Translatable but Debatable – מציאות m'tsee'oot

by Mark L. Levinson

Some days, I read more Hebrew in English than Hebrew in Hebrew.  The other day, The Jerusalem Post reported that “a Palestinian terrorist went on a stabbing rampage on the Tel Aviv seashore before being killed by police” and that Mayor Ron Huldai responded:

"We won’t have a reality where there is a cop on every corner on every street. We are in a reality in which a lone attacker can, at any moment and in any situation, surprise us and this is how this happens.

"This is the reality we live in."

I was reminded of a recent e-mail from Perry Zamek about the Hebrew word for reality, מציאות (m’tsee’oot), which was presumably the word Mayor Huldai used.  Perry suggested that sometimes it’s “reality,” sometimes it’s “situation,” and we might benefit from a discussion of cases where neither of those translations really fits.

I went looking for Huldai’s quotation in Hebrew but what I found, at Maariv, wasn’t an exact equivalent.  It was better expressed and used the word מציאות only twice. “לא ניתן להגיע למציאות שיש שוטר בכל פינת רחוב. המפגע הבודד יכול בכל רגע להפתיע אותנו, וכך זה קורה. זו המציאות שאנו צריכים לחיות איתה," he says.

“We won’t have a reality…” sounds a little as if it’s an option but not going to happen.  Huldai actually said “It’s impossible to attain a reality where a policeman is on every street corner.  A lone attacker can surprise us at any moment, and that’s how it does come about.  This is the reality we have to live with.”

But is “reality” the right word in English?  In the last sentence it works fine.  In the first sentence, maybe it’s a little too cosmic, while on the other hand “situation” is a little too transient.  But I suppose that the use of “reality” in the first sentence can be approved for the sake of contrast with the last sentence.

What else would have been okay?  The man is the mayor of Tel Aviv, so he could have said “It’s impossible to have a Tel Aviv where a policeman is on every street corner.”  A reality that applies to a location can be indicated by the name of the location.  Or if it applies everywhere, it can be the world.

I checked for translations of מציאות, and that’s where I got “world.”  My impression is that the Reverso site is getting better all the time, but the corpus of Hebrew translations seems to be dominated by video subtitles.  A TV series called Lie to Me included this line of dialogue:

יצרת מציאות בשביל הנשים האלו שבה התאבדות היתה האופציה היחידה.

(You created a world for these women where suicide seemed like the only option.)

That was actually a translation from English to Hebrew.  The translator deserves a tip of the hat for not translating ”world” into olam (עולם), an overused word in today's Hebrew.

Just as a reality can be thought of as a place, or a version of a place, it can also be thought of as a time.  A time when there’s a cop on every corner, or an era when animals play cards, or a century when fossil fuels run out. 

The word מציאות has the ability to mean a set of conditions, a circumstance.  In the case of cops on the corner, even an arrangement.  It can be a hypothetical selection from among the many possible and impossible universes; or it can unambiguously mean the one and only universe we actually live in.  A מציאות can be a truth, a fact.  The Babylon dictionary lists “reality; existence, entity; actuality.”  The old Ben-Yehuda pocket dictionary says “existence; essence; universe; reality.”

Reverso shows a reference to “facing the truth of his actions,” in the movie Shutter Island, translated as להתמודד עם מציאות מעשיו.

Reverso also quotes an interesting translation, Hebrew to English this time, from the famous Ephraim Kishon movie תעלת בלאומילך (Blaumilch Canal or The Big Dig).  Zuckerman asks Zigler how long the disruption will continue.  

"כמה ימים, אני מתאר לי," says Zigler.  "A few more days, I suppose" in the translation from Elron Studios.

"?כמה ימים" echoes Zuckerman, upset.  "A few days?"

"התיקון הזה הוא הכרח המציאות, מר צוקרמן," Zigler responds — translated "Mr. Zuckerman, the demands of necessity."

And Zuckerman protests "?מציאות? אתה תספר לי מה זה מציאות” — "Necessity? Are you telling me about necessity?"

Indeed the demands of necessity are those of reality, or one might say a bit more idiomatically those of “the realities.”  The Oxford dictionary defines מציאות as “reality” or “the realities.”  The plural acknowledges that although the world may be a challenge, it isn’t a unified, coordinated front.  Jerusalem Post columnist Martin Sherman writes, “After all, the coercive measures that Israel is often compelled to undertake are … largely born of the realities created by the endeavor to implement the two-state formula." 

As I sought out translations, I was continually reminded that only the position of a little dot distinguishes המציאוֹת from המציאוּת, the bargains from the realities.  Generally in Hebrew, as in life, we don’t even have the little dot to help us.

Your comments regarding reality, I mean מציאות, are welcome in the space below.  If you'd like to suggest a Hebrew word or phrase for a future column, please write to .

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.