As a pendant to yesterday’s name translation post, here’s something that leaped out at me from George Packer’s Letter from Athens in this week’s New Yorker, which begins:

Omónia, in the heart of Athens, is a working-class district of six- and eight-story concrete high-rises built in the nineteen-sixties on the bones of old garden houses, in an enormous development scheme that Athenians now regret. Even with its streets festooned with colorful Olympic flags and its traffic thinned by newly constructed sections of the Athens metro, Omónia is dense and oppressive. This is where a good many of Greece’s new immigrants live or hang out—Albanians, South Asians, and, in the back streets and cafés around the Hotel Joker, off St. Konstantin Street, Iraqis.

In the first place, the accent on “Omónia” is strange, because he doesn’t put accents on any other Greek names; later in the paragraph he refers to “Karaiskaki Stadium,” not Karaiskáki. But what I want to talk about is “St. Konstantin Street.” This is utterly bizarre. The normal way to render Greek “Odos Agiou Konstantinou” is “Agiou Konstantinou Street” (or, with nods to actual pronunciation, “Ayiou” and/or “Konstandinou”), which reproduces the Greek genitive form (‘street of St. Constantine’). It’s odd enough to want to translate the name (note that he doesn’t translate Omónia to ‘Concord’), but what’s up with “St. Konstantin”? There’s a Bulgarian resort called Sveti Konstantin that’s sometimes called St. Konstantin in English, but why on earth would you translate Greek “Agios Konstantinos” into a Bulgarian form? In English, the only way to render the name of the Byzantine saint is St. Constantine. Where are those famous New Yorker fact checkers?


  1. Fact checkers? Whatever for? I thought you’re not interested in such minor details, since you thought I’m nitpicking in my comment on your previous post (“applying geometrical analysis to this particular piece of rhetoric isn’t entirely to the, uh, point”)
    Out of sheer respect for you, LH, I made an exception and read shamelessly anti-American “New Yorker” article you linked to. I found more amusing things there than incorrect street name translation.
    For example, author quotes an Iraqi emigrant in explaining why Iraqi football team plays so well (before they got out of competition, apparently) – it was, he says, due to disappearance of bloody Hussein family “benefactors”. (Note how he calls Uday “late” without explaining cause of his untimely demise) Then he writes this brilliantly put sentence:
    >>President Bush himself has tried to lay claim to the Iraqi Olympic Team..
    Somehow the connection between these two has missed him.
    Another entertaining passage was about author’s outrageously funny attempt to make an anti-American even more so by suggesting to the personage of his story pro-American bias of Al-Jazzeera(!):
    >>Al Jazeera sports analyst kept replaying Morocco’s best attempts, until Adnan was driven to ask in exasperation why the man had nothing good to say about Iraq. I suggested that the antipathy might have something to do with the presence of a hundred and thirty thousand American troops there.

  2. You seriously think this post is about politics??

  3. Politics aside (“fig in a pocket”?), may I suggest one explanation?
    There are a lot of Russian and Bulgarian (usually Gypsy) immigrants doing business on and around Agiou Konstantinou (which is also a part of the increasingly growing area I use to call “Little Wenzhou”, or you might say a Chinatown en devenir, but that’s another story).
    I understand George Packer doesn’t know Greek. Therefore, he might have been lured by the non-native speakers he has met, or by one of those badly-translated (I assume) English map where the name has been abridged as “St. Konstantin.” (however, that seems unlikely, the conventional abbreviation beign “Ag. Kon/nou” – I let the Greek letters to your imagination).

  4. Writing “St. Konstantin” conveys a sense of eastern-Europeanness without actually burdening the reader with the need to sound out a word, like Agiou Konstantinou, that he probably hasn’t seen before.
    “St. Constantine” is too banal and Anglicized for an article about an “exotic” destination. “Agiou Konstantinou” looks too intimidating and readers aren’t sure how it is prononuced. “St. Konstantin” is just right– it conveys just the right amount of foreignness without scaring the reader.
    More seriously, I suppose it could have been the result of bad maps, but I’ve never seen maps rendered with names translated like that… maybe conventions for tourist maps have changed for the Olympics.

  5. John Jainschigg says

    And the persnickety accent on Omonia is there because one of their fact-checkers lives in Astoria, and knows the increasingly-popular coffeehouse of the same name, now selling pastry to several West Side restaurants.

Speak Your Mind