There are great benefits to living in a multicultural city. Not just the opportunity to eat different foods and listen to a different language every day of the year, but moving in this kind of landscape develops your sensibility as well. There’s the sensibility of your ears learning to distinguish between Cantonese and Mandarin, even if you don’t understand either; there’s the ability to recognize the curries of different regions of India, without ever having been there; and finally, on a more general level, there’s the increased awareness of ethnic/cultural profiling.
Normally the first step is becoming aware of being profiled by others. Then after a while, if you’re open to it, you notice your own tendency to profile, which lies latent as an easy sorting mechanism. Through profiling and applying stereotypes we make life easier for ourselves: it makes us think we already know something about people. And possibly there’s nothing wrong with that.
Recently I started reflecting on how these profiling strategies are sedimented in language, and how certain behaviours and objects are connected to specific cultural groups or nations in language.
In Norwegian we say “ta en spansk en” (do it in the Spanish way) for when we don’t follow rules or instructions perfectly, but instead make shortcuts to get results more quickly.
Italians use the expession “fare il portoghese” (behave like a Portuguese) to describe someone who uses services without paying for them (especially getting on the bus or train without buying a ticket).
In English the term “Dutch treat” means “each pays for himself”, which in certain situations is considered tight-fisted, at the limit of common decency. In Italian, the very same action is called “fare alla romana” (do it like the Romans).
“German efficiency” applies both to the capacity to produce high quality at a reasonable price, but also hints at the German ability to look away from anything not directly related to the end-result and being over-focused.
The term “French kiss“ specifies a kind of kiss that is, and I suspect has been, practiced way beyond France. It plays on the idea of the French being promiscuous, sexually charged and lacking the Anglo-Saxon self-control. The French, of course, use a different term, simply embrasser avec la langue (literally to kiss with the tongue).
And then of course there’s the blame game: The very same sexual practice that in Italy is called “Fare la spagnola” (do the Spanish [style])- the Spanish have labeled “Hacer una cubana” (Do the Cuban [style]), implying that we may be doing it, but it’s someone else’s fault for having invented it.
But sometimes awareness of how profiling works turns into hypersensitivity.
For the longest time after hearing the expression “Dutch Courage” which refers to courage gained from intoxication by alcohol, I was dead sure this was an example of stereotyping people of the Netherlands (and possibly all Northern Europeans) as being taciturn and quiet and only able to speak their mind when under the influence. It turns out this has nothing to do with the origin of the expression, which actually referred to Dutch Gin (jenever), and the effects of that specific drink.
In Italian, industrialization brought with a multitude of new words, and quite a few were labelled as connected to the country where they were produced. The common adjustable wrench is called Chiave inglese (“English key”); Leno weave (A construction of woven fabrics in which the resulting fabric is very sheer, yet durable) is called a giro inglese (With an English twist). Neither one of these expressions carry any value judgement or stereotype.
A couple of months ago a new expression was added to my collection: A client asked me to translate the term Testa di Turco, as part of some technical documentation belonging to a miter saw. Testa di Turco literally means “head of a Turk”. Despite the vivid imagery contained in this term, I had no idea what it might mean.
My first step was to go through my dictionaries for clues. The Italian Norwegian one was, as usual, no help at all, and even my two huge technical Italian-English volumes gave no clues.
The next step is usually to call my husband, who’s a full Italian, and should know the language even better than me, but since he lately has been using the line “but that’s not Italian” as his standard answer, I decided I could probably skip that step.
Next in line in my toolbox, is to turn to google images. Now that search certainly didn’t turn up empty: There they were on a plate of Sicilian delicacies, right beside the “cannoli” that appear so frequently in the TV-drama Soprano’s. Distracting as the image was, it was pretty clear to me that this was probably not the Teste di turco I was looking for.
Less attention-grabbing was a knot a bit further down in the search results. This is a decorative knot that turns out to be called “Turk’s Head knot” in English and Tyrkerknop in Norwegian.
At this point I started gaining hope. If this term that I’m looking for has some resemblance to a Turk’s Head knot, maybe searching for a term within mechanics that included the word Turk or Turkish in some way or another.
Hours later, I was no closer to a translation of the term, but I had found an image if what it must look like:
And it was at that point that I, thanks to German efficiency, started getting really close to a solution.
A German company specializing in producing machinery that draws, rolls and straightens metal sheets, had had the good grace to upload manuals for their products in several languages, and after locating the term in English and German (roll frame and Rollenzug, respectively) my hopes were up. Still short of a Norwegian translation, that input gave me the necessary base to start guessing, and a few minutes later I found that the word rulleramme was used frequently in similar documents in Norwegian.
After having solved that mystery, there was still an element missing: How on earth did the Testa di turco become such a widely used expression in Italian?
The following week I attended a lecture entitled The Dragoman Renaissance: Diplomatic Interpreters in Early Modern Istanbul, and while looking at the slides accompanying the lecture, all of a sudden it became clear as crystal. The close connection between Italy and Turkey lasting centuries, during and after the Byzantine era, must have brought a lot of people into contact with pictures and accounts of Turkish life, where the typical Turkish headgear would be a prominent feature. Clearly the shape of Turban used by the Sultans in portraits of them that proliferated in Europe must have been picked up, and after giving names to both a turban-shaped sweet and a knot, centuries later someone must have seen a roll frame and said: Can you give that thing shaped like the head of a Turk?