Q&A: What is your favourite “untranslatable” word from Hebrew?

Oh, boy. Don’t get me started…

Oh, alright, then

#1: מהלך mahalakh

This innocent word, which used simply to mean a step (as in a sequence of steps) or move, was catapulted about 20–30 years ago, in army-speak, to superstar status, to give an aura of significance to any action, initiative, or new direction, however minor. There is nothing in English to equal its grandiosity.

Tied at #2: מערך ma’arakh, and מסכת masekhet

  • מערך ma’arakh can mean set, array, alignment, formation, arrangement, or a dozen other things, depending on the context, and
  • מסכת masekhet loosely means mesh, web, lattice, tissue (as in a tissue of lies), or litany but is usually just a fancy way to say set or compendium

These routinely give me a headache in my translation work, because they have no clear English equivalents, yet are hugely popular with Israelis, particularly in writing, whenever they want to make collections of things or systems sound more important.

#3: כאמור ka’amur

This literally means “As said”, and is used in the sense of “As previously noted,” but—because it’s a single word that trips off the tongue—used liberally in Hebrew way more liberally than generally acceptable in English, so I am constantly having to think of different ways of saying it without excessive repetition.

#4: תבנית tavnit

This means pattern or mould (as in cake mould—mold in American), but is another popular go-to word used to mean anything from arrangement (again), to format, structure, framework, etc.

#5: מחד (miḥad) and its corollary, מאידך (mi’idakh)

short for the Aramaic expressions

מחד גיסא, מאידך גיסא

—meaning “on the one hand”, and “on the other hand”. Again, because the abbreviated forms are so short, they are very popular with Israeli writers—so much so, that they are used to describe any two things, even when they are not truly contrasting. (For the Hebrew readers among you, see my Hebrew blog post on this topic, תראי אימא – בלי ידיים).

In short, I live in dread that one day, someone will ask me to translate the following passage:

כאמור, מחד גיסא, מהלך זה מדגיש מסכת רעיונית, תוך התייחסות להבניית דרכים לטיפול במרחב התרבותי-פוליטי; מאידך גיסא, תהליך זה אף משמש כתבנית, לצד בניית מערך המאפיין קרקע פוריה. זאת ועוד,… ואולם…

Don’t ask me what that means. I couldn’t possibly tell you… 🙂

(Originally written in reply to a question at Quora.com).

5 thoughts on “Q&A: What is your favourite “untranslatable” word from Hebrew?

  1. Just lovin’ yer “Don’ ask me to translate this!!” example. I’m thinking to advise simply typing ‘WTF’ and be done wid it.
    Hate to even bring it up on this one-day-post-catastrophe, but Das Drumpf is an excellent example of ‘plain speech’, on the surface, yet ‘signifying nuttin’. Hard to decide which is worse, the familiar ‘old new-speak’ of bureaucrats, or his evil rantings. I’ll go with the ‘devil I know’, personally.
    And: in a post on ‘untranslatable’, you mention-eth not ‘DAFKA’?? As verbally-improvisational as I call myself, I shall forever be stymied by this one . (A lingo-maven in HaAretz recently wrote a fine tutorial on this word., listing a dozen very similar , yet different, sentences,with-in each of whom it had a unique and specific intention.
    Perhaps your usual ‘please translate this’ texts do not feature this octopus/amoeba too frequently. Perhaps for the best: it would ‘dafka’ make your life more frustrating than I assume it already is.


  2. The word which I find difficult to translate into English is: Mah Pitom. Consisting of two words of question word Mah? and Pitom – suddenly. Together, these two words convey different meaning.
    Neomi S.

    Liked by 1 person

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