Surrounded by idioms: How campaign slogans get lost in English translation
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Reporter's notebookHow do you translate 'davka'?

Surrounded by idioms: How campaign slogans get lost in English translation

Key campaign messages with no clear counterparts in the Anglo vernacular present journalists with a challenge; and don’t get us started on party names

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

The Yisrael Beytenu election campaign slogan promising that party leader Avigdor Liberman 'won't be cowed,' January 20, 2019. (Raoul Wootliff/Times of Israel)
The Yisrael Beytenu election campaign slogan promising that party leader Avigdor Liberman 'won't be cowed,' January 20, 2019. (Raoul Wootliff/Times of Israel)

Immediately after the announcement that Labor chairman Isaac Herzog and Hatnua leader Tzipi Livni would be uniting their parties to run in the 2015 elections as Hamahane Hatzioni, English-language journalists gathered backstage to ask the two how the new faction should be referred to in English.

“What’s wrong with Zionist Camp?” queried Herzog, translating the name directly from Hebrew.

“US Jews will think it’s the place you go to lose your virginity,” replied Gil Hoffman, veteran Jerusalem Post political reporter.

“Well, at least it will remind them of good experiences,” Herzog quipped. Minutes later, the Zionist Union was officially christened instead.

Four years later and the current election cycle is presenting its own translation tribulations, as two key campaign slogans were launched by major parties Sunday, with no clear English version of either.

The problem? Idioms — those bite-sized proverbial phrases that make for great campaign material but don’t always make literal sense, and even less in foreign languages.

‘Davka’ Netanyahu

On billboards across the country, the Likud party unveiled its apparent official slogan ahead of the April election: “Davka Netanyahu. Likud.”

An election campaign poster for the Likud party featuring journalists (L-R) Raviv Drucker, Guy Peleg, Amnon Abramovich and Ben Caspit, saying, “They will not decide. You will decide” in central Israel, January 20, 2019. (Twitter)

The Hebrew word davka is well-known Jewish-speak, but proves almost inexplicable in English. Literally translatable as “in spite [of something],” “specifically” or “unexpectedly,” it could have several possible connotations in the context of the Likud election campaign.

Firstly, it appears to be urging voters to support Netanyahu despite, or because of, three graft probes in which he is suspected of bribery. Featured at the moment alongside a photo of journalists critical of Netanyahu and the phrase, “They will not decide, you will decide,” the slogan may also allude to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s pending decision on whether to charge Netanyahu in the corruption cases.

Apparently claiming that the featured reporters are trying to illegitimately affect the results of the elections, “Davka Netanyahu” seems to say that despite those efforts, the prime minister must still remain the number one choice.

Some read the slogan as meaning not just Likud but specifically Netanyahu. Alternatively, it could be viewed as calling for voters to specifically back Netanyahu in the face of longtime opposition calls to vote for “anyone but Netanyahu,” or in view of the fracturing of the right into multiple new Knesset slates.

Hardly a punchy and easily understood campaign message — not in English at least.

Liberman doesn’t give a damn

Later Sunday, former defense minister Avigdor Liberman revealed his Yisrael Beytenu party’s election slogan to a similar groan from English-language journalists.

“Liberman lo dofek heshbon” is another of those phrases that just don’t quite work in English. It is more or less a mixture of “Liberman doesn’t give a damn,” “Liberman doesn’t care what others think,” “Liberman will stand strong,” “Liberman makes his own decisions,” and “Liberman won’t be influenced.”

Campaign material reading ‘Liberman won’t be cowed,’ at the opening of the Yisrael Beyteinu party’s elections campaign in Tel Aviv on January 20, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

To make matters worse, beyond the main slogan, the party also unveiled four specific groups that Liberman apparently will not give in to: BDS and the left-wing West Bank watchdog group B’Tselem, ultra-Orthodox Jews, the Hamas terror group, and Arab Israeli MK Ahmad Tibi.

After much deliberation, The Times of Israel decided to go with “Liberman will not be cowed.” Not on his own, or by any of the above.

Name that party

In this election cycle — with some parties resembling amoebas as they split and form new factions and yet others being established from scratch — media outlets are also being challenged to translate numerous new party names that do not make sense in English, and don’t even have the advantage of being pithy or brief.

For new parties that put considerable effort into finding the right brand, the decision on the English name may seem trivial. English speakers make up only 2.9 percent of the eligible electorate and most of them also speak Hebrew. But with journalism representing the “first rough draft of history” (as famed Washington Post publisher Phillip L. Graham said), a bad initial translation or transliteration could stick for decades or more.

There is no clear or objective rule about how to treat party names, new or old, in English. Likud, for example, is the transliteration of the Hebrew — in English it may mean “consolidation” or “unification,” neither particularly catchy. Labor, on the other hand, is the English translation of Avoda, meaning “work,” and is rendered to reflect other global social-democratic parties that were formed to represent workers.

While most English-language publications, including The Times of Israel, respect the wishes of the party in their chosen English identity, some exceptions are made for the good of the reader.

The official logo for the New Right party saying it will be under the “chairmanship of [Ayelet] Shaked and [Naftali] Bennett. (Courtesy)
When Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minsiter Ayelet Shaked announced two days after the Knesset called elections that they were breaking away from the Jewish Home (which is also incidentally not referred to in this publication as HaBayit HaYehudi), an English-language spokesperson for the fledgling right-wing party immediately sent a statement to journalists: “The new party is to be known as ‘HaYemin HaHadash.'”

Moments later: “‘Correction — The new party is to be known as “HaYemin HeHadash.’”

Either way, the name was unintelligible to readers of English and told them nothing about what the party stood for. Initially reluctant to be known by the literal translation, presumably due to the connotation of neo-fascist movements, the spokesperson eventually agreed, and the “New Right” had its English name.

Former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz’s new party, which his campaign team said would be called Hosen LeYisrael in Hebrew, presented an even bigger challenge.

“Hosen” has no direct English translation. The Morfix Hebrew-English dictionary offers “strength,” “power” or “might” as possible options. Google Translate suggests “sturdiness.” None quite represented what Gantz was going for.

The Israel Resilience party logo including the slogan ‘Israel before everything.’ (Israel Resilience)

Transliteration was also a muddle, with the Hebrew first letter ‘ח’ offering poor choices. “Chosen” obviously has another clear meaning in English and would create considerable confusion, “Khosen” is far too ugly, and “Hosen” is an old-fashioned English word for trousers or leggings.

Responding to requests for clarification, party representatives first said it should be referred to as the “Israel Resilience Party” — a fitting translation but, alas, far too long for headlines or tweets. After The Times of Israel told the party that it would likely be referred to as the IRP for short and that there may therefore be confusion with Iran’s Islamic Revolution Party (which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would no doubt have loved to riff on), Israel Resilience, sans “Party,” was agreed upon.

Now that many of the names and slogans have somewhat acceptable English versions — Tnua Leumit Mamlachtit, literally translating as “National Statesmanlike Movement,” and Achi Yisraeli, “My brother is Israeli” (though that misses the pun in the original) as notable exceptions — the parties must now hope that not only the words, but davka the messages of their campaigns, are not lost in translation.

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