“Do you know where you are going?” Diana Ross asks in the main topic of Mahogany. Travelers on Israeli roads can add an additional question: Do you recognize your destination according to the spelling on the road sign?
“This bill aims to simply bring order and achieve a uniform database of names, respect languages and take a small step forward on the path to an organized country,” Ginzburg said in plenary before the vote.
The bill would mandate the Academy of the Hebrew Language to determine the spelling and maintain the database of city and street names in Hebrew, English and Arabic, and publish the list online regularly. Local authorities would have five years to update and correct their signs, once the bill becomes law. But don’t hold your breath. This is not the first time that such a measure has been proposed and it ends up on the road to nowhere.
In 2009, then-Transport Minister Israel Katz declared his intention to introduce uniformity and change the English place names on road signs to better reflect their Hebrew pronunciation. This was perceived at the time as partly politically motivated to place greater emphasis on Hebrew names rather than Arabic. It is therefore a good sign that last week’s bill was supported by Ra’am (United Arab List) leader Mansour Abbas, who chaired the debate as deputy Knesset spokesperson and said it is time to have the correct names on the posters in Arabic as well.
The proposed legislation caught the attention of i24’s Calev Ben-David, who invited me to discuss it on his show The Rundown last Thursday. Illustrating some of the issues, I reflected that the i24 studio is located in Jaffa, also known as Yafo in Hebrew and Yafa in Arabic, while speaking via Zoom from my home in Jerusalem, Yerushalayim (or al-Quds in Arabic). In many cases, the political implications involved in determining what English name to use could lead to more than just a road rage.
Both Ben-David and I immediately thought of probably the most (un) famous example of an Israeli road sign that could distract non-natives. For a time, road signs to the country’s main airport pointed cryptically in the direction of “Natbag,” a Hebrew acronym for Nemal Teufa Ben-Gurion. All Israelis familiarly refer to Ben-Gurion Airport as Natbag, but the reference is too obscure for the average tourist to find it useful. Sometimes you just have to spell it out and avoid the pitfalls of the Israeli predilection for acronyms and abbreviations.
Many years ago, when I served a small army base in Tiberias, or Tiveriya, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee (Kinneret), a former teacher and her husband from England came to visit. I started to worry when they were unusually late, but it turned out that a confusing sign had taken them for a spin. As they approached town in their rented car, they noticed many “Egged” signs. Assuming this must be a place of historical or archaeological significance, they followed the signs and found themselves at the Egged bus station.
We are on our way somewhere, but is it Beersheba or Be’er Sheva? And then there is Nazrat Illit, or Upper Nazareth, a primarily Jewish city that recently changed its name to Nof Hagalil (View of Galilee) to distinguish it from the better known and older Nazareth.
My late aunt used to say that she was thrilled to see a sign informing her that she was on the road to Armageddon. That would be Megiddo in Hebrew.
And while we’re on the subject of well-intentioned paved road signs to hell, the capital is blessed with biblical references that don’t always sound appealing: Gei Ben-Hinnom, literally the “Valley of the Son of Hinnom,” became Gehinnom. , or “hell”. Emek Refaim, or Emeq Rephaim, or however you want to transliterate it, is the elegant main street of the German colony, although the name literally translates to Valley of the Ghosts (and appears in many English Bible translations as the Valley of the Giants.)
To add to the confusion, different neighborhoods often have more than one name, a reflection of the city’s complex history. Take, for example, Givat Shapira, a neighborhood named after the late Minister Haim-Moshe Shapira, a signatory to Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Despite the official signs and names, everyone knows him as Hagivah Hatzarfatit, which literally means French Hill. Whether the name comes from the former French monastery on the site or is a misnomer for Field Marshal Lord John French, a reminder of the British forces that toppled the Ottomans during WWI, is a matter of speculation.
Sometimes the names of famous people inadvertently cause confusion. Lincoln Street is named after the late American president, but it could be turning in his grave every time Hebrew speakers pronounce it “Lin-co-len,” the only way they know how. Don’t expect a taxi driver to understand you if he pronounces the name correctly. The signs that say “Begin North” and “Begin South” might leave you wondering where it ends, unless you note that the route is named after the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin. By the way, thinking of Jerusalem in terms of North and South makes much more sense than sticking to the political categorization of East and West. Many neighborhoods in “East Jerusalem” are not located in the eastern part of the city from a geographical point of view.
Israel is Israel, everything is political, including the legislation on road signs. There is a war of words and spelling. For the record, I prefer Judea and Samaria, the biblical terms, rather than the West Bank reflecting Jordan’s 19-year control over the area that ended in 1967.
A few days after our conversation, Ben-David shared a copy of an envelope with a curious and peculiar error in the address. The recipient obviously lives on Caleb Ben Yefuneh Street in Kiryat Arba (named after the biblical character from whom Ben-David took his first name). Taking things too literally, the street name on the envelope read: A dog will be evacuated. Apparently this is an unfortunate computer generated translation of “Kelev ben yefuneh” as spelled words instead of a name.
Before getting too excited about the final results of the road sign legislation, assuming it is finally passed, keep in mind that the Academy of the Hebrew Language, which will have a major voice in implementation, is bound by its own rules and regulations. internationally respected transcription standards. Even taking into account your Ps and Q, the end result could still be Petah Tiqwa instead of Petah (or Petach) Tikvah. It is possible that there are still crossed words and meanings at the crossroads.
The discussion about translations and transliterations could be a sign of the times – hopefully a sign that tourism is on the mend after the pandemic-induced near-standstill.
Tourists have the right not to get lost in translation. We may not be there yet, but the legislation on road signs points in the right direction.