Google Translate has again provided innocent amusement to hundreds of thousands of netizens. But this time, the amusing transduction is not from Chinese to English, but rather from English to Hebrew. And the BBC, a well-known British comedy channel, provided an assist. Nathan Jeffay at The Guardian ("How BBC comedy Episodes inadvertently went viral in Israel") explains:
Everyone in Israel is talking about the British-American BBC comedy Episodes. Not that it is airing there, but the show has recently become famous for its disastrous use of freebie online translation.
In episode three, Merc Lapidus, one of the lead characters, attends the funeral of his father. The episode was shown in the UK several weeks ago and is airing in the US later this summer.The gravestone, as per Jewish tradition, is bilingual – the local vernacular, in this case English, along with Hebrew. But the entire Hebrew inscription is written backwards, starting with the last letter and working back to the first. The reason, of course, is that Hebrew runs in the opposite direction from English, from right to left. And it gets worse. If you go to the trouble of reading the text, you'll discover that the man commemorated, a certain Yuhudi Penzel, has been "pickled at great expense". This is what you get if you use Google Translate to render "dearly missed" into Hebrew. The blooper is now going viral in Israel.
I haven't verified that Google Translate is responsible for pickling the fictional departed — and certainly reversing the order of the letters must have been done by the show's graphics department, perhaps due to a photoshop mix-up. In any case, the episode of Episodes in question seems to be Episode 3 of season two.
Mr. Jeffay continues:
Automated translation has its hazards, whatever the language. In January, Malaysia's Defence Ministry rewrote its English website after relying on Google Translate and informing web users that the ministry's dress code bans "clothes that poke eye" (revealing attire) and that Malaysia has worked to "increase the level of any national security threat." But Hebrew, with a particularly high number of words with multiple meanings, and complex linguistic relationship between the ancient and modern language, poses particular problems. I recently bought a bottle of grape juice. Kosher laws require that fruit is only picked from a plant over four years old – pick it younger and the fruit is called orla and can't be eaten. Seemingly an online translation threw up the more common meaning of orla: my bottle reassured me that I could drink it "without fear that it contains foreskin".
I'm skeptical of the view that Hebrew as a spoken language has "a particularly high number of words with multiple meanings" — it seems more likely that the omission of vowels in the writing system is responsible for any increase in lexical ambiguity. However, Hebrew certainly has its fair share of ambiguities, and the juxtaposition of ancient and modern idioms can create some good jokes. Here's one, as recounted in a Language Log post from a few years ago ("Begin Arming Israel", 12/17/2004):
When writer Amos Oz was a 12-year-old boy, we are told in Elon's review (NYRB 12/16/04, 22-24), he once sat with his father and his grandfather, along with other right-wing Israelis, in the front row at an event where a speech was given by Menachem Begin. Like most right-wing politicians of the time, Begin spoke a rather classical Hebrew, reminiscent of the Bible, not of the street. The front three rows were mainly intellectuals, but the people behind them, the great majority of the audience, were working-class immigrants to Israel from Middle Eastern countries, and they spoke the colloquial "street" Hebrew of the Jerusalem area. Now, it turns out that in biblical Hebrew, though not in the Jerusalem vernacular, the same word was used at the time for "weapon" and the male sexual organ. And in the vernacular, though not in Biblical Hebrew, the verb "to arm" (to slip someone your weapon, as it were) had acquired a new meaning: it was used to mean "to fuck". Says Elon:
Begin, a great orator, was attacking the readiness of the great powers to arm the Arabs.
In rising, melodic cadences Begin was, for most of those present, complaining that Eisenhower and Anthony Eden were "fucking" Nasser day and night. "But who is fucking us?" he asked in an outraged voice. "Nobody! Absolutely nobody!" A stunned silence filled the hall. Begin did not notice. He went on to predict that if he were to become prime minister everyone would be fucking Israel.
A pitter-patter of applause came from the Zionist scholars in the front three rows. Most of the audience, though, maintained a stunned and horrified silence. Only the 12-year-old Amos Oz was apparently unable to contain himself, and burst out in helpless laughter.
The episode is described in a more delicate way in Oz's memoir, "A Tale of Love and Darkness":
[Tip of the hat to CM]