Translatable but Debatable – עולם olam

Here’s a word that presents no big problem of accuracy to a translator.  Instead the problem is frequency.  Like misgeret (מסרגת, in English a “framework,” mentioned here some time ago), olam (עולם, a “world”) is used copiously in Hebrew, so that if always translated directly it may become obtrusive to the reader of English.

To quote from Google more or less at random, in Hebrew we can run across the world of JavaScript, the world of homestyling, the world of horses, and the world of ultra-Orthodox communications.  All fine and dandy as long as they don’t become worlds in collision, a distracting repetition of vocabulary.

Or are they so fine and dandy?  When Karen Gold and Jeff Green suggested a page about the overuse of “world,” it seemed to me I’d attacked the term before, in my old column about technical writing The Why of Style.  I remembered deploring the way some twee technical writers would introduce a booklet of instructions with something like “Welcome to the world of TiePlumb, the automatic necktie straightening system.”  Looking back, I see I never did attack the word “world.”  I didn’t get past attacking the word “welcome.”  But both words give the impression that the authors think of themselves as proprietors of a turf where the user has arrived as a visitor, an outsider, with all the perplexity that comes of entering foreign territory and with subjugation to new rules that are the author’s to impose.  On the contrary, when you’re trying to sell TiePlumb, or JavaScript, or homestyling, the point should be that you have entered the customer’s world as a humble and non-disruptive guest in order to provide an improvement.  And this comes down to specifics; when I hit F9 in Microsoft Word to update my document’s fields, I don’t want the Ashampoo Snap screen-capture program opening up because I’ve installed it and it thinks it now runs my world according to its own interpretation of F9.  But I digress.

If not “world,” and assuming the translation need not be literal, what can we substitute?  Ironically, “framework” — that other overused word — may be useful if it doesn’t happen to be overused in the same document.  One could say F9 means one thing in the framework of Microsoft Word and another thing in the framework of Ashampoo Snap.

Among the dictionaries, Signet’s (by Dov Ben Abba) acknowledges that “world” can be just another way of saying “environment.”  Similarly, Alcalay lists “surroundings.”

Other synonyms when it’s a small world after all are “arena” or “playing field,” “domain,” or “demesne,” “realm,” “sphere,” “purview,” and sometimes “discipline,” “field,” and “context.”

Certainly there’s no need to entirely banish the figurative use of the word “world,” and such English-language magazines as Slimming World, Sailing World, and BBC Gardeners’ World show how legitimate it is in English.  But I would be in favor of a One World movement.  One world at a time.  If I open a copy of Slimming World, I don’t want to see an article called “The world of natural zero-calorie sweeteners.” No worlds within worlds.

Sometimes a null translation can be best of all; just skip the word.  “F9 means one thing in Microsoft Word and another thing in Ashampoo Snap.”

Further ideas about translating “world” are welcome in the comment space below.  If there’s another word you’d like opened for discussion, please e-mail me at rather than writing a comment.

Mark L. Levinson

Born 1948 a few trolley stops from Boston, Massachusetts. Bachelor's degree from Harvard College. Moved to Israel in 1970. Worked and learned Hebrew on Kibbutz Ramat Hashofet. Moved to Haifa and worked teaching English to adults. Did similar work in the army. After discharge, turned to technical writing, initially for Elbit. Then promotional writing for Scitex, and more technical (and occasionally promotional) writing for Edunetics, Daisy Systems (later named Dazix, SEE Technologies, and Summit Design), Memco, and Gilian. Also translated from Hebrew to English, everything from business articles to fiction, filmscripts, and poetry. Served as local chapter president for the Society for Technical Communication, editor of several issues of local literary journals, occasional political columnist and book reviewer for the Jerusalem Post, and husband & father.