Hebrew is a very different from what speakers of English and other European languages are used to. It has a different alphabet system, it’s written from right to left and it doesn’t sound like anything familiar. It doesn’t have that many speakers (approx. 9 million worldwide, according to AWL and Hebrew Wikipedia). Maybe these are the reasons that these hebrew texts and translations did not turn out the way there were supposed to.
1. The late husband’s tombstone
On the BBC’s TV show Episodes, starring Matt LeBlanc, one of the scenes took place at a Jewish cemetery:
The first obvious mistake for any Hebrew reader is that the text is written from left to right, and not the other way around. Many computer programs have issues with RTL texts, so this may have been the source of the mistake.
When trying to read the text in the opposite direction, the second mistake emerges in the second line: the deceased “expensively made pickles” (החמיץ ביוקר). While this doesn’t make much sense, it is actually the awkward translation of “dearly missed”, probably made by some machine translation tool. Reading the third line, it says “beloved family man”, but the adjective comes before the noun and not after, as it should.
2. Boy George’s sweatshirt
Some of you may remember this Culture Club video from the 80’s:
The writing on Boy George’s sweatshirt says tarbut aguda (תרבות אגודה). tarbut means “culture”, and aguda means “association”, and it’s connotation as “club” might be archaic. However, the Hebrew construct state requires the word order to be opposite. It seems that the words “culture” and “club” were just looked up in a dictionary and copied on that sweatshirt, without any thought about differences between languages and their grammar.
Up until the early 90’s, band and song names used to be translated into Hebrew, so Culture Club was actually known as Moadon Tarbut (מועדון תרבות), which is the correct translation of their name. By the way, we also loved Khipushiyot HaKetzev (חיפושיות הקצב) – “The Beat Beetles”. People still refer to the Beatles as HaKhipushiyot (החיפושיות) – the Beetles.
3. LeBron’s sister’s cup
A few months ago an outraged Israeli fan decided to curse LeBron James on his Instagram page after David Blatt, formerly the beloved coach of Maccabi Tel Aviv, was fired from the Cleveland Cavaliers. The expression that fan chose is a strong and unpolitically-correct Hebrew curse word, referring to LeBron’s (possibly nonexistent) sister’s anatomy.
The news portal Cleaveland.com noticed this and wanted to know what that fan had said. However, they probably used an online translation tool, which misinterpreted the profane word as “cup” (kos, כוס), as both of them have the same spelling, but are pronounced differently. It seems that the reporter then googled the expression “your sister’s cup” and then came up with a biblical reference, from Ezekiel 23:33: “You will be filled with drunkenness and grief, with a cup of devastation and desolation, the cup of your sister Samaria”. The result: a report about Israeli fan using a biblical curse and wishing a plague upon Lebron. (read more here.)
4. Lord and Taylor’s Hanukkah ad
During the holidays Lord and Taylor posted a huge ad wishing their Jewish customers a happy Hanukkah:
The problem? The Hebrew letter tav (ת) was used instead of the similar letter khet (ח), so instead of חג חנוכה שמח, they wrote תג תנוכה שמח. To a native Hebrew reader this would seem as if the font is off, especially in this context, but תג תנוכה שמח (the one using the wrong letter) can also be understood as “her earlobe’s tag is happy” – not a very likely sentence.
5. David Beckham’s tattoo
Years ago, Victoria and David Beckham got romantic matching tattoos with a verse from Song of Songs (6:3): I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine, that feedeth among the lilies.
Hebrew is a gendered language and can’t be gender-neutral. For David Beckham, this means that the beloved his tattoo refers to (or referred to – he may have had it removed by now) is actually male.
(For more awkward Hebrew tattoos, check out Bad Hebrew Tattoos.)
How to avoid blunders of this kind, in any language? It’s simple: always consult a professional, from the translation to the graphic design and DTP.