Protected Area: Koren Shadmi’s art appeared in August 7’s New York Times.

Is Operation Protective Edge a Mistake in Translation?

You all know those children’s puzzles in which you have to look at a picture and identify the details that are wrong. Those of you who can read some Hebrew might try this one from the August 7 New York Times. On its op-ed page is a cartoon essay by the Israeli-born, Brooklyn-based illustrator Koren Shadmi about coming to Israel during Operation Protective Edge. Its first frames appear alongside this column. You have a minute.

58, 59, 60. Time’s up. Here’s the answer if you haven’t found it yet.

The airport sign in frame 1 says “Shelter” in English and, ostensibly, merḥ av mugan, “Protected Area,” in Hebrew. (Merḥ av mugan is short for merḥ mugan dirati, “single-dwelling protected area,” more commonly known in Israel by its acronym of mamad. A mamad is a windowless room in an apartment or house with a specially reinforced ceiling and walls that can withstand bombs or rockets and is required by Israeli building regulations, but the term merḥmugan has come to designate a public bomb shelter as well.) The billboard in frame 2 says, in Hebrew, ‘Toda l’khol mi she’megen aleynu,” “Thanks to everyone who protects us.”

And now take a look at the initial letters of merḥ av and mugan in frame 1. (For those of you who can’t read Hebrew, don’t forget to scan from right to left.) Both are meant to be the character mem and should look exactly the same — but they don’t. Moreover, mem is also the initial letter of the word mi, “who,” in line 2 of frame 2, and the second letter of she’megen, “who protects us,” in line 3 — yet these two mems, while they do look the same, are different from the mems in frame 1. They are also, it so happens, drawn correctly, whereas the mems in frame 1 are not. The first of these bears more resemblance to a peh or kaf, so that the word it begins would seem to be perḥhav or kerḥ av.

That’s not all, either. Regard, in frame 1, the last letter of mugan, which is supposed to be a final nun. (The letter nun in Hebrew, together with kaf, mem, peh and tsadi, has a special form at the end of a word.) Now compare it to the final nun of she’megen in frame 2. Not the same is, is it? It, too, is an error, since the rightward jiggle at the bottom of it, which doesn’t appear in the correctly drawn letter in frame 2, is patently wrong.

No doubt other readers of the Times have noticed this, too. I don’t know quite how to account for it. Shadmi’s mother tongue is Hebrew, so it’s hardly conceivable that he would have misdrawn two of its letters, but it’s also hard to imagine that someone at the Times would have deliberately changed what he drew. What is imaginable, however, because the Times has made comparable errors (one or two on which I’ve commented) involving Hebrew or Yiddish in the past, is that no one at the paper bothered to show the cartoon to a competent proofreader before publishing it. You don’t have to be Jewish to like rye bread, and you apparently don’t have to be a Jewish newspaper (although the Times has sometimes been accused of being one) to think that you know enough about Jewish languages to be excused from consulting someone who actually does.

As for Operation Protective Edge, the name has come in for no little ridicule. Quite rightly, too, for “protective edge” is a rather inexplicable English translation by someone in the Israeli army representative’s office of the Hebrew tsuk eytan, which means a mighty or impregnable cliff. It’s not just the Times that could use some editorial help.

And why tsuk eytan or “mighty cliff” in Hebrew? No one seems to know. Despite its presence in a phony biblical verse that has been circulating on the Israeli Internet, it isn’t a phrase taken from Jewish sources. Nor can one put much credence in the claim, also making the rounds, that, since the first letters of tsuk eytan, tsadi-alef, have the numerical value of 91, this is a reference to the 91st Psalm, which reads in part: “He [God] shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler and from the noisome pestilence. He shall cover thee with his wings and under his pinions thou shalt trust. Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night, nor for the arrow that flieth by day….”

“The arrow that flieth by day” isn’t bad for Hamas’s rockets, nor “the snare of the fowler” for its tunnels, nor the covering wings and pinions for the Iron Dome system — much too good, in fact, to give the army credit for it. Most likely, tsuk eytan was merely one of numerous two-word phrases that, churned out more or less randomly by a computer, took someone’s fancy. Whether it will become the Gaza fighting’s permanent name, like Operation Grapes of Wrath, which is still how we refer to Israel’s 1996 strike in Lebanon, or will gradually be replaced by another term, as “Operation Peace for Galilee” has yielded over time to “the First Lebanese War,” remains to be seen.

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Is Operation Protective Edge a Mistake in Translation?

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