Translatable but Debatable: דווקא (davka)

Translatable but Debatableדווקא

The word דווקא is post-Biblical, from the Aramaic.  If it were a Biblical word, it would be on every page of the Bible and King James would have been forced to deal with it.  “And God saw the light, that it was davka good.”  “Hast thou davka eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?”  “Take now thy son, davka thine only son Isaac, whom thou davka lovest…”

For want of an exact translation, English speakers often use a word like precisely when they want to say דווקא.  “My wife polished the windows with precisely the newspaper section I hadn’t read.”  But precisely isn’t really what they mean.  They don’t mean that it wasn’t somehow imprecisely that section of the newspaper, they mean that it wasn’t any of the other sections that it easily could have been.  There’s a lacuna in the English language where דווקא should be, and they’re filling it the best they can.

Sometimes there is a way to express דווקא in English by modifying a noun with very.  “My wife polished the windows with the very newspaper section I hadn’t read.”  Or if the sentence can bear it, you can add a whole phrase:  “Of all the newspaper sections, the one she polished the windows with was the one I hadn’t read.”

The question then is, did she do it דווקא?  Besides meaning that of all the possibilities, one special possibility in particular has eventuated (yes, in particular is also a way to express the meaning sometimes), the word דווקא is of course also used to mean someone brought it about deliberately.  Sometimes spite is appropriate in English, and in fact Alcalay and Dov Ben Abba include it under דווקא in their Hebrew-to-English dictionaries.  When Jerry Seinfeld returned a sports jacket out of spite, it’s what the subtitles on TV said.

JERRY:  Excuse me.  I’d like to return this jacket.

CLERK:  Certainly.  May I ask why?

JERRY:  For spite.

CLERK:  Spite?

JERRY:  That’s right. I don’t care for the salesman that sold it to me.

CLERK:  I don't think you can return an item for spite.

In that case, spite translated well as דווקא.  But spite requires a grudge.  If a child sees a harmless ladybug on the sidewalk and deliberately stamps on it, that’s a case of דווקא but the ill will involved isn’t spite.

The word דווקא is also used to modify adjectives.  “I met the kid who crushed the ladybug, and he appeared דווקא well behaved.”  In this case, it means that of all the things the kid might be, he was something you might well not expect.  The Bantam-Megiddo dictionary lists for all that as one definition of דווקא.  “For all that, he appeared well behaved.”  The Morfix dictionary (www.morfix.com) includes in fact and actually as definitions, and they too can be useful to hint at the contrast, implied by דווקא, between what’s before us in reality and the many other possibilities we might have expected.

If you have comments that are דווקא about this word, please contribute them below.  If there is דווקא another word on your mind, please write me at ]]> and if I use it here, you’ll be duly credited.

 

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.