Translatable but Debatable — Ionesco and Fiesco

Everybody’s somebody’s rhino.  In a recent Haaretz article, Avirama Golan bewails the accusation that by not more vigorously attacking the government during Operation Protective Edge, left-leaning politicians joined the rhinoceroses of the right. Avigdor Lieberman, on the other hand, claimed last year that right-leaning politicians joined the rhinoceroses of the left by opposing an investigation into left-wing NGOs.

Both Golan and Lieberman were, of course, using the Hebrew term hitkarnefut (becoming a rhino), which harks back to Eugene Ionesco’s play Rhinoceros.  In the play, an absurdist satire on the rise of totalitarianism, the population is first horrified to find a rhinoceros roaming the streets, then becomes more tolerant as the number of rhinos grows (“After all, rhinoceroses are living creatures the same as us”), and then morphs en masse into rhinos with almost no exceptions.

According to Elon Gilad in Haaretz, the concise term hitkarnefut does not actually appear in Nissim Aloni’s 1962 Hebrew translation of the play.  There’s no corresponding one-word term in the English translation by Derek Prouse either.  There is a term for the phenomenon that turns people into rhinos:  rhinoceritis.  But it hasn’t caught on in English as a metaphor.

Also in Haaretz, Michael Handelsaltz (reviewing a 2004 production of a new translation by Avishai Milstein) claims that hittkarnefut does appear in the Aloni translation. Maybe somebody has a copy handy?

As Gilad has it, Asher Nahor coined the word as a verb, mitkarnefim, in his review of the play for Yedioth Aharonoth.  But to the extent that the word continued in use, it was only in discussions of Ionesco’s play.  In 1967, writing in Maariv, Dan Almagor took the word out into adjacent territory, applying it to the surge of support for the Nazis as depicted in Cabaret.

But as far as Handelsaltz is concerned, credit belongs to Amos Oz.  “In 1972 Amos Oz used the verb in a review of Arie Lova Eliav’s book Land of the Hart. And it became a part of everyday language.”

In an interview with Daniel Estrin, Oz accepts the credit for distilling the word from the play:

OZ: … It’s about a society where people are becoming more and more conformist, and they adjust themselves to the herd every day, and this play is called The Rhinoceros and it was played very successfully in Israel in the 1960s. So in one of my articles I invented the verb “to rhinocerize” or the noun “rhinocerized” to describe a man who becomes conformist, who change his or her opinions in order to adjust to a certain general mood or certain general trend.

ESTRIN: That’s “lehitkarnef,” right?

OZ: “Lehitkarnef,” that’s right.

In a different interview, which was quoted on the ITA 2001 mailing list a couple of years ago, Oz suggests that his use of the word doesn’t necessarily imply sincere conversion.  The interviewer is Barbara Lane:

OZ: … I turned the noun karnaf into an adjective, meitkarnef and into a verb, lehitkarnef, which had become the Hebrew word for becoming opportunistic, changing your skin in order to adjust to the majority. So I am the proud parent of the Hebrew word - I don't think you have an equivalent verb or adjective in English. Maybe it’s time for some English-language poet to create an adjective and a verb for this opportunistic tendency of many people to — I’m forgetting my English — kind of integrate into a —

LANE: Like a chameleon?

OZ: — like a chameleon, yes, to adjust to a totalitarian system.

Besides the question of whether one sincerely becomes a rhinoceros or just opportunistically fits in with them (although everyone in the play seems sincerely won over), there is also the question of whether hitkarnefut means merely becoming like everyone else or becoming like a rhinoceros in more specific ways.

The writer called“Philologos”in The Jewish Daily Forward goes so far as to ask, regarding Lieberman’s remark, “Was Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman guilty of an oxymoron when, in January, he labeled fellow right-wing Cabinet members who opposed his proposal to investigate the funding of leftist Israeli nongovernmental organizations ‘faynshmekerim v’karnafim’?”

If you’re a faynshmeker — an epicure — how can you also be a rhino?  The way Philologos sees it, under the influence of the play karnafcame to signify in colloquial Hebrew ‘a crude, rapacious person willing to trample those getting in his way,’ and the verbl’hitkarnef,’to rhinocerize,’ to turn into such a type.”  Handelsaltz agrees; it involves “developing thick skin and brutal behavior,” he writes.

I don’t agree.  I think that if a movement swept up a population and caused them to demonstrate peacefully every week against double-yolked eggs, it would still be hitkarnefut.

I hate to see the word drift away from Ionesco’s meaning.  But words do, of course, have a life of their own.  Elon Gilad notes that in certain precincts of Tel Aviv club life, hitkarnefut means rampaging on the dance floor.

All that being said, how would you translate hitkarnefut?  The term “rhinocerization” will not carry the meaning to many English readers; even with Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in the freely adapted movie version, rather few English-speakers know about the Ionesco play.  The term “chameleon” carries the meaning of changing casually back and forth, whereas rhinoceritis goes only one way.

I think that the parallel term in English is “drinking the kool-aid,” although it involves some inexactness of its own.  Wikipedia notes that although the incident it refers to involved dying for a foolish belief (and may not have involved actual Kool-Aid), the phrase has evolved to mean uncritically aligning oneself to a current of propaganda.

As usual, other suggestions are welcome in the space below; but I’d like to turn to a different play for a moment.

Unfamiliar as English-speakers may be with Rhinoceros, they are even less likely to know of Friedrich Schiller’s 1783 play Fiesco's Conspiracy at Genoa.  A character in the play is Muley Hassan the Tunisian Moor, a glib scoundrel for hire who says that the honor of cut-throats “is, perhaps, more to be relied on than that of your men of character.  They break their oaths made in the name of God.  We keep ours pledged to the devil.”

Muley Hassan maintains a healthy suspicion of the noblemen who pay him, and when he delivers to one of them a report on what he has accomplished, he is told to go wait in an anteroom, whereupon he pronounces the aside:  “The Moor has done his work — the Moor may go.”

I have no evidence of how the phrase became popular in Hebrew.  In German it seems to have mutated among the public from Der Mohr hat seine Arbeit gethan, der Mohr kann gehen to Der Mohr hat seine Schuldigkeit getan, der Mohr kann gehen, much to the indignation of a purist like Gerhard Stadelmaier.  (I admit I know almost no German.)  But the sentence seems to have become quite popular in Polish, and in Hebrew, with neither “work” nor “duty” explicitly mentioned.

murzyn zrobił swoje, murzyn może odejść

הכושי עשה את שלו, הכושי יכול ללכת

As Wikipedia says, "The meaning of this phrase in Polish language is: ‘once you've served your purpose, you're no longer needed’.This saying, when used by Poles, often ironically refers to themselves or other Polish people, who consider themselves the ‘modern day slaves’ working very hard for little amount of money, either in Poland, or in other countries, mostly theUnited Kingdom, theNetherlands,Germany, orSpain.”  (I admit I know absolutely no Polish.)

For “Moor,” the Hebrew and Polish both use a general term for black people.  Although the Hebrew word כושי(kushi) goes back to a respectable Biblical origin, today’s political correctness is fast eliminating it from polite conversation.  And although the quotation is the Moor’s own bitter paraphrase of the dismissive attitude directed toward him, cultured Hebrew speakers don’t like it any more than, say, cultured English speakers like the bitter remark “Niggers all work while the white folks play” that originally began the song “Old Man River.”  That line commonly isn’t sung in English, and I don’t expect the remark about the Moor will survive in Hebrew much longer.  Why the term כושי is taboo among cultured Hebrew speakers escapes me.  It could be a case of rhinocerization.

Anyway, if the Moor sentence comes up and there’s any flexibility at all about translating it into English, I’d suggest considering an alternative.  Not because “Moor” is a bad word in English, but because in English the Schiller quotation is invoked very rarely and is usually considered to require an explanation.  Schiller is not exactly widely required reading in schools of the English-speaking world.

Experimentally, I googled the phrase “That will be all, Jeeves.”  Jeeves is the name of the butler in many P.G. Wodehouse stories and is thoroughly identified with him; almost no one in real life is named Jeeves.  Even people who have never read a single Jeeves story know that Jeeves is the name of a butler.  The phrase “That will be all, Jeeves” scores hundreds of hits on Google.  Some are facetious references to the butler.  Some are evidently from amateurs trying to contribute their own stories to the Wodehouse tradition.  None seems to be actually from Wodehouse himself.

I offer the phony Wodehouse quotation as a possible substitute for the hard-to-use Schiller quotation.  Like further discussion of rhinocerization, further discussion of what to do about the Moor is welcome in the space below.  If you have another subject to suggest for a future column, please write to me at .