“The Epitome of Nonchalance and Cynicism” – Hungary’s Jewry Outraged by Flagrant Mistranslations

Ladies and Gents, you are about to be introduced to the funniest, yet perhaps the most serious translation scandal of the year! I remember how hard it would have been to ignore the enormous media coverage received by the fake sign language interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s funeral last December. The story was all over the news, leaving audiences all around the world in a daze. A number of rather pathetic mistakes on a recently erected memorial in Budapest, however, managed to crank up the tension in the political upheaval which turned Hungary’s Jewry against the country’s government.

About the Memorial

The Hungarian government’s decision to install a monument in memory of the “victims of the German occupation” began to cause controversy as early as January 2014. A number of politicians from the Socialist Party (MSZP), Együtt-PM and the Democratic Coalition (DK) claimed the government attempted to mark the 70th anniversary of the deportation of nearly one million Hungarians during the Second World War by falsifying history in favour of the state. Indeed, the initiative appeared to be a way to absolve Regent Horthy’s regime of all responsibility by putting the blame on Nazi Germany. (Whether the deportations were to do with Horthy’s government or the pro-Nazi puppet regime established by the invading Germans under Szálasi, however, is debatable.)

Memorial to the Victims of the German Occupation in Szabadság Square, Budapest

The new memorial in Szabadság Square, Budapest. Banner: “Forgery of History!” (Source: VS.hu)

As one would expect, the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities (known as Mazsihisz) was actively involved in opposing the plan, thus further exacerbating its conflict with the government. Mazsihisz had not being consulted about Prime Minister Orbán’s agenda for the Hungarian Holocaust Memorial Year of 2014, and therefore refused to accept grants and boycotted all government-organised Holocaust commemorations. Despite all threats and accusations, the memorial was eventually erected in the early morning hours of the 20th of July, shortly after the whole area was closed off by about 100 police officers. The secretly constructed monument had more eggs thrown at it than all British MPs put together, regardless of the government’s efforts to protect it. To everyone’s surprise, however, the accusation about the forgery of history was soon overshadowed by yet another scandal…

How It Became a Linguist’s Nighmare

Alright, there’s one more thing to know about this memorial: besides the Hungarian-language inscription “Az áldozatok emlékére” (“In memory of the victims”), a separate plaque features (or is supposed to feature) the same words in English, Hebrew, German and Russian. While most Hebrew-speakers were either busy egging the memorial or they chose to ignore its existence for political reasons, Rabbi Zoltán Radnóti made a rather interesting remark on his blog. In a post titled “Here it is, the epitome of nonchalance and cynicism…” the Rabbi made two important observations that no Hebrew-speaker (or Hebrew-learner, like myself) would fail to make upon visiting the monument.

The inscriptions ..

Left: “In memory of the victims” written in Hungarian; Right: The infamous plaque with its inscriptions in English, Hebrew, German and Russian. (Source: NOL.hu)

First of all, he pointed out that the word order of the Hebrew inscription was completely wrong: the two elements of the possessive structure were in the wrong order! Dear whoever engraved – and whoever supervised the engraving of – this infamous plaque, let me tell you a secret: Hebrew is written right-to-left, top-to-bottom. Therefore, if the translator provides you with one line of Hebrew text that says “לזכרם של הקרבנות” (lezichram shel hakorbanot) and you really must break it as it doesn’t fit in one line, then “לזכרם של” (“in memory of”) should remain at the top and “הקרבנות” (“the victims”) should be carved below it. The line “הקרבנות לזכרם של” is nothing but utter nonsense (unless you intend to write “the victims in memory of,” which I really doubt). Speaking of possessive structure, I personally believe that using the word של (shel) for ‘of’ was a silly thing to do. This relatively modern structure is generally restricted to cases where the subject is inanimate! If של was removed, the phrase would be in the much more respectful construct state or smichut and the definite article ה (ha) would take on its role. (Please note that this is translator’s fault, not the engraver’s.) So it’s “הקרבנות” (hakorbanot). “Korbanot”? Doesn’t that mean… erm… let’s have a look!

Genocide or Sacrifice?

The second mistake the Rabbi pointed out is perhaps the most flagrant of all mistakes made on the memorial. There seems to be a consensus among members of the Jewish community that the word “קרבן” (korban) is a very unfortunate mistranslation of the Hungarian expression áldozat. The Hungarian language uses one word to express two completely different concepts: victim and sacrificial animal. The Rabbi assumes the awful translation is the work of an automatic translation service and uses it to demonstrate the government’s lack of interest in the Jewish community. As a response to Rabbi Zoltán Radnóti’s claims, the Hungarian Office for Translation and Attestation (also known as OFFI) issued a press release, in which the following statement was made:

“According to our translators, revisers, and other native speakers contacted, the criticized Hebrew expression (korban) is widely used in contemporary spoken Hebrew as a neutral and general expression meaning victims, including the victims of the Holocaust.”

The expression itself is indeed neutral and general. With months of experience in researching the Holocaust in Hebrew (amongst other languages), I can confirm that even Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, uses the word in this sense. (I’m not the first one to use this as evidence though, many pro-government and pro-OFFI articles make a mention of Yad Vashem.) But there’s one important thing to consider: the inscription does not specify whose victims it refers to. Therefore, despite the fact that korban could be used to mean victims, in the absence of an ‘indicator’ such as “of the Holocaust” or “of the German occupation” the expression is likely to be understood as sacrifice or sacrificial animal.

As Rabbi Radnóti suggests, “חללים השואה” (chalalim hashoah) would have been a better phrase to use as it means victims of the Shoah (the Hebrew name for the Holocaust). In a comment below his post, the Rabbi draws attention to the fact that korban is used in the sense of sacrifice in the Bible and states that in 99% of cases where the word refers to the victims of the Holocaust, it is followed by “השואה” (hashoah) because “the word, if used by itself, is incapable of expressing the concept of martyr.” Nevertheless, he claims that the word chalalim is the most appropriate term to use and has won my support. Let me quote a line from the well-known Ashkenazi funeral prayer ‘El Male Rachamim’, a version of which commemorates the victims of the Nazi regime:

“את כל הנשמות של ששת מיליוני היהודים, חללי השואה באירופה…”
(“…all the souls of the six million Jews, victims of the European Holocaust”)

As we can see, there is no definitive answer to the question and the debate regarding the word korban remains open. This, however, does not clear OFFI of the charge as the agency still has a lot to account for. The spelling of the word in question has also managed to cause some controversy. In an article published in Nyelv és Tudomány, the renowned Hungarian linguist László Kálmán suggests the Hebrew language underwent a minor spelling reform in the recent past and this impacted on the word קרבן (korban) as well. The most common spelling of the word in Modern Hebrew is קורבן – with an additional ו (Vav). The Academy of the Hebrew Language seems to be in disagreement as to the need for that Vav in Modern Hebrew, but I shall not go into the details of this debate.

Kálmán doesn’t make the slightest attempt to hide his suspicion of the archaic spelling on the plaque. In fact, a close look at the font which the designer opted to use for the inscription gives him the confidence to ask the following question: what language is this supposed to be in? Well, the designer of the monument (and that’s not OFFI and probably not the engraver!) used a Biblical typeface. Fonts that fall into this category are easy to identify by their relatively thick horizontal strokes and the fact that you’re very unlikely to see them outside a synagogue, a Jewish prayer book, a gravestone or a textbook for Classical Hebrew. (The typeface is increasingly popular among Yiddish-speakers too, but the inscription definitely isn’t written in Yiddish.) The Modern Hebrew language tends to be printed in simpler fonts, such as the one I use in this article. Although someone with no knowledge of Hebrew might not understand how font can make such a big difference, I can tell you from experience that having to read Modern Hebrew text written in a Biblical typeface isn’t as easy as one would imagine. Despite their beautiful appearance, Biblical fonts are never used for a decorative purpose in Israel and are reserved for Bible quotes and historical names only.

Left: Biblical font (Times New Roman), similar to the one used on the memorial; Right: Modern font (Arial), used to write Modern Hebrew – the language of the inscription

So was the inscription on the monument intended to be in Biblical Hebrew? The typeface, the archaic spelling and the word korban itself would provide enough evidence for such a claim to be made. On the other hand, even if we consider that many mistakes made by OFFI are rather shocking (seriously, they even managed to write Hebrew from left to right on their own car), the aforementioned modern possessive structure (the use of shel) would have no place at all in archaic forms.

At Least the German Bit is Right!

I’ve already made quite a few negative comments about the quality of the translations, but I believe that OFFI deserves some more “praise” – this time for its failure to translate three simple words into English and Russian. Although the mistakes themselves aren’t as bad as those in the Hebrew inscription, a Hungarian would have a different view with regard to the gravity of the situation! English is the most spoken second language in Hungary and is taught in most primary and secondary schools as a compulsory subject. And Russian, as the historians among you will know, was compulsory throughout the 45-year Soviet occupation, the period in which most OFFI translators grew up. Therefore, with so many professional English and Russian speakers around, no translation agency in Hungary can afford to make such mistakes. Let alone the most supreme of them all!

While OFFI was busy trying to convince native Hebrew-speakers that their choice of vocabulary was in fact impeccable, the Hungarian Association of Professional Language Service Providers (Proford) actively stood out against the unfair monopoly situation in the Hungarian translation industry. Proford accused both the English and the Russian translations of being grammatically incorrect. To begin with, the association unanimously corrected “В память жертвам” (v pamyat’ zhyertvam) to “В память о жертвах” (v pamyat’ o zhyertvach). According to László Kálmán, the original version translates to something along the lines of “For the memory of the victims.” So the issue is with the grammatical case. And Proford is likely to be right. But who am I to make a judgement, with abosultely no knowledge of Russian grammar?

As for the English bit, “In memory of victims” should really have a definite article before the object: “In memory of the victims.” I really don’t want to dwell on this for too long, but I do find it necessary to address the subject of the object in more detail. None of the inscriptions provide sufficient information as to whose victims they refer to. Even though the original Hungarian-language inscription to the left of the multilingual plaque is just as ambiguous as the other four, let’s not forget that this text is featured on a subsidiary plaque below the large monolingual heading: “A német megszállás áldozatainak emlékműve” (“Memorial to the victims of the German occupation”). So it’s all clear for a Hungarian-speaker… But the multilingual plaque is a waste of money. Even without the disatrous mistakes!

So Who is to Blame?

By now you’re probably aware of my strong views against the monopoly of a single translation office – which, as we know, is performing terribly. With this in mind, I’m quite tempted to blame OFFI for all of the above mentioned linguistic atrocities. It would be a sin, however, to ignore the role played by the Hungarian government in allowing this series of unfortunate events to take place. First of all, they refused to consult with Mazsihisz regarding the Hebrew translation (nor did they wish to enter into negotiation on the memorial itself). Secondly, the Prime Minister’s “national translation agency” enjoys an unfair privilege: all translations ordered by the government are to be produced and attested by OFFI. No exceptions – as far as I know. I would like to note, however, that I have no intention of condemning the current government, except as regards this particular issue.

With hindsight, OFFI’s attempts to manage the crisis have been rather unsuccessful. Although the agency made a number of claims in response to Proford’s accusations, these overconfident statements were soon followed by corrections and apologies. The bellow letter from OFFI, published on HVG.hu, shows their attempt to put some of the blame on the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. The what? Yes, it was the HAS that hired OFFI for the job and then passed the translations on to the Prime Minister’s Office, the latter was not directly involved in the process – yet the entire project was in their hands. (The translation is my own work, please refer to the article on HVG.hu for the original.)

“The translations of the memorial were ordered, reviewed and handed to the Prime Minister’s Office by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. We certainly do not intend to call into question the accuracy of the alternative translations put forward by the Hungarian Association of Professional Language Service Providers (Proford), but we are of the view that this debate has already gone too far and that linguistic accuracy may no longer be the main concern. Instead, we shall have trust in the quality that the HAS represents – the opinions of translators who are unknown to us, but undoubtedly excellent.” (OFFI)

If all statements in the letter were true, OFFI would now be in a much better position. However, a second letter from the agency soon revealed the root of the misunderstanding:

“At the request of the HAS we affirm that the Academy merely ordered and did not review the attested translations.” (OFFI)

On the other hand, it is apparent that OFFI has involuntarily become the scapegoat for a number of linguistic and stylistic crimes which they have nothing to do with. Both the designer of the monument and the engraver of the plaque should have been contacted with regard to the disputes over the Biblical typeface and the wrong word order, respectively. One thing OFFI is doing well is the gathering and presentation of evidence to clear themselves of any errors other than those admitted. A document published on Kormány.hu (the official website of the Hungarian government) shows the original attested translations passed on to the engraver by OFFI. It is interesting to see that, while the word order of the Hebrew inscription is perfect (and the text begins on the right of the page, which the engraver should have realised), the font is a Classical one. OFFI used the same font throughout the document (possibly Times New Roman), which means that they gave no thought to whether it was suitable for Modern Hebrew. But as far as I know, the translation agency is not responsible for selecting a font to be copied by the engraver. This was, or should have been, the designer’s job.

So are we now expected to turn a blind eye? As soon as the mistakes on the memorial became a topic of debate, the Minister of the Prime Minister’s Office, János Lázár, stated that he would look into the issue and – provided that he found the claims to be true – would guarantee the government’s apology and the correction of the mistakes. I suppose we’ll just have to wait in patience then.

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