Translatable but Debatable – מכון machon

by Mark L. Levinson

I like to resolve all the proper names before turning a translation in, but sometimes there’s no available resource revealing whether it’s Blum or Bloom, Feld or Peled. 

On an agency job, I try to be scrupulous about staying hidden behind the agency.  But once, when I was stumped for how to spell the name of a particular lawyer, I noticed that his office was just a couple of minutes’ walk away.  There was nothing but Hebrew on his shingle, but the office door was unlocked, no one was around, and on the reception counter, in front of the secretary’s empty chair, was a little stack of business cards.  Bilingual. 

I was on my way out the door with a card in hand when the secretary returned and asked why I was swooping through.  “I, uh, live in the neighborhood and maybe later I might need a lawyer so I took a card,” I prevaricated.  Not that I suppose the truth would have hurt anyone.

Most of the time, though, a personal visit isn’t an option.  Suppose that halfway across the country Shifra is operating a modest neighborhood business called מכון היופי של שפרה (Machon HaYofi shel Shifra), with no English-language internet footprint.  Not even on Google Street View.  Who’s to know whether it’s officially Shifra’s Beauty Parlor, Shifra’s Beauty Parlour, Shifra’s Beauty Salon, Shifra’s Beauty Shop, or what?  Or maybe never officially translated?

Machon is a mercurial word.  The Even Shoshan dictionary (Hebrew to Hebrew) explains that when machon first appears in the Bible, in Exodus 15:17, it means “a place designated for a particular purpose.”  King James translates מכון לשבתך as “the place … which thou hast made for thee to dwell in.”  In Psalms, Even Shoshan considers that machon means “foundation, the base upon which a thing is established”  — the foundations of the earth being m’choneha.  The meaning from Psalms is carried back into Exodus in the Douay-Rheims translation, which calls the machon not just a place but a “most firm habitation.”

But in our day, that firm, founded, established thing called a machon is more commonly, in Even Shoshan’s words [my translation], “an institute; a department in a large public, commercial, or similar institution; a faculty (a machon for humanities, a machon for mathematics at a university; a machon for economic research).”

Even Shoshan descends no further into specifics except to mention a machon isui, a massage parlor.  But the gym is the machon kosher, the tattoo studio is the machon ka’aku’im, the language school is the machon l’safot, the sleep clinic is the machon l’shaina. the rehab facility is the machon g’milah, the tomography lab is the machon l’tomografia, the Pardes Center for Judaism and Conflict Resolution is Machon Pardes, and the car wash is machon shtifat harechev. 

So the designation machon is available to you (although not necessarily compulsory) if you’re an institute, department, parlor, studio, salon, school, clinic, facility, lab, center, gym, or car wash.  Is there anything a machon can’t be?  It can be a beauty shop, but it’s seldom if ever a barber shop.  It can be a language school, but it’s seldom if ever a driving school.  What’s the criterion?

And is there an overall word that corresponds to machon in English?  Suppose the director of the medical center, in his retirement speech, says “I want to thank everyone who works at the various makhlakot (departments), ma’abadot (labs), klinikot (clinics), and m’chonim.”  Is there a translation?

Answers and comments on the topic are welcome in the space below.  If there’s an unrelated word or phrase you’d like to see discussed, 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.