ATISDA Blog (Association of Translators and Interpreters in the San Diego Area)


Join ATISDA at the ATA Conference!

The American Translators Association celebrates its 57th annual conference this year in our state in San Francisco from November 2 – 5. This is a big year for our organization of ATISDA. Not only are we the newest ATA Affiliate, but we also have a number of ATISDA members presenting at this conference.

This is the main site with information about the conference on the ATA website, and here is where you can register to attend.

The cheapest rate is the early registration rate, which is available through September 23; after then, the price increases the closer you get to the conference date. You can choose to attend the entire conference or just the events on Saturday.

You will also save money on registration fees if you are an ATA member. If you are not already a member of ATA, you can join before the conference to get 15 months of membership for the price of the standard 12-month membership. However, this only applies to new members or to those whose membership has lapsed, according to the email I received in response to this question from ATA Headquarters.

To connect with other ATISDA members who will be attending the conference this year, join our event page on the ATISDA Facebook page.

Find other online conversations about the conference on social media with the hashtag #ATA57.

When you’re at the conference, you’ll want to be sure to support your fellow ATISDA members and attend their presentations and demos. Here is a list of the seven sessions that six of our members will be presenting:

~ Friday, 10 – 11 AM; All Levels; Presented in English & Portuguese
Dad Is Cool: A Wild Ride Translating a Comedian’s Book on Parenting
Rafa Lombardino, CT | Marcos Piangers

~ Friday, 2 – 3 PM; Beginner; Presented in English
“Ouch! It hurts!” The Basics of Pain
Gloria M. Rivera

~ Friday, 3:30 – 4:30 PM; All Levels; Presented in English
The CAT Show: Demos by CAT Tool Users (Trados & WordFast)
Percy Balemans | Tuomas Kostiainen, CT | Steven Marzuola | Jenae Spry | Joseph Wojowski

~ Friday, 3:30 – 4:30 PM; All Levels; Presented in English & Dutch
Going Dutch
Dorine Oz-Vermeulen | Cindi Sheridan-Heller | Leo van Zanten

~ Saturday, 10 – 11 AM; All Levels; Presented in English
Get More Clients: Growing Your Freelance Translation Business Through Referral Selling
Maryam Abdi

~ Saturday, 2 – 3 PM; Beginner; Presented in English
DotSub: Online Platform for Basic Transcription and Subtitling
Rafa Lombardino, CT

~ Saturday, 2 -3 PM; Intermediate; Presented in English & German
German Immersion Strategies for Expatriates and Other Deutsch-Fans
Marion Rhodes

To get everyone excited about seeing the ATISDA presenters, I will be doing a series of upcoming blog posts about the topics that they will be covering. Look for future posts to learn why you will want to attend these informative sessions.

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It’s All Greek To Me … Or Is It Chinese?

Although the recently-concluded Rio Summer Olympic Games were held in South America for the first time, we all know that the tradition of the Olympics goes back to Ancient Greece. The Greeks also gave to the world a language that inspired the expression “It’s all Greek to me.” People say something is “Greek to them” when they can’t understand something they read or hear, usually when it is in another language.



The Greek language, with its proprietary alphabet, is often used as a shorthand for incomprehensible language.

Origins in the English Language

I would guess it is a fairly common belief among English-speakers that this was a term that English playwright William Shakespeare coined. After all, he did give our language so many expressions – plus, we probably all read it in Julius Caesar in high school. The famous line from Shakespeare’s play reads, “[T]hose that understood him smiled at one another and shook their heads; but for mine own part, it was Greek to me.”

Various sources online indicate that this is not the first time this expression was used and, instead, attribute it to a Medieval Latin proverb Graecum est; non potest legi. According to some sources, monks with little knowledge of Greek who were transcribing texts would write this in the margins if they could not understand the Greek words and would leave the source text untranslated. While this makes a great story and an even better visual (monks in robes hunched over old manuscripts in chilly stone rooms trying to read and write by flickering candlelight), I had trouble finding a definitive source on this, so this may not be a concrete fact.



Usage in Spanish: Me suena a chino.

Until I first began studying other languages in high school, I had never thought much about what expressions other languages might have. The first time I considered this was freshman year of high school when my Spanish 1 textbook had a call-out box for new vocabulary words that included the following Spanish expression and English equivalent: Me suena a chino. / It’s Greek to me. My Spanish teacher explained that this was not a literal translation and that the Spanish expression literally meant that something sounded Chinese. I felt that the textbook should have provided both meanings, one for help understanding the literal meaning in Spanish and one for something that the students could understand in the context of their native English language.

This was an important day in my multilingual life. I learned two things: One was that other languages had proverbs and expressions with meanings similar to the ones I knew in English. The other was that a direct translation is not always appropriate for your audience, but that sometimes it is helpful to provide some background information when teaching people.


Usage in Spanish: Gringo vs. griego

The comparison between Chinese and something unintelligible continued to be the only one I was familiar with in Spanish – until I started to research this article. I came upon information that Spanish-speakers could also refer to something incomprehensible as Greek, just like English speakers did.

There was even debate in the language articles I read about whether the word gringo in Spanish was perhaps a derivative of the word Greek (griego). As I’m sure you know, gringo refers to a non-Spanish speaker, often an English speaker.

Intrigued, but skeptical, about this new gringo/griego information, I asked a couple trusted ATISDA colleagues from different Spanish-speaking countries what they had heard other native speakers say when something was not easily understood. I especially wanted to learn more about this possible gringo connection to griego and things that were unintelligible.

The native Spanish speakers I talked to were only familiar with the comparison to Chinese, although sometimes it was expressed differently: Está en chino; Parece chino; Me suena a chino. But it was always in relation to the Chinese language.

One of them provided the most obvious and debate-settling idea: Why not look in the standard dictionary for all Spanish-speakers, el Diccionario de la lengua española (DLE) published by la Real Academia Española (RAE)?

For those who don’t speak Spanish or are unfamiliar with the Royal Spanish Academy and its prestigious work, it would be like all the English language dictionaries joined together to form one respected authority. That’s the weight that its definitions holds, though like anything, some people disagree with some of the governing body’s decisions.

According to this fairly end-all, be-all source for the Spanish language, the words griego and gringo both mean unintelligible language. Here are the particulars: Griego: 5. m. coloq. Lenguaje considerado incomprensible. ¿Es que estoy hablando en griego?; Gringo: 7. m. coloq. Lenguaje ininteligible. / Greek: 5. masculine. colloquial. Language considered incomprehensible. Am I speaking in Greek?; Gringo: 7. masculine. colloquial. Unintelligible language.

Another argument settled by the RAE.


What About Other Languages?

If Spanish refers to incomprehensible language as Chinese or Greek and English refers to it as Greek, what do other languages call it? I found some fascinating research on the subject and an awesome diagram that I am including in this post. Since I don’t speak all the languages mentioned, I cannot vouch for the validity of the chart, which seems to be put together based on Wikipedia information on the topic but which was updated with additional research by University of Pennsylvania linguist Mark Liberman. If the language(s) you speak don’t seem to match what the chart indicates, I would love to know more information.

A couple noteworthy things on these charts jumped out to me. First, I’ve never heard of English speakers calling incomprehensible language “Double Dutch.” That’s a jump-rope game where I come from. The second thing is the eye-catching “chicken intestines” randomly thrown in between Chinese and English with no explanation.

From a few internet searches, it appears that “chicken intestines” is what Cantonese speakers, especially those in Hong Kong, call English cursive handwriting. This shows the importance of specifying Cantonese or Mandarin when referring to the broad category of Chinese.

I wanted to confirm some of the information that these charts claimed by speaking to some friends and colleagues who were native speakers of those languages. For example, I found out from another colleague in ATISDA that Brazilian Portuguese also refers to unintelligible texts as Greek, just as English does.


new greek graph

The arrow points toward which language the language listed inside the circle thinks unintelligible languages sound like. For example, all of the arrows directed toward the Chinese circle show that those languages think incomprehensible language sounds like Chinese. The arrow going from Chinese to Heavenly Script shows that this is what Chinese calls it when the language cannot be understood.

The Language with the Best Expression?

The most interesting thing I noticed in my research was a claim about what Mandarin Chinese calls language that the speakers cannot understand. Some sources I read said that Mandarin speakers say it is heavenly script or Martian language.

“This is too good to be true,” I thought when I saw this.

I contacted a native Mandarin-speaking friend to ask what he has heard people say for something that cannot be understood. It turns out Mandarin Chinese really does use those terms.

According to him, Mandarin speakers say 天书 , which means “book of sky” or “book of heaven,” to describe incomprehensible language, but that a couple of more recent terms are 火星语 for inaudible spoken words and 火星文 for unintelligible written words, both of which mean “Martian language.”

It has been fascinating to learn about the often capricious-seeming ways that languages decided which other language would be the one to represent, essentially, gibberish. But I think that with “book of heaven” and “Martian language,” Mandarin Chinese has found the best expressions.




Special thanks to Jonathan Ji, Rafa Lombardino, Yolanda Secos and Gloria Rivera for their language expertise.

Here are some of the sites that I used to write this article and where you can find more information on this topic:

World Wide Words: It’s Greek to me

The Washington Post: The equivalent of “It’s all Greek to me” in 30 other languages

Language Log: The directed graph of stereotypical incomprehensibility

The Hardest Natural Languages by Arnold L. Rosenberg (PDF)

Wikipedia: Greek to me

Real Academia Espanola/Diccionario de la lengua espanola