“Non de Zeus” Lost in Translation

“Non de Zeus” Lost in Translation

A majority of 61.31% of Greek voters said “No” to the bailout deal which was proposed by Greece’s creditors and which would provide critical funding on condition that the country implements more economic and labour reforms, thus prolonging the year-long austerity, responsible for the further recession of the Greek economy and the humanitarian crisis that has since long broken out in the country. The result of the Greek referendum featured on the front page of many a newspaper around the world a few hours after the closing of polling stations in Greece.

The front page of centre-left daily French newspaper Libération is one worth commenting on more extensively, not because it is – according to the journalists of To Vima [Το Βήμα] and enikos.gr surveying the front pages of major French newspapers – “the most imaginative” of all, [1] but because it is indicative of a certain “creative vagueness” of the message and because its translation in the Greek media raises issues pertaining to the interlingual translation of receptions of Antiquity.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is depicted during his campaign rally at Syntagma square on Friday 3 July. His silhouette is seen from behind, in front of a black background. He has got open arms and the phrase “Non de Zeus” written in big white capital letters on his back. Most Greek mass media were quick to translate the phrase as «Το όχι του Δία» (“The ‘No’ of Zeus”); [2] but it is not clear if they thought that the Greek Prime Minister was compared to Zeus (with all concomitant connotations) or if they simply regarded the title as another example of the international tendency of newspapers and magazines to have recourse to Greek mythology in order to talk about the Greek crisis. [3]

Understanding (and consequently translating) “Non de Zeus” in such a simplistic way does not do Libé credit neither justifies the characterisation of its front page as imaginative. Actually, the journalists might even be criticised for ignorance of basic French grammar. [4] To Vima, enikos.gr and Protothema.gr [Πρωτοθεμα.gr] understood that “Non de Zeus” is a pun based on the homophony of “Non” (no) and “Nom” (name) and that the wordplay alludes to the phrase “Nom de dieu” (literally translated “God’s name” and used by the French as an interjection when taken by surprise), [5] but only Protothema.gr proposed an equivalent translation in Greek: “We would translate [“Nom de Dieu”] with the Greek «Για όνομα του θεού», and the headline: «Για όνομα του Δία». [6] Even this rendering can be considered unsatisfactory, however, because it eliminates the “No” element of the headline, namely the result of the referendum (which is the most important piece of information, at least for the French readers of the newspaper).

So, what is there about this short and at first sight simple newspaper headline, which makes its translation into Greek so challenging and exacting? Is the information of the rejection of the bailout deal by the Greeks (i.e. the “No”) the only thing which is lost in the translation? And how can we be certain that something is actually lost?

In her discussion of translation ‘errors,’ Gyde Hansen explains that

translations are carried out for many different reasons. [I]inter-lingual “real-life” translations [like the one discussed here] are created in communicative situations which are defined by pragmatic conditions like sender, receiver, time, place and purpose of the translation, and also by cultural backgrounds and norms that may differ for S[ource] T[ext] and T[arget] T[ext]. [7]

Let me examine first the pragmatic conditions of the translation(s) in question and then the cultural backgrounds and norms for each text. In the case of “Non de Zeus” / «Το όχι του Δία» (“The ‘No’ of Zeus”), the sender (i.e. the translator) is a Greek journalist working for a Greek newspaper, the receiver is the Greek readership of the newspaper, the time is the hours following the referendum of 5 July 2015, the place is Greece (Athens in particular) and the purpose of the translation is to present to the Greek public the reaction of the French press to the results of the referendum.

The cultural backgrounds and norms for each text are different: the most important difference is that the Greeks themselves and the result of the Greek referendum are in the news while the French are the spectators or the readers of the news. So there is a great difference in the degree of personal involvement in the political events. The impact of the result on each people is also not going to be the same. Another difference is that for the Greeks, Zeus is the supreme god in the religion of the people whom they have learnt to regard as their ancestors and take pride in, while for the French, Zeus is not simply a god of an ancient religion which throve in the Mediterranean about 2800 years ago but also the symbol of a powerful hegemonic culture, which has not ceased being received in modern Europe. However, for both Zeus is also a mythological figure about whose sexual exploits (the abduction of Europa being one of them) and involvement in the Trojan War they have read. Another difference is that the Greeks are avid learners of foreign languages, while the French usually struggle only with English; and that non-francophone films in France are rather dubbed in French than subtitled as in Greece. From a different perspective, however, the two cultural backgrounds are similar insofar as both cultures are Western-type, the French and the Greeks are citizens of the EU, with a common currency, similar educational systems, access to the Internet etc. If we continued brainstorming, both lists could go on for longer and they would include elements from all fields of everyday life. If the translators of the newspaper headline had had all these parameters and all this information in mind while translating, they would have come up with a more satisfactory translation.

Let me be clear on this: I do not mean to be too critical or judgemental. My purpose is to highlight some of the difficulties which may arise when trying to translate a textual sensu stricto reception of Greek antiquity into Modern Greek. In the case in question, arriving at a perfectly adequate translation was no mean feat. Firstly, as Luc van Doorslaer observes, “[i]n many newsrooms all over the world, translation is not done by translators,” so “translation [in many newsrooms] is still considered mainly or purely linguistic transfer.” [8] Secondly, it should be admitted that the amount of information arriving at the newsrooms of all Greek media especially from the day of the referendum onwards as well as the urgency of the situation were such that they did not permit a meticulous translation of all non-Greek texts; besides, what mattered at the time was nothing more than a simple mediation of information. Let alone, to conclude, that fully understanding such a pun and successfully rendering it in another language requires a thorough knowledge not only of the Source Language but of the Source Culture, too, accompanied by intercultural awareness and cultural and metacultural competence. If all these conditions were satisfied, the translators could have understood that “Non de Zeus” alludes to a popular cinematic figure, namely Dr Emmett Brown, of Steven Spielberg (producer) and Robert Zemeckis (director) Back to the Future trilogy (1985, 1989 and 1990).

Back to the Future was an enormous commercial success not only in the States but also in France, where it was released on October 23rd, 1985 as Retour vers le futur. Dr Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd), the inventor of the first time machine, was selected by Empire magazine as one of the 100 greatest movie characters of all time, ranking at number 76. [9] One of his most repeated phrases “Great Scott!”, which is a minced oath (“great God”), was rendered in the French, dubbed version of the film as “Nom de Zeus!” and that was deemed an appropriate rendering as it contributes to the depiction of Dr Emmett Brown as a knowledgeable scientist with a sophisticated vocabulary and it is in accord with the until recently widespread connection of classical languages with the upper echelons of society. That this is a well-known phrase in France may be partially attested by the fact that there is even a video on YouTube featuring a compilation of 16 utterances of the phrase by Dr Emmett Brown with more than 36,000 views. [10] As a result, the readers of Libération are highly likely to have understood this subtle allusion.

The Greek Prime Minister’s association with Dr Emmett Brown and Back to the Future is politically significant and it allows the concise yet eloquent representation of the two opposing attitudes towards the Greek referendum in a single photograph on Libération’s front page. The referendum is regarded by some as an (altogether undesirable) halt or even a setback in the negotiations between Greece and its creditors, after which, however, regardless of its result, Greece goes back to the future promised by the acceptance of an agreement yet to come, [11] a future by all means bleak in the short term and “uncharted”, towards which Alexis Tsipras is facing. At the same time, however, it is regarded by others as a clear political statement by the Greek majority, which puts paid to Greece’s membership in the Eurozone and the EU. So, Tsipras is depicted turning his back to the future and looking at the bleak present lying ahead of him. In both cases, the future within the European and the Monetary Union is equated with development, prosperity, the ideal to be cherished by all European states – be they member states or not – and Tsipras becomes a Dr Emmett Brown, a sui generis figure who has the power to tamper with time and decide if he will travel backwards or forwards, towards an exit from the Greek debt crisis or towards a Grexit.

The difficulty in preserving this allusion in the Modern Greek translation of the headline is due to the fact that the meaning of Zeus has evolved through the centuries and across the world. In other words, Zeus (and Greek Antiquity in general) has been received both on the vertical and the horizontal axis. As can be seen in Diagram 1 below, to translate any aspect of Greek Antiquity into Modern Greek, a translator has the liberty to take into consideration as many or as few of the intermediate receptions as s/he wants, without any conscious limitations as to which one(s) s/he will have to include or omit in his/her version. However, in the case of “Non de Zeus” the translator has no option but to take into account the reception of ‘Zeus’ and try to incorporate in his/her translation the oblique reference made to Retour vers le futur (Diagram 2).

diagram1Diagram 1

diagram2Diagram 2

In conclusion, one might wonder what a satisfactory Greek translation of “Non de Zeus” could be. Translation theory is not absolute; there is neither such a thing as a perfect translation nor only one “good” translation. One major consideration in translation (especially with the advent of Reception/Reader-response theory and in the so-called “functionalist” approaches) is the target reader and the purpose of translation. [12] In a globalised world where texts circulate freely, “the mono-cultural listener/reader, as outsider, will necessarily associate their own context of culture or model of the world to the discourse, and thus is likely to lose or distort the intended arrays of meaning.” One way to remedy the loss or the distortion is the recourse to intercultural mediation, that is the manipulation of the discourse by the Translator in such a way as “to account for what is hidden, lost or distorted due to culture.” [13] In practice this can be achieved through a variety of strategies used by translators, for instance, domestication or foreignisation. In some cases it is even acceptable to add an explanation. For example, taking into account that the Greek reader of a newspaper already knows the result of the referendum and that what interests him/her is the reaction of others to the result, a translator could translate “Non de Zeus” into Greek as «Για όνομα του Δία» (eliminating the “No”), and explain that “it is a pun based on the well-known French expression ‘Nom de dieu,’ which the French use spontaneously when confronted with an unpredictable situation that suddenly bewilders them.” But wait; that’s exactly what protothema.gr did. So what has all this fuss been about?

Alexandros Velaoras
University of Patras


[1] «Τα πρωτοσέλιδα των γαλλικών εφημερίδων», Το Βήμα, 6 July 2015, Web, 6 July 2015; «Libération: ΤΟ ΟΧΙ ΤΟΥ ΔΙΑ», enikos.gr, 6 July 2015, Web, 9 July 2015.

[2] The articles in note 1 and «Libération: ΤΟ ΟΧΙ ΤΟΥ ΔΙΑ», Η Αυγή [I Avgi], 6 July 2015, Web, 6 July 2015; «Liberation: Το «Οχι» του Δία προκαλεί σεισμό στην Ευρώπη», ethnos.gr, 6 July 2015, Web, 9 July 2015; «Libération: ΤΟ ΟΧΙ ΤΟΥ ΔΙΑ», Ζούγκλα [Zougla], 6 July 2015, Web, 9 July 2015; «Libération: ΤΟ ΟΧΙ ΤΟΥ ΔΙΑ», news.gr, 6 July 2015, Web, 9 July 2015; «Το σημερινό πρωτοσέλιδο της Liberation για την Ελλάδα: ‘Όχι του Δία’», Πρωτοθεμα.gr [protothema.gr], 6 July 2015, Web, 9 July 2015. The same rendering was also heard on TV news programmes, but these will not be taken into consideration in this discussion. For convenience, and as all articles above are nameless, they will be hereafter referred to only by the title of the newspaper they appeared in.

[3] Cf. “Classics in the News,” Jocasta, University of Patras, 2015, Web, 7 July 2015. This is equally true of Libération; for instance, Laurent Joffrin’s Editorial is entitled “Odyssée” and besides everyday Greek-origin words such as politique, logique, austérité, système, it is also interspersed with words pointing to classical Antiquity (agora, drame, tragédie), wishing to accentuate, in our view, a stereotypical connection of Modern Greece with classical Greek civilisation and high culture. Read also Benjamin Dodman, “From Hercules to Hemingway, Greece’s debt tragedy gets scholarly – and silly”, France 24, 12 June 2015, Web, 8 July 2015.

[4] Noun Phrases (NP) in French necessarily consist of a Determiner (Det), definite (le, ce, mon etc) or indefinite (un, du, certain, tel, quel etc), followed by a common noun (or any other word or phrase which is treated as a noun by virtue of being preceded by the Det). The cases of NPs with no Det are not rare in French but they have to satisfy certain conditions in order that grammaticality is ensured. Non as an adverb must be “nominalised” by a preceding Det, otherwise (i) it cannot be used in an apostrophe (in which case the absence of a Det is allowed), like the implied Nom in “Nom de Zeus” and (ii) it cannot be followed by a prepositional complement (“de Zeus”). Although we should be cautious in structural analyses of wordplay, it becomes clear, I think, that a literal, word for word translation of the phrase in question is problematic. For a detailed discussion of NPs with no Det in French, see Riegel 163-167 and for more on Adverbial Phrases, see Riegel 383.

[5] Το Βήμα, enikos.gr and Πρωτοθεμα.gr. Το Βήμα and enikos.gr also find a pun in the headline of another article of Libération, “Référendum. L’oxi gêne” (“Referendum” ‘No’ annoys”). Όχι (no, pronounced /ˈoçi/ in Greek) is erroneously transliterated “oxi” in French. So s/he thinks a pun with oxygen (oxygène in French) is intended, the limited liquidity of Greek banks being compared to a feeling of “asphyxie” (asphyxia). In my view, the content of the article does not validate such a reading and the pun is based on the polysemy of gêner which means “to bother, to inconvenience” but also “to make someone experience financial difficulty”.

[6] Protothema.gr

[7] Gyde Hansen, “Translation ‘errors,’” Handbook of Translation Studies, ed. Yves Gambier and Luc van Doorslaer, vol. 1 (Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 2010) 385.

[8] Luc van Doorslaer, “Journalism and Translation,” Yves Gambier and Luc van Doorslaer, eds, vol. 1, 181 and 182.

[9] “The 100 Greatest Movie Characters: 76. Dr Emmett Brown,” Empire, Web, 7 July 2015.

[10] Nicolas H. “Retour Vers Le Futur – ‘Nom de Zeus!’” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 18 Aug. 2012. Web. 8 July 2015.

[11] The article does not discuss or take into account subsequent political developments.

[12] For a brief review of functionalist approaches in translation theory, see Christiane Nord, “Functionalist Approaches,” Yves Gambier and Luc van Doorslaer, eds, vol. 1, 120-28.

[13] David Katan, “Intercultural Mediation,” Yves Gambier and Luc van Doorslaer, eds, vol. 4, 85.


“Classics in the News.” Jocasta. University of Patras, 2015. Web. 7 July 2015.

Dodman, Benjamin. “From Hercules to Hemingway, Greece’s debt tragedy gets scholarly – and silly.” France 24. 12 June 2015. Web. 8 July 2015.

Gambier, Yves and Luc van Doorslaer, eds. Handbook of Translation Studies. 4 vols. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 2010-2013.

Hansen, Gyde. “Translation ‘Errors.’” Yves Gambier and Luc van Doorslaer, eds. Vol. 1. 385-88.

Katan, David. “Intercultural Mediation.” Yves Gambier and Luc van Doorslaer, eds. Vol. 4. 84-91.

«Libération: ΤΟ ΟΧΙ ΤΟΥ ΔΙΑ». enikos.gr. 6 July 2015. Web. 9 July 2015.

«Libération: ΤΟ ΟΧΙ ΤΟΥ ΔΙΑ». Η Αυγή [I Avgi]. 6 July 2015. Web. 6 July 2015.

«Libération: ΤΟ ΟΧΙ ΤΟΥ ΔΙΑ». Ζούγκλα [Zougla]. 6 July 2015. Web. 9 July 2015.

«Libération: ΤΟ ΟΧΙ ΤΟΥ ΔΙΑ». news.gr. 6 July 2015. Web. 9 July 2015.

«Liberation (sic): Το ‘Όχι’ του Δία προκαλεί σεισμό στην Ευρώπη». ethnos.gr. 6 July 2015. Web. 9 July 2015.

Malagardis, Maria. “Référendum. L’oxi gêne.” Libération. 5 July 2015. Web. 6 July 2015.

Nicolas H. “Retour vers le futur – ‘Nom de Zeus!’” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 18 Aug. 2012. Web. 8 July 2015.

Riegel, Martin et al. Grammaire méthodique du français. 2nd ed. Paris: Quadrige / P.U.F., 2002.

«Τα πρωτοσέλιδα των γαλλικών εφημερίδων». Το Βήμα [To Vima], 6 July 2015. Web. 6 July 2015.

«Το σημερινό πρωτοσέλιδο της Liberation (sic) για την Ελλάδα: ‘Όχι του Δία’». Πρωτοθεμα.gr [protothema.gr]. 6 July 2015. Web. 9 July 2015.

van Doorslaer, Luc. “Journalism and Translation.” Yves Gambier and Luc van Doorslaer, eds. Vol. 1. 180-84.

Further Reading

A variety of aspects of translation is presented in Gambier and van Doorslaer, eds. See especially Chantal Gagnon, “Political Translation,” vol. 1, 252-56; Sonia Colina, “Evaluation/Assessment,” vol. 2, 43-48; Gideon Toury, “Translation Problem,” vol. 2, 169-74; Jeroen Vandaele, “Wordplay in Translation,” vol. 2, 180-83; David Katan, “Intercultural Mediation,” vol. 4, 84-91; and Elke Brems and Sara Ramos Pinto, “Reception and Translation,” vol. 4, 142-47.


I sincerely thank Efimia Karakantza for her comments on the first draft of this article.  It goes without saying that I am solely responsible for any errors or inaccuracies.

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“Non de Zeus” Lost in Translation