by Mark L. Levinson
Here’s a word that is not only difficult to translate but unpleasant to discuss and impossible to transliterate well: ערס The usual transliteration is ars.
Language guru Ruvik Rosenthal, in his Lexicon of Life, writes that in the distant past, ars was considered a complimentary term for a sly, clever person but it changed, beginning in the 1970s, to refer to someone who is, or behaves like, a small-time criminal; who brags and pretends to be prosperous; and who is usually from a Middle Eastern immigrant background.
Although the word derives from an Arabic term for a pimp, across time and place in Israel the two tricky ambiguities are how offensive it is and how strongly it refers to ethnicity. Hebrew Wikipedia says that it refers to the stereotype of someone with Asian or African ancestry — by which, of course, it means relatively nearby, not Japan or Nigeria — who has a tendency to criminality, a gaudy appearance, and a poor command of language. The article suggests that the corresponding stereotype in Britain is the chav. That’s not a word I ever heard in America, but Wikipedia says that according to the Oxford dictionary a chav is “a young lower-class person who displays brash and loutish behaviour and wears real or imitation designer clothes.”
A defunct site named studyintelaviv.com is quoted as saying an ars is “a hoodlum of the Middle Eastern variety. Think of the guy you saw barbecuing meat in the park with heavy gold chains, an ounce of gel in his hair, and Middle Eastern music blaring from his car radio.” An Urban Dictionary entry from one Moshe Mizrahi says, “An Ars is usually someone who has a very high temper, and is easily agitated. Will mostly spend money on cheap cars and add various instruments to make them look/sound better...”
There are quite a few attempts on the web, with varying degrees of humor, to pin the definition down. Comedian Naor Zion uses English for humorous effect in a mock-anthropological study of the ars in two skits. I don’t know whether he reworked the idea because he considered the first skit so successful, or because he considered it unsuccessful.
Something called the Ask Project has recorded Israelis on the street discussing, and in some cases defending, the ars. The clip is subtitled in English:
The usual dictionaries don’t list ars, but Reverso.net, which uses a corpus of translations drawn largely from movie and TV subtitles, includes English-language equivalents such as punk, bully, gangster, banger, thug, tool, cholo, and guido. None of them fits perfectly, the last two are stereotypes referring to specific ethnic groups in America that don’t exist in Israel, and mostly these Reverso definitions strongly imply a violent nature. The ars belongs to a subculture where a certain belligerence may be de rigueur but may not necessarily be easily pushed beyond posturing.
It seems the great majority of Reverso’s definitions are derived from translated Englsh, but the Hebrew-language movie Waltz with Bashir is included and, irritatingly, its English-language subtitles altered the dialogue to simply avoid needing to translate ars.
If I had to come up with a single word, I’d say “greaser.” But maybe that dates me. Wikipedia says: “By the mid-1970s, the greaser image had become a quintessential part of 1950s nostalgia and cultural revival.”
The temptation to avoid translating ars led one prominent Israeli translator to simply import it, untranslated, into the English-language edition of a Hebrew novel. But then the problem is the untransliterability. Unless you’re inclined to think of how ars is pronounced in Latin (where it means “art”), as an English-speaker your natural inclination will be to pronounce the s as a z, as in “cars” or “Mars.” In order to convey the correct pronunciation, the translator spelled the word as arse, adding connotations that could be considered at least partly extraneous. But how else could it be transliterated accurately? If it were arce, some might wonder whether it’s one syllable or two. An unambiguous transliteration would be arss, but there isn’t a single word in English that ends rss and the ending looks distractingly odd.
Your opinions on transliterations as well as translations for this month’s word are are welcome in the space below. If you’d like to suggest a different word or phrase for discussion, please write to me at email@example.com An index of words and phrases discussed so far is here.