the notion of aggression, but only that of physical strength. In addition, Cerberus may represent the notion of protection (of one’s property, or of children by their parent, etc.). As regards the negative connotation, Cerberus may signify a violent person whom people are scared of, or someone overly protective of his belongings who does not let anyone approach them.

Another cultural keyword which cannot be easily translated is the noun "ξενιτιά". It is derived from the word "ξένος" (xenos) which means foreign, and it refers to a foreign place. In the Hyper Lexicon we find the following renditions: 1. foreign parts, 2. living in foreign parts (p. 1168). However, these renditions are far from "equivalent". There are other words in Greek which denote foreign parts, a foreign country, the concept of living abroad. The word "ξενιτιά" does not only denote location, but a psychological state; it is a word which conveys feelings of sadness. It was widely used in the first half of the 20th century to denote the places where Greek expatriates went to find work, a better future, and a more comfortable life. The word "ξενιτιά" cannot be used to denote a foreign country which someone visits as a tourist, or the country to which a student selects to go and attend university. Ξενιτιά is the foreign place where one is forced to go in order to survive, and where one has to struggle and work hard, while feeling a strong longing for one's homeland. It conveys the concept of hardships, poverty, painful absence from one's home and family. Ξενιτιά is where Ulysses was before he was able to return to Ithaca. A context where we often encounter this term is (to use the example I gave above on a student attending a university in a foreign country) a mother's longing for her child who leaves his or her home to study abroad; although that child will not undergo the suffering which Greek immigrants underwent in the past, the mother's pain is still strong and she may refer to that country as ξενιτιά. It is this feeling of pain and longing, and often of hate towards that foreign country for taking our beloved away from us, that is difficult to translate and that is not conveyed by terms given as equivalents in dictionaries, such as "abroad", "foreign country", or "foreign parts".

Finally, a cultural keyword, which is related to a cultural gesture, is the verb "μουτζώνω" (moo'tzono). It is derived from the noun "μούτζα" ('mootza), which is an insulting gesture made with an open palm. It is a very common gesture in Greece, made by people of all ages, but especially by school children. The verb "μουτζώνω" is the action of making this gesture. The purpose of this gesture is to show someone that we think they are unintelligent, or that they are not important to us. We frequently see drivers make that gesture when they get angry with another driver. A child expresses dislike towards another child by making this gesture. In addition, we sometimes make this gesture towards an object which we consider useless. As an example, someone who tries to fix a broken television but is unable to, can make this gesture towards the television, to express that the television is useless and that he abandons the effort. The concept of abandoning is therefore the second meaning of the verb μουτζώνω, in addition to insulting. These two definitions are also given in the Hyper Lexicon: 1. to make an insulting gesture with an open palm, 2. to give up, to abandon (p. 1148). However, this verb does not imply that one gives up due to fear or lack of courage, but due to exasperation or exhaustion, or because one is tired of certain things. Mουτζώνω can be used in the context of someone leaving everything behind and starting a new life, leaving and starting to see everything with optimism. Therefore this verb represents change from a negative situation to a positive one.

There are numerous other cultural keywords in the Greek language. Many are borrowed from Greek mythology and history. In his website, Pablo David Flores discusses cultural keywords: "I personally love these words, these ideas that refuse to bow before the translator, and require long and confusing digressions and footnotes". This is exactly what cultural keywords are: words that refuse to bow before the translator; words on which one can often spend hours without ever being able to find an accurate rendition. They constitute a challenge which requires experience on the translator's part, patience, and a deep knowledge of the culture of the source and target languages.


CIA Factbook: Greece

Hyper Lexicon English-Greek, Greek-English. Stafylides publications, fourth edition, Athens 1998.

Kriaras, E., Modern Greek Dictionary. Athens publications, Athens 1995.

Encyclopedia Mythica, 2002

Online Plain Text English Dictionary

Flores, P. D., Dráselhadh culture: The trè and other cultural keywords


Diamantopoulou, N. and Kyriazopoulou, A., Contemporary History of Greece. Educational Book Publishing Organisation, Athens 1980.

Nakata, H., The role of teachers as 'InterCulture Practitioners' in teaching Japanese culture. Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies (ejcjs), 2001.

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