Translatable but Debatable – לעגן (l'agen) and יתד (yated)

by Mark L. Levinson

The word “anchor” can seem like an ugly word.  Asked to translate a Hebrew document describing a contract between well-meaning parties, I came across a sentence about a clause that anchors (מעגן — m’agen) certain rights of one party at the end of the contractual period. 

It’s the same metaphor in English and Hebrew.  As a matter of fact, the English “anchor” and the Hebrew ogen both go back to the Greek ankura.  The Hebrew word is post-Biblical, somewhat freshly coined if we think in terms of millennia, but in the figurative sense of establishing something firmly as in a contract, it seems to me that the English “anchoring” is a little less common and a little more vivid.  If you disagree, by all means make yourself heard; that’s what the space at the bottom of this column is for.

To me, in English (more strongly than in Hebrew) “anchor” implies resistance to an opposing tug, and in connection with a contract it hints at a healthy or unhealthy distrust of the other side.

I went looking for an English-language synonym that implies something is firmly contracted in a less combative way than saying that the contract “anchors” it.

All I could find for m’agen on, which is still building its corpus of translations, was this one:

פְאוֹרת צִיפּוֹרְנֶי-החתול מעגן את קנוקנותיו לתוך הסדקים הזעירים ביותר וגורר את עצמו כלפי מעלה.

The cat's claw creeper hooks its tendrils into the tiniest crevices and hauls itself to the top.

For business dealings, hooking sounds worse than anchoring.  The contract could “enshrine” the party’s rights, but the trace of a religious connotation isn’t necessarily appropriate.  It could “guarantee” rights, but that word carries the implication of a pre-arranged penalty for violation.  It could “safeguard” or “protect” the rights, but they’re not the same thing as anchoring them.  A line of defense isn’t an anchor. 

A contract could lock the rights in, if such a phrasal verb isn’t too rakish for the register you’re writing in.  Or to wax even more colloquial, a contract could figuratively set the rights in stone.  That’s as firm as anchoring them.

Maybe again it’s just me, but although when I think of an anchor I think of the kind on Popeye’s tattoo, when I think of anchoring I think of a tent.  Maybe it’s Jungian memory.  All through the Hebrew Bible we’re tent people, but the only sea story I can think of from scripture is about a passenger.

As a symbol of stability the yated (יתד), the stake or tent-peg, goes back in Hebrew farther than the anchor.  Marcus Jastrow’s Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature cites the Jerusalem Talmud as saying “Happy the man who has a peg to hang on” and assumes, from the context, that the reference is to a man with fine parentage.

אשרי אדם שזכו לו אבותיו, אשרי אדם שיש לו יתד במי להתלות בה

For what it’s worth, Sivan and Levenston’s Galil Hebrew–English dictionary translates the Talmudic phrase differently: “Happy the man who has someone to depend on.”

Just today on the evening news, Amnon Abramovich announced that regarding the latest rumors of scandal in Bibi Netanyahu’s inner circle, recent testimony had contained no ytedot, nothing to hang on to.  If we use the translation of yated at, the testimony had no “peg, wedge, tent-peg, picket, pin, spike, stake, strut, stud, brad, chock, cotter” — all words unsuitable to carry the metaphorical meaning in English, unfortunately.  Maybe the translation in this case would be “no smoking gun.”

Chapter 22 of Isaiah says:

והיה ביום ההוא וקראתי לעבדי לאליקים בן חלקיהו...  ונתתי מפתח בית דוד על שכמו... ותקעתיו יתד במקום נאמן ...

“Then it will come about in that day, that I will summon My servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah… Then I will set the key of the house of David on his shoulder… and I will drive him like a peg in a firm place…”

Wikipedia says that the newspaper Yated Ne’eman — a “firm peg” or a reliable spike — takes its title from that passage.

So maybe it could be said, if the language need not be formal, that the contract “nails down” the rights of the contracting party.  But is there a nice formal one-word verb that I’ve missed?  Please let me know, or provide other comments on the ogen and yated, in the space below.  Or if you’d like to see another word discussed in this space, please write 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.