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Lost in Translation: 11 Hebrew Idioms Better Left Untranslated

by Tova Horwitz

While Hebrew is indeed the language of the Bible, modern Hebrew is a fast paced, ever-changing language full of vibrant expressions, idioms and fun slang. Some of modern Hebrew’s linguistic jewels – those phrases that make just the perfect point – simply don’t translate well into English. Here’s a list of ten great Hebrew expressions that are better in their original form!

Chaval al hazman (חבל על הזמן) This phrase is used quite frequently and literally translates to “shame on the time.” Really, it is an exclamation of how awesome something is, perfectly suited for when you’re talking about something incredible that happened. For example, let’s say someone asks you, “How was the party?” If the party was amazing then an appropriate response would be “It was chaval al hazman!” Some people even shorten the three word expression into a single word by saying chavlaz!

Titchadesh/i (תתחדש/תתחדשי) When you receive a new shirt as a gift, buy a pair of eyeglasses from the store, or place an order for a new refrigerator someone (in Israel) will most likely say to you – titchadesh! This single but powerful word translates to “be new,” but really it’s a way of exclaiming your wish that the person will enjoy and benefit from the new item. Next time you make a purchase and the salesperson says titchadesh….simply respond todah (thanks), and smile.

Stam (סתם) Plug the word סתם into the online dictionary, Morfix, and you get: (colloquial) purposelessly; (colloquial) simply, just. But stam is more than that; it’s an all-around great word that is such a pleasure to use because it is so versatile and can be said as a response to all types of situations. It’s difficult to directly translate, though, because it has so many potential meanings. Stam can convey “just” or “because” as in “no reason,” or “just kidding,” or “just because.” Usage example: “Why is he sitting there?” Answer: “He is stam sitting there!” (He’s just sitting there for no reason!”) Chai b’seret (חי בסרט) and Chutzpah (חצפה) Translated word for word to English, chai b’seret means ”living in a movie.” It’s actually an idiom used to describe a person who has unrealistic expectations or who is completely out of touch with reality. Chutzpah is a well-known and oft-used Hebrew expression that describes someone who has audacity, often that manifests itself in a negative way. Usage example: Mom says to child, “Have you finished your homework?” Child makes a shocked expression and responds with chutzpah, “At chaya baseret?!” “Are you crazy/kidding me?!”

Naeem meod (נעים מאוד) In Israel it’s quite common to say naeem meod when being introduced to someone new or meeting someone for the first time. Literally, naeem meod means “feels very pleasant” but it is used as if you’re saying in English, “it’s nice to meet you!” Usage example: You meet a new neighbor for the first time. You say, “Naim meod!” (“It’s great to meet you.”)

Ta’asu chayeem (תעשו חיים) You may hear this being said to someone who is leaving on a trip, parting from someone from a while, or even heading out the door for a night out. It means “to do or make life.” What it really means is: go and have a great time, enjoy, make memories! Usage example: Your nephews are traveling to India for a month and you wish them, “Ta’asu chayim!” (“Have a great time!”)

Al ha’paneem (על הפנים) A classic Hebrew expression that simply does not translate well to English. Al hapaneem translates to “on the face.” Really, it has nothing to do with a face at all; it’s used to describe a big failure or something really bad. Usage example: You ask your friend how the movie was that she recently watched. She makes a face of displeasure and replies, “The movie was al hapaneem!” (“The movie was just terrible!”)

Sof ha’olam smalah (סוף העולם שמאלה) You are most likely to hear this expression when you are asking for directions to some obscure place. Word for word it means “the end of the world, to the left.” In English, the closest translation of its meaning would be “in the middle of nowhere.” Usage example: A person asks, “Where’s the wedding reception being held?” Other person answer (with a sigh), “It’s sof ha’olam smolah.” (“It’s way off in the middle of nowhere.”)

Sof ha’derech (סוף הדרך) Literally, this phrase translates to “end of the road” which is similar to the previous idiom “sof ha’olam smolah.” However, this expression has an entirely different usage. You use it when describing something so amazing that there are no other words to express your feelings. For example, someone asks you, “How was your vacation?” You just had the best week of your life, so you respond, “You have no idea! It was sof haderech!” (“You have no idea how absolutely amazing it was!!”)

Davka (דווקא) Finally, we come to the word davka, that Hebrew word that defies literal translation because there is no equivalent English word that captures all its various nuances. Morfix defines davka as: (colloquial) specifically, precisely; (colloquial) in fact, actually. While that’s true, davka also has an added element of attitude that simply gets lost in translation. Adding davka to a sentence makes it more pointed; doing something “davka” means doing something on purpose, or spitefully; davka can be used to point out a paradox; and it can mean not necessarily, or on the contrary, too. Usage examples: “She started the presentation davka just before I got there!” (“She started the presentation intentionally just before I arrived (to get to me…)!” Or, “You didn’t like the pasta? I davka liked it.” (“You didn’t like the Pasta? I actually (perhaps surprisingly) really liked it.”)

If the exact usage of the word davka and the other phrases still seems elusive to you, don’t despair! As with most things, getting a hang of these idioms is just a matter of practice and time.

Tangled – Anglos in Israel; lost in translation

Tangled – Anglos in Israel; a restaurant experience

My Sukkah Reminder

by Tova Horwitz

The other day I was waiting for my coffee at a cafe on Emek Refaim St. in Jerusalem. I began chatting with two women who shared that they recently made Aliyah after spending their youth and early adult years in America. They were studying Hebrew at nearby Ulpan-Or and had come to the cafe to practice their conversational skills as part of their course. On this day they were particularly excited as they had succeeded in ordering entirely in Hebrew, something many Anglos living in Israel and particularly in Jerusalem for over a decade cannot do.

My drink came and we parted ways but that brief encounter got me thinking how each oleh has their own unique aliyah journey. Some emerge from those initial months and years with lots of stories they will (hopefully) laugh about later, while for others the journey is smoother. But we all relate to the experience of leaving something behind (for me, that meant sitting in the sukkah bundled up in a hat, gloves, boots and winter coat) and beginning anew.

Whether you arrive as a child or as a senior citizen there are always challenges to be dealt with–learning Hebrew, adjusting to a new culture, making friends. But for older adults in the midst of busy careers and family rearing, or for those thinking about or already in retirement, there are likely more issues and more uncertainty. Health, family, financial and other concerns can put a damper on living out the dream of aliyah.

Fortunately, the holiday of Sukkot provides a soothing antidote to this aliyah-induced anxiety. After all, dwelling in a sukkah reminds us that God is ultimately in charge. While we do our part to build it, decorate it and invite in guests, what happens after that is out of our control. Will it be outrageously hot, or rain, or will the sukkah be overtaken by street cats? Even more so, God commands us to be at our most joyous during these potentially testing times.

So, too, with aliyah. We garner our faith, do our best, and try to smile even when it’s tough. And then, in true Israeli fashion, we say, “Yihyeh b’seder!” (It’ll work out!)


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