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.


Another Musical Post: My Favorite Covers

At the end of my previous post I promised this post will include my favorite covers, where both the original songs and the covers had nothing to do with Hebrew.

Israelis weren’t the only ones to cover the Beatles; Les Compagnons de la chanson have their own version of Yellow Submarine, only the submarine is green:

Scott McKenzie’s San Francisco was covered by Johnny Hallyday:

It seems Adamo had a big hit with Tombe la neige, and he also recorded a Japanese version.

You can also hear Japanese singer Misora Hibari‘s version:

Another French cover is Dalida’s version of Brian Hyland’s Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini:

We all know the Platters’ Only You. But do you know the Italian Version? It’s probably by Little Tony.

The Ukranians are a British band that plays traditional Ukrainian music. They gave a Ukrainian twist to The Smiths’ Bigmouth Strikes Again:

Dschinghis Khan didn’t win the 1979 (Israel did, with this song), but their song, also called Dschinghis Khan, became a huge hit. Almost 30 years later, Japanese girl group Berryz Koubou released their version of the song. Be careful: you won’t be able to get this song out of your head easily.

And last but not least, a personal favorite: A traditional Japanese version of Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water about a fire in Edo:

Do you know other such interesting covers? Please comment and share!

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!

FAQ for Translators

Ever since I bacame a translator, I get asked a lot of about it, be it by friends or strangers. Here are the most common questions I get and my answers. I’d love to hear your answers, as well as other questions you get.

Q: Are you a translator? I thought computer did everything these days.

A: There’s no doubt that computer-generated translation can be very impressive, but it depends on the langauage pair and subject. Machine translation can be useful when you want to translate huge text volumes very quickly, or when you only need the general meaning. Some translators and editors now edit maching translations instead of translating (we call this “post-editing”), but the results are usually so bad that they’d rather translate the text from scratch.

Each language requires and provides different kind of information. For instance, when translating from English into Hebrew, the translator has to figure out if the subject is masculine or feminine. When translating from Japanese, sometimes the translator will struggle to figure out if it’s singular or plural, or if the verb is in first, second or third person. Sometimes you have to preserve the vagueness of the source. It seems to me that it will take a long time for maching translation to be able to make such decisions, that require knowledge beyond the translation itself. And that’s without even mentioning word plays or allusions.

Q: So you’re an interpreter?

A: No, I’m a translator. Translation is done in writing, while interpreting is oral. Interpreting can be simultaneous, so the interpreter speaks at the same time as the speaker, or consecutive, so the speaker pauses after each point and the interpreter interprets them.

Personally, I work somewhere in between – Typed simultaneous lecture translation. I type in real time the translation of the speaker, and it’s projected on a nearby screen, like subtitles.

Q: Do you have to learn translation?

A: It depends. In Israel, where I work, there is no oficial requirement for an academic background in translation, and there are many wonderful translators working without being trained. Other countries might have different requirements, either to work as translators or to get certified. (Feel free to comment about the situation in your country!)

Either way, there are many advantages to studying translation: taking your first steps in a safe environment, learning about translation theories and trying out different genres and fields. Translation Studies are also great for networking with both your fellow students and professors.

Q: My friends needs to translate a document into French. Should I give her your number?

A: Although I translate from French, I don’t translate into it. Try translating something into English or any other language you speak that isn’t your mother tongue – it’s much harder and the quality of your translation is probably not that great. It’s best for a translator to translate only into their mother tongue ot to languages they feel they can properly translate into (not all texts, of course, but that’s for the next question). Professional translators know their boundaries and keep them.

Q: My friend needs a translation about intestinal problems in chickens. Should I give her your e-mail?

A: Translators can only translate texts about fields they know about, as they need to be familiar with the termilnology and produce a text that sounds professionals even to mavens. Since I don’t know anything about intestinal problems in chickens (true story!), I can’t help your friend. However, I can try to help her find a translator that does know something about it.

Q: Why are subtitles and movie titles translated so badly:

A: This may only be relevant to Israel, but I suspect other countries have these issues as well, for the same reasons.

Regarding subtitles: the rates for subtitling are extremely low, so the quality of the translations is imparied. Also, we all make mistakes, and since the source and the target are appear together, it’s easier to spot mistakes.

As for movie titles: The movie distributors pick them out, and they have their own considerations, so sometimes the local movie title has nothing to do with the original.

The 5 Secret Traits of Great Translators

When you think of great translators, you think of qualities such as curiosity, proficiency in several languages or being sensitive to linguistic and literary nuances. There is no doubt all of these are very important when it comes to translators, but there are other traits that are just as important, but are mostly overlooked:

1. Decisiveness – When translating, we constantly have to make decisions. What is the right word order? Which word better expresses the nuances that appear in the source? Since we have to provide the client with a clean, ready-to-use translation, we have to reach a decision and move on to the next sentence.

2. The Ability to Let Go – Every project has its deadline, whether in a few hours, days or months. Since our time is limited (and according to Murphy’s Law for Translators every project will be more complicated than initially seemed), we must accept the fact that we can’t endlessly polish our work and that it doesn’t have to be perfect, but rather good enough and adapted to the client’s needs and requirements. For instance, some terms that are more important in terms of understanding the text or enjoying it, and others are less important. We must be able to recognize when a term is less significant and doesn’t justify a two-hour search.

3. Being Nice – My grandmother used to say, “you catch more flies with honey”. Although most of us work alone at home and have limited interactions with others, these interactions still exist. As professionals we interact with existing and potential clients, colleagues and various service providers, and we have to keep it pleasant so they’d want to keep in touch with us. Sometimes being nice can make all the difference.

4. Assertiveness – Sometimes our needs, abilities, skills and wishes don’t correspond to those of the clients (e.g. impossible schedules, projects that don’t match your specializations). We have to be able to stand up for ourselves and refuse any demands we can’t accept, all while being respectful and considerate of the client and finding a solution that all parties are happy with. If you’ll be aggressive, there’s a chance the client wouldn’t want to work with you again (see no. 3). There will be more on assertiveness in one of my next posts.

5. Humility – Put your egos aside and think of the best way to convey your text, with its content, voice and message. If you’re not a 100% sure of some term or grammatical issue, double-check them. When you receive an edited version of your work, see it as a chance to learn – we don’t always get feedback on or own work, or a glimpse to another translator’s work. Go over the corrections and see which are justified, but also know the difference between stylistic preferences and actual errors.

Can you think of other qualities that are important for translators?


Signs You are a Translator (or Should Be)

In 2012 I created a list of signs you should be a translator, with the kind help of the members of the Agenda Translation Forum on Facebook. Here it is:

(You may have stumbled upon this list before, as the Norwegian-Hebrew translator Dana Caspi translated it into Norwegian for a workshop several months ago, and it got translated into other languages. At the end of this post you can find the German version, translated from Norwegian by Ebba D. Drolshagen.)  

  • You read any text you see, be it your milk carton or conditioner bottle.
  • Language mistakes give you the shivers.
  • You obsessively correct people’s grammar.
  • You also obsessively proofread every text you stumble upon (including those on the back of your cleaning products) and edit it too, while you’re at it.
  • You always help people find the words they’re looking for.
  • You always help tourists communicate with bus drivers and supermarket cashiers.
  • That moment when you’re reading a text in your source language for fun and suddenly realize you’re translating it in your head.
  • You’re also trying to decide if you want to translate it and if your target audience will like it.
  • People always ask you about word meanings.
  • You usually know the answer.
  • When people ask you a professional question, you usually ask for the context.
  • When you read a translated novel, you keep wondering what the source looked like.
  • Sometimes you realize the novel you’re reading is actually in its original language.
  • When you read a book with lots of word plays, you’re upset or frustrated because it’s untranslatable.
  • And then you feel sorry for the actual translator.
  • You know your text better than its author.
  • You won’t rest until you find the exact word you’re looking for.
  • That moment you wake up in the middle of the night with that word you were looking for yesterday.
  • You get mad when book reviews fail to mention the translator.
  • You get asked at least once a month what’s the use for translators when you’ve got Google.
  • The number of dictionaries you own is in the double-digits zone, and the digit in the tens place probably isn’t one.
  • Your happiest moment is when you stumble upon a word you don’t know and have to look it up.
  • You call limousine services to ask about vehicle lengths and their local names, not to mention jewelry-making supplies stores, lawyers, accountants, crane operators and rock band members – anyone who can help you find the correct term.
  • When looking for that elusive term, you also enter countless online professional forums and post questions that start with “hello, I’m a translator and I’m working on a text about…”


Can you think of other signs? Please post them in the comments.


Many thanks to the Agenda group members, and especially Linda Penias Ohana, Inbal Sagiv-Nakdimon, Liron Rubins, Sharona Guri, Lior Betzer, Nina Rimon DavisTami Eylon OrtalAda Lewinski, Anna Lein, Guy Herling, Mor Rosenfeld, Ora Dankner and Yifat Ben Yaakov.

Translation Blogger Project: My Best Tip for Translators

Back in June, the Hebrew translation bloggers decided to create the first project of its kind and post our most important tip for translators, as well as a tip by another translator of our choice, hoping to creat a pool of useful and inspiring advice. I posted my tip in Hebrew back then, and I figured this would be a nice first post for my English blog.

I contacted Dorit Attar, English > Hebrew translator and editor. Her tip:

As translators, we’re constantly learning – New fields, new terminology, new work methods. My best advice for every translator, especially beginners, is to learn as much as you can from every job you do. One of the best ways to do so is to ask to see the material you’ve translated after editing and always ask for feedback and comments. If you work with translation agencies, one of their greatest advantages is that all materials are edited by experienced professionals, and this is a wonderful opportunity to learn from them. I also ask to see the final version of the translation from other clients, who are not translation and writing professionals. Not only do you get to learn about the field you’re translating, you can also learn about your client’s preferences and save them extra work on future projects.

And my tip: Don’t forget you’re a business owner, and not “just” a translator. This has several implications: First, you wear more than one hat: translator, manager, marketing team, bookkeeper, IT technician etc. You have to master each of these roles, and not just translation.

The other implication is that you should and you must invest in your business. Conferences, software, ergonomic equipment, marketing materials, literature – they all cost money, but you have to see them as investments and not just as spending. Think of these points: What do I get out of using these? Will ergonomic equipment prevent pain that will keep me from working? Will I learn new things at conferences and make new connections that will lead to more work? Will a bookkeeping program save me some time or help me keep everything in order? This sort of thinking will help you decide whether an expenditure is worthwhile. The benefit doesn’t have to be strictly professional: You should take care of your body regardless of work, and you can  also make new friends at professional events.

As for your other hats: you can also decide that you can’t do some of them, for any reason whatsoever, and outsource them to a professional.

You can read the other tips here:



Have you got tips of your own? Leave a comment!