“Fish on the Carbon??”
by Karen Virk
I recently saw a sign in a Greek seaside taverna in the Eastern part of Crete that read: “We Serve Fish on the Carbon.” Being a Greek speaker this made perfect sense to me, until a nearby British tourist asked, “But what exactly do you mean by fish on the carbon?? Do you also serve fish on the nitrogen and the oxygen too?? And which do you recommend?” Of course this phrase makes perfect sense if one knows that the Greek word for charcoal is literally the word for carbon in English, and chemically speaking this is also true since charcoal is a source of carbon when ignited. In Greece, everything in a taverna can be cooked on the grill from octopus and squid, to souvlaki and whole fish. Taverna’s take great pride in their grilled specialties, and despite the occasional misunderstandings from poor literal translations, their menu often boasts of different foods prepared ‘on the carbons.’ Although the Englishman was speaking tongue in cheek when he asked the question, the truth is that many people literally translate without realizing that the literal meaning is often quite different in another language. In many instances, bilingual individuals are not quite as bilingual as they think.
This turned out to be the case for one employee that was working as a waiter in an Israeli café in Tel Aviv. In this same café , a tourist overheard an Israeli waiter ask a customer in English whether they would like their “miracle upside down”. I am quite sure that the customer’s expression was priceless. Despite the absurdity of the question, there is an explanation for the use of this phrase in reference to a cup of coffee. The universal term for instant coffee in Israel is the brand name Nescafe; but the Hebrew word “ness” actually means miracle. The word for coffee made in hot milk rather than hot water in Hebrew literally translates as backwards or upside down in English. For this reason the waiter, who was quite sure of his English, and at first could not understand the confusion of the customer.
A friend of mine once told me a story about a Spanish woman who had recently arrived in France for an extended visit. She felt confident that Spanish and French had enough in common that she could speak well enough to be understood. Standing on a crowded bus in Paris she reacted to someone stepping on her foot by saying “No me pise pa.” In Spanish, the equivalent phrase would have been more than acceptable “No me pise.”, but in French it brought about a somewhat comical response. A few people on the bus moved away and some Spanish speakers chuckled when they realized that she had made a literal translation from the Spanish. Unfortunately for her, the phrase she had spoken in French meant something closer to “don’t pee on me” rather than “don’t step on me”, which in correct French is “ne marchez pas.” I am sure that since that incident the Spanish woman has learned the proper phrase in French.
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