Tuesday, June 19, 2012

BBC Comedy Uses Google to Translate Hebrew and Gets in a Pickle

With a quarter of a million Jews in England, you would think that a television production company wanting to put a Hebrew phrase on a tombstone for an upcoming episode of a comedy series would find at least one who could come up with a good translation.
But the producers of Episodes, a sitcom in its second year starring American actor Matt LeBlanc, either didn't have the time or the smarts to do so. What did they do instead?

When they wanted to put the phrase "dearly missed" in Hebrew on the tombstone of a character in the series, they turned to Google Tranlsator. Unfortunately, Google must have giggled when it translated the phrase as "pickled at great expense." And it compounded the error when it reversed the Hebrew letters.

Line by line, when read from left to right, the inscription says:
BA'AL V'AV AHUV (Beloved husband and father)
HECHEMITZ B'YOKER (Pickled at great expense)
AHUV BA'AL MISHPACHA (Beloved head of family)

As Nathan Jeffay wrote in The Guardian on Sunday,
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.

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".
 (A tip of the kippah to Esther Kustanowitz for bringing this story to our attention.)


  1. NU? May his pickled Neshama Rest-in-Peace!............I LOVE this series,BTW!........lol.....lol.......M.A.

  2. Hate to spoil the fun, but saying that "hechemitz b'yoker" means "pickled at great expense" is as egregious an error as that attributed to Google.

    The term "hechemitz" can be translated as "pickled" by extension from the meaning "soured" (i.e., something sat around too long and became "chametz" (fermented)), but in Modern Hebrew the term "hechemitz" is more often used metaphorically to mean "missed" in the sense of a missed opportunity (i.e., someone sat around too long before deciding). The translation error was in choosing the wrong sense of "missed", and of course, the wrong word for "dear". Thus "hechemitz b'yoker" should be translated as "he missed [an opportunity] at great cost". Not as funny as the Beeb's mistake, and not nearly as funny as the mistake of the person who misunderstood that mistake.

  3. Ish Hayil, you are only partly right. It's incorrect to state that "in Modern Hebrew the term "hechemitz" is MORE OFTEN used metaphorically to mean "missed"".

    Anyway, here's another compounded error:

    "AHUV BA'AL MISHPACHA (Beloved head of family)"

    - no, it isn't: it means "A beloved person with a family".

    And what's this nonsense about 'they didn't have the time' to get it done properly? Episodes are planned, written and rewritten quite a while in advance. It's simply that these people are cheapskates and/or amateurs. There are professional English>Hebrew (and Hebrew>English) translators in the UK. It's perfectly easy to find them through our professional institute, the ITI. But one needs to have the brains to look.