Translatable but Debatable - גברתן (gvartan)

Translatable but Debatable
גברתן (Gvartan)

Here’s a Hebrew word with a meaning that veers from hero to brute. The oldest instance we know of seems to be in the Sifre to Deuteronomy, where the Lord recommends Joshua to Moses as “gvartan like you.”  The Even Shoshan Hebrew-to-Hebrew dictionary considers that gvartan here means רב כוח or גיבור — great in strength or heroic. Wikimilon glosses the quotation as גיבור, מי שהוא חזק מאחרים — hero, one who is stronger than others.

The Even Shoshan dictionary then skips forward to Bialik, who writes of someone who wasבעל לאשה גברתנית, גבוהה וחזקה, אשת חיל מפורסמת באגרופה הקשה היורד על קדקֹד בעלה.  Husband to a tall, strong “gvartanette,” a woman of valor famed for the hard fist of hers that would descend on her husband’s pate. Not a heroic figure, but an imposing one.

The Alcalay dictionary says that in English gvartan means “strong, brave, manly, valiant” and Haim Shachter’s dictionary for Yavneh says “strong, mighty.”

The Bantam pocket dictionary by Sivan & Levenston lists “strong man, ‘tough guy,’” invoking a little less of Popeye and a little more of Bluto.  At the same time, usage seems to have swung the usual definition from adjective to noun although Hebrew accommodates it both ways.  There may be some influence from the way Hebrew speakers of a generation back liked to use the Arabic word jabbar.

The Morfix online dictionary presently defines gvartan as “strong man, tough guy, brute, muscular man.”  And among the synonyms that Babylon lists are not only גיבור and חזק (heroic and strong) but also תוקפן (aggressive).

Even today, though, the gvartan is not necessarily a bully.  A review of Hyde Park on Hudson, the recent film about Franklin Roosevelt, mentions that because of his paralysis מטפל גברתן מעבירו על זרועותיו ממקום ישיבה אחת לאחרת — A gvartan of a caregiver transfers him in his arms from one seat to another.

So what’s the noun for such a fellow in English?  We have plenty of adjectives: brawny, strapping, beefy, burly, and so on.  In contrast, not so many nouns.  A muscular man can be called a bruiser, but the connotation of harmfulness might not be welcome.  He could be called a stalwart, but that’s a little antique.  These days, stalwarts are more usually people who stick to their ideologies.  A hulk, but that’s someone bigger than a gvartan has to be.

An English-speaking woman I once worked with would refer to a sturdy, muscular man as a mac, because in the media someone often calls out “Hey, mac!” to such a fellow and she reckoned it had something to do with strength, like a Mack truck.  To me it makes as much sense as many other word derivations, but unfortunately none of the dictionary writers have got behind it.

Do you have a good noun in English for a gvartan, or another remark that’s relevant to the word?  Please comment in the space below.  If there’s another word you’d like to see covered on this page, please contact me at ]]

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.