Sometimes, literal translations don't work

This week marks the end of summer vacation for Israeli kids-- as any Israeli can tell when we venture into the back-to-school mayhem at Office Depot or Kravitz.

This got me thinking: the literal translation of "summer vacation" into Hebrew would be "chufshat kayitz," the "vacation of summer." But most Israelis call summer vacation "hachofesh hagadol," or "the big vacation." Jewish holidays insert a number of shorter vacations into the Israeli school year-- a week off for Sukkot, at least two weeks off for Passover, days off for Purim and Rosh Hashana and Shavuot. Summer vacation doesn't start until July here, but when it does, it's the big one-- "hachofesh hagadol."

There are many other phrases that are best not translated literally. For example, if I look up "retired" in the dictionary, I find "begimlaut" or "bedimus." However, most Israelis say "latzet lepensia"-- to go on a pension-- in place of "retired." Last night, my husband and I watched There Will be Blood, a very depressing Oscar-winning movie about a couple who ends up with a suitcase containing two million dollars and a psychopathic hitman in chase. After finding this windfall, they said they were "retired"-- which the Hebrew subtitles translated as "yotze lepensia," despite the fact that no pension was involved.

Sometimes literal translations INTO Hebrew fail. For example, I tend to say "right" a lot in English, so in Hebrew I say "nachon." Problem is, Israelis don't use "nachon" to express agreement-- they use it to confirm that something is correct-- so I end up sounding like I'm critically assessing what is being said to me instead of agreeing.

Similarly, when we were looking for apartments, I'd tell property owners that I wanted to "levaker et hadira"-- a literal translation of "to visit the apartment." However, "levaker" in Hebrew can also mean "to criticize," so what the owners heard was that I wanted to come criticize their home. (It's best to say you want to see the apartment, "liraot et hadira.")

Finally, there's the literal translation of the English movie title O Brother, Where art Thou into Hebrew: Achi, Aifo Atah? Which is accurate, except that O Brother, Where art Thou sounds like something you might read in the Bible, while Achi, Aifo Atah is something that Israeli cabbies shout at each other over their mobile phones-- "Hey bro, where you at?"

Have you encountered other examples of literal translation FAILS?


  1. Pretty much every movie title is translated terribly.

    Also, it sounds like the movie you saw was "No Country For Old Men," not "There Will Be Blood."

  2. Ah... yeah... as I said, bad Hebrew translations. I'll blame it on that. :)

  3. Next time, try saying "levaker badira" - literally, "to visit in the apartment". "levaker et" always means "to criticize", unless you're talking about people.
    "ani holech levaker et savta" means "i'm going to visit grandma", not telling her how she's doing so far as my relative...

  4. This is a mistake I made when I was in Israel on vacation a couple of weeks ago...

    I was at the Biblical Zoo and wanted to know where the trolley was going, so I asked someone who worked there, "Aifo ze holech?" Literally, where is this walking? I was trying to ask where it was going.

  5. "O Brother, Where art Thou- Translating movie names is actually part of my mothers job, and they are usually way off before they get to her ("אחי-אַיֶיך" would have obviously been a better title)...

  6. Omri, thanks for the Hebrew tip! Those little prepositions... grr..

    "Holech" is a good one-- it has specific meaning in Hebrew ("walk) but Americans tend to use it for everything... sometimes I propose "walking" to Tel Aviv from Haifa, but my husband knows what I mean. :)

    And wow, that's neat that translating movie titles is part of your mom's job, Shlomo! It must be difficult, especially since so many titles are idioms.

  7. Are you kidding? It's harder to think of examples that don't fail...

    Try, taking a photo, taking a shower, taking a drink - the answer will always be, "where do you want to take them - aren't they fine right here?"

    And re: using holech for go, this is definitely troublesome. How about "a cow goes moo?" Americans definitely use this verb too much. And here, on the opposite spectrum, each animal has it's own verb for the sound it makes...

  8. I love your blog. I noticed you have a cat named Zeus. We have a female Siamese who is being visited by a make 'friend' this weekend of the name of Zeus. it just caught my eye...

  9. yeah, well it's not as hard as it is absurd to see how the Israelis translated it (she does Israeli titles into English). They just don't seem to understand how rich a language English could be (they put like 5 seconds into thinking of a translation with their limited English)...

  10. Congratulations on your paragraph in Nathan's contest! I'll be back to your blog - what a fun, interesting place!

  11. I had so much fun reading your blog, it was a shame on the time!


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