by Mark L. Levinson
In the Israeli film Afterthought (היורד למעלה), which hasn’t yet hit the commercial cinemas but won the top award at the Haifa Film Festival, a character complains that what we need instead of voice mail, which enables us leave a message for someone who isn’t answering the phone, is a service enabling us to leave a message for someone we were just now on the phone with. He gives an example: “Hi, Mom. Actually I just phoned you two minutes ago and I didn't manage to say a quarter of what I wanted to tell you. I worry about you. You're getting old and you need to take care of yourself. But what happened? Before I could get two words out, you started yelling at me in Yiddish. 'Stop smoking! Stop smoking!' And that just pressures me. Then you start in on what worries you, asking me if I got a new gas mask...” Finally, he tells his mother, in a translatable but debatable way, not to add to the weight on his shoulders:
אל תכבידי עלי. את מכבידה עלי.
The Hebrew verb referring to additional weight is hichbeed, which happens to rhyme with “impede.” Baggage in Latin is “impedimenta” so I thought that “impede” likely has a Latin origin implying weight, as do for example the Spanish “peso” and the English “ponderous.” Miriam-Webster says that, on the contrary, the verb “impede” comes from the Latin for “foot” (like “pedestrian”) and implies that the feet are shackled. Anyway, “impede” is a good word if you’re writing about how your mother makes your life more difficult, but it’s not a word that a movie audience would expect to hear from an everyday character. There are other good words that just aren’t conversational: to “hinder,” to “tax.”
The movie’s English-language subtitles use the obvious word “heavy.” The man complains that his mother is being heavy, and the English I remember from my youth, in the age of love beads and incense, did use that adjective for an attitude that was considered too serious-minded. But I don’t think “heavy” is the word that people today would use conversationally to describe a mother who imposes her worries.
Morfix.com provides this list of meanings for להכביד: “to be heavy ; to be a burden, to be a nuisance, to weigh heavily on one ; to make heavier ; (literary) to worsen, to intensify, to aggravate.”
The Ben-Yehuda paperback dictionary published by Steimatzky translates the noun form, הכבדה, as “encumbrance” or “burdening.” The Galil dictionary by Sivan and Levenston mentions “inconvenience.”
I think it’s easier to translate the burdening of a person in connection with a specific task than to translate the general burdening that the Afterthought dialogue mentions. We can easily say “You make my job harder” or “You make deciding things more difficult.” But if somebody makes, life, the universe, and everything more difficult for us, how do we say so in conversational English?
Above, the list of definitions from Morfix ends with “aggravate,” which Merriam-Webster says once carried the meaning (now obsolete) of “to make heavy” or “to burden.” Today, when used properly, it can mean “to make worse, more serious, or more severe : intensify unpleasantly.” Popularly but incorrectly (although defended by Merriam-Webster), it can mean “irritate.” We shouldn’t speak of aggravating a person, we should speak of aggravating a problem, but in movie dialog, for want of a better alternative, I might use the mistake. I might say, “Don’t be aggravating. Don’t make my aggravations worse.”
I watched the movie with my son, by the way, and while I was second-guessing the translation, he was giving thought to the premise. “But there’s no problem at all leaving a message after the conversation,” he said. Every up-to-date voice mail system allows for recording a message without ringing the recipient’s phone.
This column doesn’t take voice messages but it certainly does take comments. Please use the space below for anything about the concept of להכביד, or if you’d like to see a page for discussion about translating a different Hebrew word or phrase, please write to me at email@example.com .