Translatable but Debatable: פניות (pniyot)

Translatable but Debatable

“Who can I turn to?” sang Anthony Newley, playing half Charlie Chaplin and half Quasimodo.  So what’s that in Hebrew?  I’d say למי אפנה  and I wouldn’t expect a lot of very different answers.  In English you figuratively turn to somebody for help when you’ve reached frustration.

In Hebrew, though, the idea of a פנייה covers considerably more ground.  A simple phoned-in question like “How late is the bakery open?” is a פנייה whereas in English it’s only after the guy on the phone says “It’s open till closing time, ya nudnik” that you would turn to the manager. 

A request is an appeal in English especially if it is emotion-filled or has been escalated after an unsatisfactory first attempt, and several Hebrew-to-English dictionaries do include appeal as a definition of פנייה, but the definitions are not as good at covering the casual un-escalated version.  Several say that a פנייה can be an application, and indeed it can, but there are many other kinds of פניות.

The Nina Davis glossary (distributed at this year’s Israel Translators Association convention) provides two definitions in the civic context, each flagged with a question mark.  Nina notes that although פניות can be inquiries, when the word is used in connection with an office such as the one at city hall it is “usually a euphemism for complaints, so inquiries sounds wrong.”  And she notes that the office that handles פניות הציבור might be the ombudsman’s office.  It might, but only where it has powers well beyond supplying routine information and forwarding questions.  And a number of institutions seem to have redefined the ombudsman as the ombudsperson.

At many companies, the office that handles פניות from the public is the customer relations office.  By analogy, a government could have an office of citizen relations (Google shows a few, with New Jersey particularly prominent) or a department of citizen relations (Quebec has one), or a citizen relations department (which Google seems to mention largely as the English translation for offices in Europe). 

If the problem is not what to call the office but what to call the variety of requests, inquiries, suggestions, offers, and protests that it receives, there may be sometimes be a useful term that avoids characterizing the content.  Twenty years ago, calls and letters might have sufficed, but today the list of media may be longer.  The term communications could be useful, but it is a little heavy and vague.  A lot could be covered by feedback, but it doesn’t exactly apply, for example, to the fellow who writes in not to comment or inquire about your activities but to offer his services as a feng shui consultant.

Please add any comments below regarding פניות.  If you’re reminded of another word worth discussing, please don’t start a digression.  Instead, 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.