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False Friends

The Parthenon Marbles, among the greatest treasures of ancient Greece, were sculpted 2,500 years ago, to be displayed at the Acropolis in Athens. So what are they doing in the British Museum in London?

The sculptures were removed from the Parthenon by Thomas Bruce, the Earl of Elgin, between 1801 and 1812, at a time when Greece was occupied by the Ottoman Empire. His legal right to do this was in dispute from the start. It’s claimed that an Ottoman official signed a decree giving Elgin certain exploration rights, but the document hasn’t been seen since. An Italian translation of the original was allegedly made. And an English translation of that was presented to British Parliament as proof of ownership.

So the legality of the removal of Greek treasures rested on an unsigned English translation of an unseen Italian translation of an unseen Turkish document. Any lawyers reading can be forgiven for shuddering. And anyone planning to import or export products today would be advised to get their paperwork organised more efficiently.

The dispute casts a shadow on relations between Greece and the UK. And it’s a relationship that’s brought many benefits. The English language is far richer for the influence of Greek. The terminology of medicine and science draws heavily on Greek source words, and the next time you switch on the TV, remember that “television” is a word with Greek and Latin origins.

For all the borrowed language, translators working in English and Greek will be aware of the dangers of false cognates between the languages. These “false friends” are waiting to trip us up around every corner.

The Greek κόσμος sounds very similar to the English cosmos. Where English speakers would associate it with outer space, to Greeks it means world.

And ιδιωτικός closely resembles idiotic. While idiot does derive from Greek, its original form refers to a private citizen lacking skills. That helps explain why the Greek meaning of Ιδιωτικός is private. Any translation confusing the two would be likely to cause offence.

Greece’s relationship with Wales is less controversial that its relationship with the British Museum, and there’s plenty of evidence of long-lasting friendship. December 1873, for example, saw the first official meeting of Greeks in Cardiff and at that meeting a group of sailors decided to build a Greek Orthodox Church near the port and dedicate it to Saint Nicholas, the Patron Saint of sailors. With Greek ships docking frequently at Welsh ports, importing foodstuffs and exporting coal, many sailors chose to stay here permanently, adding their culture and language to the national tapestry.

With over 2,000 people of Greek and Cypriot descent in South Wales alone, that culture and language is thriving. Along with our 21,000 Polish speakers, 9,000 Arabic speakers, 5,000 Chinese speakers, 3,000 Spanish speakers and many speakers of other global languages, they’re painting Wales’s canvas in vibrant colours. No false friends here; these are real friendships to be valued and nurtured.

When translators beware of false friends they do it with professional care. When we borrow Greek language, we do it with respect and without cost to the lenders.

Real friends borrow in good faith and return what’s due.As well as freely sharing so many aspects of its culture, there are things Greece has been forced to share, and Greek people have the right to ask why. The British Museum has preserved the Parthenon Marbles for the world for two centuries.

We’ve had these treasures on a very long lease. A real friend would know what to do with them now.


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