Translatable but Debatable – חוויתי khavayati

by Mark L. Levinson

In the 1930s, noted Marshall McLuhan, “a hoop was for rolling.”  A child would run alongside, trying to keep the hoop headed steadily forward.  But by the end of the 1950s, a hoop “in an external space” no longer amused the child.  The child preferred to step inside the hoop and use hip movements to keep it circling around waist-high.  Children wanted to be at the center, literally, of the activity.

When the hula hoop burst onto the scene, I was still in elementary school.  But there too, the value of maximizing active involvement was recognized.  When we studied the colonization of America, we made hand-dipped candles and cornmeal mush in the classroom in order to actively experience the 17th-century lifestyle. 

And decades later when I became a writer of software manuals, the department I worked in endorsed the slogan “The user is the hero.”  The manual is not about what the product does in some external space, it is about what the user does with the product, and the product’s designers strive for the finest user experience.

In Hebrew, savvy advertisers tempt vacationers with a nofesh khavayati נופש חוויתי , a recreational program that is about experiencing rather than merely observing.  A trendy museum offers not a mere exhibit but a meytsag khavayati  — taking place not in an external space but in a space where the visitor is included as a virtual participant.

Debbie Nevo suggested the word khavayati as a topic for Translatable but Debatable.   A khavaya is an experience, so khavayati translates logically to “experiential” — an uncomfortable construction, certainly too unattractive for use in advertising.  It wears its suffix like a borrowed pair of shoes.

However, the web confirms that the kind of 17th-century role-playing we did in elementary school is, sure enough, known in English as experiential learning or experiential education.  There is even an Association for Experiential Education.  The term seems to have started flourishing in the 1960s.

The 1990s saw the emergence of experiential marketing as a concept (and if you Google שיווק חוויתי you’ll find it’s quite a thing in Hebrew too).  Experiential marketing, according to the Econsultancy website, is a way “to create a closer bond between the consumer and the brand by immersing them in a fun and memorable experience.” For example, in order to promote The Simpsons Movie, “in 2007 20th Century Fox partnered with 7-Eleven to transform 12 of its stores into Kwik-E-Marts, the shop run by Apu in The Simpsons.”

Being established in education and in marketing, maybe the word “experiential” will turn into a perfectly fashionable buzzword in all contexts, but I don’t think it’s happened yet.

My reading of khavayati has always been based on the idea that khavaya is perfectly equivalent to “experience,” but my old three-volume Alkalay dictionary has more to say about khavaya than simply “experience.”  It says “deep impression; spiritual elation, experience, sensation,” and it translates khavayati not as “experiential” but as “causing spiritual elation.”

Similarly, Levenston & Sivan’s multi-volume Galil dictionary says that a khavaya is an experience but adds “(deeply felt)” and says that khavayati is “yielding an experience, moving.”  Shimon Zilberman’s 2001 paperback dictionary defines khavayati as “impressive.”

I’m not sure that the extra meaning of khavaya has persisted strongly, though.  A couple of other paperback dictionaries from recent decades fail to include the word at all, and the online Babylon and Morfix dictionaries define it merely as “experience” — as if at one point the word lost currency, and then it returned to broad usage with the simpler meaning.  Anyone with a good fix on the history is encouraged to comment at the bottom of this page.

Meanwhile, what to do if called upon to translate a brochure that refers to a tour, or a seminar, or a summer camp as khavayati?  In my opinion, the best way, if possible, is to rephrase attractively in a way that uses “involvement,” or the verb “involve,” or the noun or verb “experience,” instead of the adjective “experiential.”  But if such rephrasing isn’t possible, some adjectives to consider are “active” (or “interactive” or “activity-packed”), “participatory,” “multisensory,” “dynamic,” and “immersive.”  You’re welcome to add more, or otherwise comment with respect to translation of khavayati, in the space below.  This page is intended experientially. 

If you’d like to suggest a further word for discussion, please write to me at .  An index of words and phrases discussed so far is here.

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.