5 awkward Hebrew translation mistakes

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.)


The report on Cleveland.com, which was later removed, courtesy of Israeli sports reporter Becky Griffin


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 that dies” – 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.


David Beckham’s Hebrew tattoo

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.


Language Post

I used to collect stamps for a few years as a child, and that may be the reason I still love stamps – colorful with beautiful pictures and interesting information. I think it’s really nice how postal services around the world still take the effort to design new , as people send fewer and fewer letters. Since I also love languages, I really like finding stamps that are about languages.

A stamp was dedicated to the Hebrew language was issued in 2011 by Israel Post (click to enlarge):

Hebrew Language Stamp From Israel Post website

The plant’s leaves spell out עברית or Hebrew (“Ivrit”), and its roots extend to four layers of the ground, each representing a historic form of Hebrew: Biblical, Mishnaic, Medieval and Modern, the deepest layer being the oldest. Words from the corresponding Hebrew form are written on each branch of the root, all still in use, as Modern Hebrew draws from all of them. For more information, check out this article on the Hebrew Academy website.

In April 2014 Israel Post issued another language stamp, but this time for a completely different language – Israeli Sign Language. ISL has its own syntax and it’s a language of its own. These stamps teach us how to sign thank youkissfriendshiplove, and goodbye (bottom row, left to right). The labels show us how to spell in ISL (click to enlarge):

ISL Stamps, Access Israel website

These new stamps inspired some research, and I found two older language stamps. The first was issued in 1959 and bears the picture of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922), who was the force behind the resurrection of Hebrew (click to enlarge):

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda stamp, Israel Philatelic Federation website

The second is from 2006 and bears the portrait of Ludwik L. Zamenhof (1859-1917), the creator of Esperanto. Zamenhof’s image is created from Esperanto words (click to enlarge):

Ludwik Zamenof stamp, Wikipedia

Do you know other language-related stamps? Please comment!

A Musical Post

An article called 12 Legendary English Songs That Are Even More Beautiful in Other Languages mentioned a cover for Leonard Cohen’s hallelujah by Israeli singer Mei Finegold. This reminded me there are many more Hebrew covers for global hits, as well as a few foreign covers for Hebrew songs. So sit back, crank up the volume and enjoy the music.

Since hallelujah has countless covers, I found another Hebrew one, translated by Kobi Meidan and performed by Eran Zur, Abigail Rose, Ivri Lider and Shlomi Shaban:

Singer-songwriter Chava Alberstein covered Hey, Jude by the Beatles, called Hey, Ruth in Hebrew (written by Yoram Taharlev):

I suppose Beatles covers were really popular around the 60s, as singer Arik Einstein covered Do You Want to Know a Secret. The Hebrew version is actually funny and has nothing to do with the original lyrics – a young man is waiting for his date, who is getting ready for their meeting. The chocolate he has brought her is melting, but she still hasn’t even popped her head out of the window. (Also written by Yoram Taharlev.)

Singer-songwriter Meir Ariel translated and covered Bob Dylan’s Knocking on Heaven’s Doors:

In the 90s Nick Cave & Kylie Minogue had a hit duet called Where the Wild Roses Grow. Singers Si Heyman and Dani Litani covered it:

English songs were not the only ones covered. Gilbert Becaud‘s tale of exotic Nathalie became Naphtali in Gadi Yagil song –  a story of a man who was always early, and eventually came home too early, only to find his wife with another man (starts at 0:33).

More recently, singer Kobi Peretz covered Khaled‘s catchy C’est la vie:

Toto Cotugno‘s L’italiano was covered by Doron Mazar in his hit Ani Khozer Habaita (אני חוזר הביתה, I’m coming home):

Some Hebrew songs also got their own foreign cover. In 1974 Israeli band Kaveret (a personal favorite) participated in the Eurovision contest with the song Natani La Khayay (נתתי לה חיי, “I gave her my life”). French singer Joe Dassin has his own version for the song, which is completely different from the original and talks about military life.

Israeli duo Hedva and David had a big hit in 1970 called Ani Holem al Naomi (אני חולם על נעמי, I dream of Naomi). Surprisingly, it became huge in Japan as well and got its own Japanese version, Naomi no yume (ナオミの夢, the dream of Naomi):

This song also has a Korean version, by Jung Hunhee, 1972:

Our next post will include all of my favorite covers that have nothing to do with Hebrew. Stay tuned!