Translation and Language Industry Observations

One of the problems that face translators is that some words have no equivalent in other languages. This can also pose a challenge to people who are non-native speakers of a language, since second language speakers tend to process spoken language through internalized translation.

Hebrew is one of the most ancient languages in existence. But for exactly this reason, it is also one of the most evolving languages. Hebrew was pretty much a defunct language for over one thousand years and was not used anywhere in the world outside of Jewish prayer and in Talmudic literature. The Hebrew language was revived about 200 years ago by people in the Zionist movement and was a precursor to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. This revival necessitated the formulation of new words for things that did not exist prior to the 19th century. Today, Hebrew is spoken by over 10 million people in Israel and worldwide. Not bad for a language that was nearly dead.

Here is a list of ten Hebrew words which have no equivalent in the English language.

1. Firgun (פירגון)

This word expresses a feeling of satisfaction that someone takes in the success of others. So if someone buys a 10 Million dollar house, has a fancy car, or lives an otherwise charmed existence then someone who is a true friend would express Firgun. This word is inflected using standard Hebrew grammar rules.

2. Aguna (עגונה)

An Aguna refers to a woman whom the whereabouts of her husband are unknown. This is a dire predicament, as it prevents the woman from getting married. According to Jewish law, unless there is clear proof that the husband is dead, the woman remains legally married and is prohibited from marrying another man. In Israel, a country with a history of military conflicts, the existence of Agunot (plural form of Aguna) is painfully high.

3. Noo (נו)

While not really a word, Nu is an expression deeply seeded in the history of the Jews and especially in the Yiddish language. And the meaning of Noo changes depending on the cadence and intonation. Noo! in a loud and angry voice could mean do this now! or get the hell out of here. Noo? as a question could mean what is going to happen? or will you do it? Noo-noo in the double form can mean I told you so or Duh. Noo is a very expressive and satisfying form of speech and is integral to spoken Hebrew.

4. Halevay (הלוואי)

Halevay can mean I wish or I hope, as in Halevay that the Yankees will win today. It can also mean if only, as in Halevay that you would been with me yesterday.

5. Nachs (נאחס)

This word has Arabic roots. It describes a person who brings great misfortune by his or her very being. Calling someone a Nachs is to describe a particularly vile person. Nachs is also used to describe a very miserable time or situation. As in this is most nachs day I remember in a long time.

6. Kolboinick (כלבויניק)


This word thankfully has no translation into English. Because it is a pretty revolting concept. In Israeli greasy spoon restaurants, like Felafel shops, a miniature garbage can is placed at the center of the table. People will typically throw refuse into the kolbinik like used napkins, olive pits, leftover food. The word kolbinik can also be used to describe a versatile person, a jack of all trades.

7. Shotef+ (+שוטף)

This is another word which thankfully has no translation into English. It is used by companies to describe payment terms for goods or services. Shotef+ means wait until the end of the month and then start counting days. So if the term is Shotef+60 and your company submitted an invoice on January 10, you will only get paid on March 30. Many Israeli business people have become cynical of this practice, as it may indicate insolvency on the part of the company who is paying.

8. Kasach (כסאח)

This word means exertion of force. If someone says I will lekaseach you, they usually mean that they will kick your ass (or at least try to).

9. Cholera (חולירע)

This word is a transliteration of the term used for the cholera infection. But in everyday use it means something entirely different. Calling someone a cholera is the equivalent of saying that the person is an a$$hole, a scumbag. Don’t call someone this to their face unless you are looking for a fight.

10. Tevaleh (תבלה)

This word means have a good time. But if you just bought a pair of new shoes or boots and and a Hebrew speaker says Tevaleh, it means that they are congratulating you on your new purchase. Another similar word is Titchadesh (תתחדש), which means enjoy your new purchase. Tevaleh however is only used for new shoes.

11. Lirvaya (לרוויה)

This is what you would tell a person before she/he takes a drink of water. It roughly translates into may your thirst be quenched. People may recognize this word from Psalm 23:5. כוסי רוויה means my cup overflows.

12. Shvoong (שוונג)

A word that indicates inertia, momentum. It would be used in a sentence like: don’t interrupt me, I am in a shvoong.

Click here to read more about English Hebrew translation services.


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