Translatable but Debatable — Mas'eer (מסעיר)

One oddity in English is that when we say something is exciting, we almost always mean it favorably, whereas when we mean someone is excited we usually mean favorably excited but we can sometimes be referring to anger or anxiety, and when we say someone is excitable we almost always mean it in an unfavorable way. In Hebrew when something is מסעיר — mas’eer, exciting — the word can be meant anywhere on the spectrum.

A couple of dictionaries tend toward the favorable. Ya’acov Levy’s Oxford Dictionary lists “stirring, exciting, thrilling.” The Targemni website gives “exciting, sensational.”

Morfix, on the other hand, says “inflaming, inciteful.” It defines להסעיר (l’has’eer), the verb behind the adjective, as “to stir up emotions,” while the Galil Modern Dictionary even includes “enrage,” as well as “perturb,” among the verb’s definitions.

Dov Ben Abba’s Signet dictionary says that the verb means “agitate, stir up, cause a storm.”

A storm being the closely related word סערה (se’ara), the image of causing a storm is the most literal one we can employ in a translation. It also is just as ambiguous as the adjective מסעיר is. A new tax can raise a storm of indignation, but the latest and greatest smartphone game can raise a storm of enthusiasm.

So “storm-raising” might be a nice definition of מסעיר if you can get away with it. But it’s not a very conventional word in English. In fact, the most prominent hits on Google have to do with witches such as this one in Eichstätt, Bavaria:

Saturday, 27 November 1637

The accused said she had thought about storm-raising for a long time, and had helped to cause eight tempests. The first storm she had made fifteen years ago, between midday and one o’clock, in her own garden, spurred on by the Devil to make the fruit drop so that it would not ripen, and this had in fact occurred.

Q. With what materials did she raise storms, or how else did she do it? …

A. She says that the Devil supplied her with a powder made from children’s corpses and told her to use it for raising storms.

I’ve seen מסעיר translated as “stormy,” but I’d call that a mistranslation because something that’s מסעיר isn’t necessarily stormy or tempestuous itself; what’s important is that it causes other things to be that way. It's provocative (a translation that isn’t in the dictionary but might work here and there).

In many contexts, we can retreat from the challenge of inserting the perfect adjective and write about raising a storm instead, causing a sensation, agitating the public, rattling the lampposts, whatever. If it’s hard not to use an adjective (for example, if the word is one in a long list of adjectives) then maybe the translator has to commit to whether the thing is thrilling, inciteful, or perturbing... or something similar from the thesaurus.

As usual, comments on the word at hand are welcome below and suggestions for other words to feature are welcome not below but 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.