by Mark L. Levinson
At least one other translator agrees with me. I noticed a fifteen-million-shekel apartment praised in a bilingual ad on the Internet where the Hebrew said “השכנים אוכלוסיה איכותית במלוא מובן המילה!” and the English omitted the sentence entirely. Without going back to the client and asking whether the neighbors are pleasant, quiet, supportive, or something else politically correct, I couldn’t translate that in a way that I’d consider sufficiently inoffensive.
In a society where people like to consider themselves democratically minded, even though they may know very well that they’d prefer the typical members of one social sector to those of another as neighbors, I think that in English the term “people of quality” has an antiquely, unacceptably elitist connotation, although the Merriam-Webster thesaurus does straightfacedly give “high position within society” as one definition of quality, with the example a glamorous invitation-only party for all the people of quality in the summer resort.
I think the last time I heard such a thing was on the TV series Are You Being Served? when Mrs. Slocombe remarked disparagingly to Miss Brahms that “the quality do not wear their bosoms hitched up around their ears.” And as Wikipedia remarks, “The main humorous base of the series was a merciless parody of the British class system.”
Karen Gold wrote in to Elephant suggesting a discussion of the word איכותי. If you have a מוצר איכותי there’s nothing wrong with saying you have a quality product. But as a noun pressed into adjectival service, quality isn’t very versatile. You can say you have a well-known quality product, but not a quality well-known product. You can’t throw quality into a list and say your product is convenient, quality, and attractive. And sometimes if another adjective precedes quality, there can be some ambiguity about what it modifies. If you have a popular quality product, does that mean a quality product that’s popular or a product of popular quality?
Once in a while, or maybe twice in a while depending on your field, you may trip over the question of whether איכותי means quality or qualitative. Generally we can be confident that if a scholar refers to another scholar’s study as a ניתוח איכותי we don’t have to ask; it’s a qualitative analysis. But some day we may be surprised to learn it was just a case of someone being nice.
The word quality is still used to mean any characteristic. We all have our good qualities and our bad qualities. The origin is the Latin qualis, referring to the sort of thing something is. Qualis pater talis filius: Like father, like son.
Similarly, Hebrew achieved only by evolution the idea that איכותי means not merely something to do with a quality but something praiseworthy. The Morfix online dictionary, which invites reader responses, defines it as “of a high standard, quality,” but none of the printed dictionaries on my shelf define it as anything but qualitative. (Note: See Tomer's note in the comment section at the bottom.)
Where quality doesn’t work in English for איכותי, sometimes the more explicit version high-quality will do the job. Karen mentions high-caliber, first-rate, and top-quality but finds them insufficient. She wonders whether other alternatives would mean narrowing the focus too much. I think that many contexts — not only ads for luxury apartments — can benefit from a second look at what the original is trying to say in order to do just that: to narrow the focus. What’s good about the quality? Is the thing carefully machined? Is it well rehearsed? Is it sturdy? Tasty? Weatherproof? What gives it its — heaven help us — איכותיות?
Comments relating to איכות are welcome below. Suggestions for other words to discuss should go to ]]