תרגום ולשון

Exploring the space between Hebrew and English

Birds Chirp, Rats Squeak

Written By: merav - Apr• 03•14

And in Hebrew, שניהם מצייצים

In Hebrew they do the same thing, same verb, chirp, sort of, a word that itself sounds like a chirp. Certainly it is not as ugly as the squeak in English.

If I’m being honest, this is the first blog entry that deals directly with the space between Hebrew and English, the interesting differences in language that reflect differences in thought. This is a reflection of how nuances in English are lost in Hebrew.

Hebrew does not dwell on nuance. In fact, there is no word for “nuance” in Hebrew. Modern Hebrew has unapologetically directly imported the English word “nuance” and – when used – it is most often used to describe food or other sensory matters (or in academia, a terrain heavily influenced by English). Nor does Hebrew have a word for “subtlety” yet there is great celebration of subtlety in food: therefore the need to import a word like “nuance.”

Nuance in language becomes a Hebrew specialty when it comes to matters of holiness. In my experience there are about 20 or so Hebrew words that translate into English as “praise” (as anyone who has recited the Kaddish knows, even if they don’t know) – all are versions of the verb “praise” but differentiated by nuance. Praise by raising, praise by embellishing, praise by adorning, praise by… oh hell (oops, wrong sentiment), I’ve run out of words. And yet everyone who recites the Kaddish knowing Hebrew can explain the emotional difference, whether or not they believe in God, whether their God be the Jealous God of the Stiff-Necked Jews in the Desert, or the ever-accepting God of today’s concept of universality. The Hebrew word for praise has so many colors and shapes and meanings and nuances, even though Hebrew does not have a word for nuance or any other example of nuance.

This is just one example of the differences between Hebrew and English and the reason that this space deserves exploration.

Nuclear Weapons

Written By: merav - Dec• 12•13

Nuclear weapons are a failure of translation.

Before there were nuclear weapons there was national security. Before national security there was nationality. Before nationality there was national difference. Before national difference there was linguistic difference. Before linguistic difference there was language.

Translation is a bridge across language and, more importantly, a bridge across culture and nationality.

With nationality comes national insecurity and therefore national security.

Human history (as typically recorded) is a record of the failure to translate perceptions of national security across nationalities, in combination with the concept of incompatible national interests (which in turn derive from concepts of nationality that in turn depend on language).

Nuclear weapons, the greatest threat to any future human history, reflect the failure to bridge between national interests, which in turn reflect a failure to bridge languages. For these reasons, I became an international lawyer, then a disarmament specialist, and then a translator.

Honor thy father & mother

Written By: merav - Jun• 03•13

These days, between Mothers’ Day and Fathers’ Day – which could actually be any time of the year – bring to mind one of my strongest childhood memories about my parents. I never shared this memory with them because it revolved around a lie I had told them.

Six years before the bread experiment

It was the year before they divorced. The family had recently moved from Jerusalem to Chicago, temporarily. We children were enrolled in a Conservative Jewish day school, even though we had only known secular Israeli Judaism (as taught to children in 1960s Israel). But our parents did not want us to forget our Hebrew or our heritage during the one year that turned into two while we were away.

It would have been well into my first semester of third grade. The novelty of the new country and school would have worn off. The constant community of our Jerusalem neighborhood was missing, and I was probably bored. I wanted to do something, a scientific experiment, and in raising the topic somehow I let impression form that this experiment was a school assignment, a status that I confess I knew would give it more weight. My mother’s enthusiasm overshadowed any concerns I might have had at first about misleading her. She fed me ideas, we talked them through, and the topic that captured my attention was Pasteur and the discovery of penicillin. To be sure, it was my experiment, but she was free to pose informative questions and suggest reading material. She became my community for this project because I was used to doing everything, even and especially things like my first scientific experiment, with a community. My experiment focused on the different ways and rates by which bread molds when subjected to varying conditions: sun, shade, salt, water, milk, other things I don’t remember, and various combinations of these. Trays of bread soon filled our windowsills, countertops, and other available surfaces: slices or sponges of different and ever-changing colors and consistencies.

Eventually the question of reporting my findings arose. The molding process had been explored and observed, and our windowsills and countertops had other purposes. Again I don’t remember the details of how exactly I provided a date for delivery of the findings to my school, but apparently I did because this memory – the clearest, starkest snapshot of this entire story – is imprinted in my mind: There is my father. In one hand he is carefully balancing a tray of meticulously selected specimens of moldy bread, and with the other hand he is holding the car door open for me. And there’s me, climbing into the car – in my book bag a daily log of the rates and patterns of bread in the process of molding and a short biography of Louis Pasteur – wondering how I was going to explain this to Mrs. Edelberg.

Thank God for “Show and Tell.” That day I had every reason to praise the G-d of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah and Solomon Schechter Jewish Day School for incorporating the American elementary school tradition of Show and Tell, encouraging kids to bring something interesting from home every now and then – something to show to their classmates, then tell them why it is interesting. My experiment slipped into Show and Tell so seamlessly that I have no memory of the details of my presentation. Instead I remember being grateful for my father and his singular, attentive focus on ensuring the Safe Delivery of Merav’s Experiment. He was not yet a professor but clearly he already had the makings of a professor – that laser-sharp focus that anyone who is not the object or beneficiary of the focus calls absent-mindedness. He would not have noticed the absolute absence of any other experiments, luckily for me.

My mother eventually became a professor too, of another kind. She died young but left a legacy that has continued to inspire. Had she delivered my experiment, she would have been eager to see the other experiments, to admire and inquire and only indirectly and for my later benefit, to compare. She shone when it came to making connections. She was a fierce competitor, mainly with herself and for the sake of those she loved or the students she sought to encourage. She broke down barriers and paid a steep price for the trails she blazed. My sister, brother, and I, our mother’s students, and the students of her students continue to benefit from these trails, some of which have become well-worn paths and roads and routes to new academic terrain.

My father and my mother shared a powerful love of learning, but how different they were. No wonder they were so drawn to one another, and no wonder their union did not last. This memory stays with me because in retrospect it explains everything. My lie was of biblical proportions: it violated a commandment, but rather than being dishonored by it my parents honored the lie and made it a truth – the fact of my first experiment. They trustingly believed and even encouraged my lie precisely because I am their creation. It’s as simple and as circular as that. Even during that last year before their marriage ended, when the seeds of dissolution had already long been sown, they could not help but collaborate completely and unquestioningly in expanding their children’s education and cultivating our curiosity. This is honor.

The threat of wild passionflower

Written By: merav - Sep• 13•12

Wild passionflower threatens to bring down my connection to the information superhighway.

telephone pole pulled down by weight of wild passionflower

passionflower smothering phone cable

The telephone pole is leaning, pulled downwards by the weight of the wild vine that smothers the phone cable (diameter exceeding a meter/yard at one end) and nearby bushes and trees. In the next storm, I keep thinking, the line will go. The phone box is also buried under dense, wild, climbing, clinging passionflower. The last technician who came used wire cutters to reach the box and told me to have the building manager bring a gardener, urgently. The passionflower is rooted in ground belonging to a condemned building. Takeover by wild passionflower is what happens when this bit of land is neglected by people and left to its own devices.

Is this a metaphor for Tel Aviv? For the Middle East? This vine survives and thrives in all weather, predates and outlived current and past governments, flowers in the spring (its flowers present an interesting linguistic point), and is known for its various medicinal and healing powers, physical and emotional. This plant grows wild when left alone, clings and climbs (invaded my shower one summer), and has the power to sever my main links with the modern electronic world – telephone and internet.

Among the benefits passionflower is claimed to have:  treatment of anxiety, depression, insomnia, asthma, opiate withdrawal, seizures, arrhythmia, ADHD, and high blood pressure. More than a metaphor, then, could this rampant passionflower be a manifestation of the planet’s powers of healing and the potential for healthy, life-affirming tendencies to take over eventually, despite technological advances and political change?

The space between Hebrew and English

Written By: merav - Sep• 04•12

What is the space between Hebrew and English? Anyone who has spent time there knows it. It represents the place of Israel in the world, the terrain that Hebrew speakers and Israel’s representatives – official and unofficial, witting and unwitting, willing and even unwilling – must cross in any interaction with the world. Hebrew is the language of Israel and Jews. If we want to communicate with the rest of the world, some form of translation is necessary. When a mixed-group conversation shifts from English to Hebrew the tone and terms change too.

How does this asymmetric transition between the two languages affect Israel’s and Israelis’ interaction with the world? What special language has been created within the terrain itself, the space inhabited by speakers (writers, readers) of Hebrew and English from various backgrounds with varying levels of skill and comfort? And what about the efforts to keep Hebrew Hebrew, to prevent the creeping takeover of “La’az” – transliterated or roughly transliterated terms from western languages that keep permeating the language (and why the ‘prestige’ aspect of peppering sentences with foreign terms)?

What about this space?