Translatable but Debatable.

Translatable but Debatable is a series of posts at Elephant featuring Hebrew words which don’t translate well into English, e.g. סתם stam, by Mark L. Levinson:

[…] Guy Sharett’s Streetwise Hebrew site provides a podcast that not only explains some meanings of stam, and pronounces it for you, but also demonstrates the vocal intonations used in various contexts. Most notable is the stam that means “I was only kidding.” But since I can’t cut and paste from a podcast, I’ll cut and paste from Shoshana Kordova’s take on stam in Haaretz:

Let’s say your Israeli colleague wants to pull your leg. When you get into the office your coworker, ever a kidder, announces that the computer system is down and no one will be able to do any work until the tech people fix it. He watches as you get excited (“Yes! I get to play hooky without having to take a sick day!”) or upset (“Now I’ll have to stay longer to finish the project I need to get done today!”), and then breaks in to let you know it was all a joke. The word he reaches for could well be “stam,” but in this context the “a” sound is usually drawn out, sounding something like “Staaaaaaaaaahm!”

Maybe that long, needling pronunciation is a word-killer. Although you can read in one place that “Israelis use the word ‘stam’ at every chance they get” (LearningHebrew.net.) elsewhere you can read that “its not a word you hear often. I (and others) use it 99% of the time as ‘Just Kidding’, but it is slang.” (Alonke, at Duolingo.com). Certainly at one time stam seemed to be tied with davka for #1 among the uniquely characteristic words of modern Hebrew. Dov Ben-Abba, in his Signet paperback dictionary, defines it as “for no obvious reason; just like that; devoid of any special meaning.”

Levinson goes on to discuss fine shades of meaning, as well as the etymology:

There seems to be a thread of etymology reaching all the way back to the Bible. In Genesis 26:15 Isaac finds that “all the wells which his father’s servants had digged in the days of Abraham his father, the Philistines had stopped them (satmoom), and filled them with earth.” […] Satoom, the passive, is used for cryptic things that are withheld from understanding […]. I suppose that from the idea of something that can’t be understood — or is “undefined, indefinite” as Danby & Segal say in their dictionary for Dvir Publishing — the word extended itself to circumstances where there is apparently nothing to understand, no particular motivation, nothing special.

It’s a long entry full of good tidbits, and there’s lots more where that came from. I love this kind of thing; thanks, Yoram!

Comments

  1. Thanks for the mention. Particularly in the more recent entries, I’ve tried to make sure that readers who know no Hebrew will not encounter any serious obstacles. My favorite is http://www.elephant.org.il/translate/translatable-but-debatable-shakool , where I could point to five different ways the news media, mentioning a particular election poster, translated the same Hebrew word.

  2. Stam is challenging, but not the worst. A lot of it can be translated as American English “psych!”

    I used to think davka was the toughest: it’s a marker of contrariness or even spite, and is quite common in both colloquial and formal Hebrew. Sometimes it can sort of be translated as “au contraire”, though it loses the punchiness of the original.

    לְהַבְדִּיל Lehavdil is now my top Hebrew untranslatable. Literally ‘to set apart’, with the sense of “not that I’m comparing”: “My grandfather was vegetarian, as is, lehavdil, a cow.” There’s even the stronger לְהַבְדִּיל בְּאֶלֶף הַבְדָּלוֹת lehavdil be’elef havdalot ‘to set apart a thousandfold’, as in “My grandfather was vegetarian, as was Hitler, lehavdil be’elef havdalot.”

  3. January First-of-May says:

    לְהַבְדִּיל Lehavdil is now my top Hebrew untranslatable. Literally ‘to set apart’, with the sense of “not that I’m comparing”

    So kind of like “no pun intended”, except more generic?

    [EDIT: unrelatedly, I wonder if there’s a font somewhere that uses the cursive letters for Hebrew italic…]

  4. Trond Engen says:

    In Norwegian. We say Ingen sammenlikning forøvrig “no comparison otherwise” when we want to draw undue attention to an unfair comparison.

  5. My favorite Tel Aviv stam joke:

    “Yossi, why are you peeing on the sidewalk?”

    Stam, Ima. [That’s just the way it is, Mom.]”

  6. I wonder if there’s a font somewhere that uses the cursive letters for Hebrew italic…

    Traditional Hebrew typography doesn’t have an equivalent to italics. Earlier 20th century typography sometimes uses very thin typefaces, or spaces out the letters. Computer type can slant the letters, but that’s usually used as a low-budget stylistic effect, not so much for emphasizing text.

  7. January First-of-May says:

    Traditional Hebrew typography doesn’t have an equivalent to italics.

    There’s a fairly standartized set of cursive letters, though, which is what I was talking about (though I agree that it would probably be a bad fit for emphasis).

  8. I used to think davka was the toughest: it’s a marker of contrariness or even spite, and is quite common in both colloquial and formal Hebrew. Sometimes it can sort of be translated as “au contraire”, though it loses the punchiness of the original.

    That must be the source of German (mostly advertised as Berliner slang) aus Daffke “on a whim, just for fun”.

  9. Maybe, though the meaning is clearly distinct.

  10. marie-lucie says:

    spite

    Just a few days ago a non-native professor of French asked me about the difference between la déception and le dépit, which she had found hard to explain to a student. She gave as an example the probable feelings of Hillary Clinton on her defeat to DJT. I offered my own examples: Hillary Clinton a eu une grosse déception (disappointment) lorsque les résultats du vote ont été annoncés versus Quand Trump n’est pas content de quelqu’un, il se retourne contre lui par dépit (out of spite). It seems to me that le dépit, like ‘spite’, implies not only strong disappointment but also a desire for revenge, whether revenge is feasible or not (in which case the behaviour is often directed at someone or something else). Am I right about the English word?

  11. I think the expression “cutting off your nose to spite our face” nicely encapsulates the meaning of the English word.

    The ‘spiteful meaning’ of Hebrew davka would be, for example, in הוא הזמין אותי לקפה, אז הזמנתי דוקא תה hu hizmin oti lekafe, az hizmanti davka te. ‘He invited me for coffee, so I ordered davka tea.’ The person saying that is making a defiant gesture: they ordered tea not because they like it, but to demonstrate going against the other person.

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