"Pickled at Great Expense"

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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]


  1. richard howland-bolton said,

    June 18, 2012 @ 8:42 am


  2. Sili said,

    June 18, 2012 @ 9:16 am

    "pickled at great expense"

    That is nice bit of social commentary, though, on the ridiculous cult of death, that seems to pervade US culture so.

  3. Tal Linzen said,

    June 18, 2012 @ 11:46 am

    In this particular case, it's homophony rather than an orthographic issue: the word החמיץ [hexmits] on the gravestone is genuinely ambiguous between "became sour" and "missed", so the phrase can just as well be translated as "missed at great expense". Unfortunately, that would only be "missed" in the sense of missing an opportunity, rather than a person.

    There's a morphological issue with the translation, in addition to the lexical one: [hexmits] can only be transitive (implying that the deceased missed something) or intransitive (he became sour), but not passive (he will be missed).

  4. Adrian said,

    June 18, 2012 @ 12:23 pm

    Mr Jeffay's article isn't journalism, it's BS. If you use Google to translate "dearly missed" into Hebrew you get החמיץ ביוקר, which means "dearly missed". Since Episodes is a comedy, isn't it more likely that the line on the gravestone was humorous on purpose?

    (p.s. Here's the grape foreskin label: http://ajnwatch.blogspot.co.uk/2011/01/amazing-grapes-without-fear-of-shmitta.html . I doubt that Mr Jeffay "recently bought a bottle".)

  5. Yuval said,

    June 18, 2012 @ 12:43 pm

    What Tal* said, and the opposite of what Adrian (who got the script correct and the meaning completely wrong) said.
    To set the record straight, Episodes is aired in Israel, though the second season hasn't arrived yet.

    *my co-blogger at Dagesh Kal, the Israeli LL-knockoff.

  6. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    June 18, 2012 @ 12:52 pm

    @Adrian: I suppose you could say that החמיץ ביוקר means "dearly missed", but only if you don't know what "dearly missed" means. החמיץ can mean "(he) missed (an opportunity)", and ביוקר can mean "at great expense", i.e. "expensively" (hence "dearly" in some dialects of English), but "dearly missed" does not mean "(he) expensively missed (an opportunity)".

  7. Coby Lubliner said,

    June 18, 2012 @ 12:54 pm

    While putting just "dearly missed" into Google Translate does in fact yield החמיץ ביוקר, the full phrase "he will be dearly missed" comes out as הוא יחסר מאוד (literally "he will lack very much"), which seems quite appropriate. Obviously the quality of the product of GT, as of any other tool, depends on the user's skill.

  8. Yuval said,

    June 18, 2012 @ 1:06 pm

    Actually what Coby got is good. הוא יחסר is not only "he will lack", but also the passive "he will be missed". The modifier מאוד, which applies to verbs (as an adverb, like "greatly") but cannot replace a noun phrase to form object (like "a lot") makes the passive interpretation obligatory.

  9. Brett said,

    June 18, 2012 @ 1:21 pm

    I was struck by the assertion that the gravestones were bilingual "as per Jewish tradition." I suppose that's true, but it's a rather recent tradition. This last weekend, as part of a long drive from the Midwest to the South, I stopped at the cemetery where the members of the most intensely Jewish branch of my family are buried. It's true that most of the graves are labeled in both English and Hebrew, but some of the more recent ones are solely in English (except for perhaps two Hebrew characters), and all the really old markers are labeled exclusively in Hebrew. This is in spite of the fact that prior to the 1920s, this particular Jewish community was primarily Yiddish speaking, and Hebrew vocabulary was limited to a few ritual phrases for many speakers. So the traditional way of marking the graves was in a language that many of the deceased and their families were not fluent in (although I think almost everyone probably knew enough to read the grave markers themselves).

  10. kamo said,

    June 18, 2012 @ 7:17 pm

    'Pickled at great expense'?

    I wasn't aware that Lenin was Jewish. That'd certainly put a new spin on things…

  11. YM said,

    June 18, 2012 @ 9:06 pm

    The English 'miss' covers three senses, which translate differently in Hebrew. 'To miss', in the sense of feeling sadness for someone's absence, can be translated as להתגעגע /lehitgaʔageʔa/ (with an indirect object), whch can be used for a living person, like the English 'yearn'. For a person who's dead and gone, Coby's יחסר /yexsar/ (masc. sing., future tense) is a good translation. The verb here, להחמיץ /lehaxmits/, translates the English sense of not being around for something, like missing a bus. It comes from the root חמץ 'sour', historically related to letting something wait too long until it leavens.

  12. Coby Lubliner said,

    June 18, 2012 @ 9:46 pm

    YM: יחסר was not mine (though if would have been had I been asked to translate) but Google Translate's. My point was that in using the tool, one has to bear in mind the possible polysemies of the words put in and create as much context as possible for the translation machine. My experience is that when this is done the result is usually pretty good.

    Google Maps is another kettle of fish (עוד קומקום של דגים — not kidding).

  13. Michael Collins Dunn said,

    June 20, 2012 @ 12:18 am

    An addendum to the Elon/Oz/Begin story: the noun which meant "weapon" in classical Hebrew and "penis" in modern Hebrew is zayin, the same has the Hebrew letter z, and in both cases the meaning supposedly derived from the shape of the Hebrew letter zayin: ז

  14. Fragano Ledgister said,

    June 21, 2012 @ 9:19 am

    I was recently mentioned in a story in a Chinese-language publication in the US. The writer used the version of my name on my business card (F.S.J. Ledgister). This came back from the Chinese as "Professor Reggie Lancaster". The "Professor" I understand, since that's my job, but "Reggie Lancaster"?

  15. Gadi said,

    June 25, 2012 @ 2:54 pm


    It is indeed as recent as the Ptolemaic period some 2200 years ago – most Jewish graves from that time found in Israel/Palestine have both Greek and Hebrew lettering…

  16. This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik said,

    June 29, 2012 @ 9:04 am

    […] Mair examined PRC taikonauts and the transcription of China in Chinese characters. Mark Liberman pickled a mistranslation at great expense and compared versus and verses. Geoff Pullum noticed some blithering idiocy on the subjunctive; […]

  17. Amir said,

    July 14, 2012 @ 10:42 am

    I find it amusing that the Malaysian-related phrase "clothing that pokes the eye", when translated literally to Hebrew, would work perfectly.

  18. Machine Translation Without the Translation | French Translation said,

    June 3, 2013 @ 8:10 pm

    […] errors attendant on this kind of pseudotranslation via gambling can be hilarious. A single Language Log post reports on a BBC TV show with a gravestone stating in Hebrew that the deceased was “pickled at […]

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