Translatable but Debatable — מתחם mitkham

Whenever a bus takes me past the place, all I see is the surrounding fence.  So I hadn’t realized what was going on at Tsomet HaPil, the intersection where Bnei Ephraim Street ends at Moshe Sneh Street in Tel Aviv.  But one day I happened by on foot, and to my surprise the wasted space in the middle, where the intersection is turned from a T into a Y by a large triangular island, was sprouting a proper 21st-century Tel Aviv building.  Not the first attempt to turn a profit on that space, but obviously the most serious. 

Tsomet HaPil is an odd name for Hebrew-to-English translation.  HaPil, “the Elephant,” refers to a steakhouse that stood for years across from the traffic island, its entrance dominated by a life-size model of an elephant.  So the place is literally “Elephant Junction,” meaning the junction where you'll see the Elephant steakhouse or its big mascot.  The junction with the elephant.  But because “Elephant” here is an attributive noun, not normally pluralized in English, it sounds the same as “the junction with the elephants,” which invokes a picture more suited to the African savannah.  I suppose “Elephant Corner” might be a better English rendering; it sounds more urban.

Anyway the steakhouse is standing empty and without its mascot, half-demolished inside, and a sign announces that the new construction will be a shopping and entertainment center called Mitkham HaPil — a name even harder to translate, although I’m happy to see that the elephant is still in the name.  Maybe we haven’t seen the last of the life-size model.

The word mitkham is translated by Dov Ben Abba’s paperback dictionary (Signet) as “site, locale, area” but it’s not just any area.  It’s a smallish area set aside for some reason and it tends, as some of the other dictionaries imply, to have very definite boundaries.  Alcalay uses the term “defined area,” Sivan and Levenston (Bantam) say “delimited area,” and Oxford says “demarcated area.”

Another mitkham in Israel is Mitkham HaBoursa, known in English as the Diamond Exchange District.  Actually its name was changed to Kiriat Zvi Bar – The International Business Center, but Zvi Bar has been convicted of taking bribes and laundering money so the new name may not become popular.  Traditionally Jews haven’t named institutions after living people, and obviously there’s much to be said for the tradition.

Looking back at Mitkham HaPil — including one big building on the traffic island and perhaps also including another big building or two replacing the restaurant across the road (I wasn’t able to find many details) — I’d say it’s too small to be called a district like the Diamond Exchange District.  Maybe a center like the International Business Center, if it’s only the one building or if the other buildings are well enough integrated despite the busy road that separates them off.  Or, as I suggested for the intersection itself, Elephant Corner could be reasonable name.

The mitkham of old Templar buildings in the middle of Tel Aviv called Sarona is deemed a compound, which I think is another good name for a mitkham when a larger number of buildings are involved and you have a good sense of the difference between inside and outside.  But even the larger area encompassing Sarona, the Kirya, is often called a compound although some sizeable streets run through it and while the core of it is a gated army base, the other government buildings composing it sprawl into the rest of the cityscape.  The website of Hatachana, the repurposed old railway station in Jaffa, refers to the place as a mitkham in Hebrew and a compound in English, and I think it’s a good example.  Could they call Mitkham HaPil the Elephant Compound?  I’d say it would work only if several elephants were inside, but who knows?  I couldn’t find anyone on the phone to give me the planned English name.

Incidentally, mitkham has other meanings.  Everyone has a mitkham in the sense of a tessitura, which is the range of notes you can sing comfortably.  Isn’t it more suave to say “That song isn’t in my tessitura” than to say “I can sing all the notes, but I’d be screeching”? 

And at this moment, you and I are communicating by way of the mitkham named; an Internet domain is a mitkham too.  In fact, this one is none other than Mitkham HaPil of all things.

Write to me at the Elephant domain — — if you’d like to suggest another word to be opened for discussion in this column.  Or to continue the discussion of mitkham (or tsomet), please use the space below.

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.