Translatable but Debatable: מול (mool)

I checked eight dictionaries, and all eight list opposite as a meaning of מול.  That’s an easy, physical meaning.  Actually, Babylon lists opposite to, which might be a Britishism.  Or maybe it’s one of those wan orphans of the semantic storm that are disdained by Yanks as a Britishism and by Brits as an Americanism.  I think that properly opposite to is more מנוגד ל– than it is מול.

Greater problems arise from מול in its figurative meaning.  What is the establishment’s behavior מול the phenomenon of violence in sports?  There, מול could be in the face of, or toward (Brits might prefer towards), or even regarding.  Only the Ben-Yehuda pocket dictionary lists towards, and it also lists vis-à-vis.  

I think that vis-à-vis often expresses מול better than any alternative would, especially when the bull is not necessarily going to be taken by the horns.  (The establishment’s behavior מול violence in sports could be directed not at the violence itself but, for example, against the media.)  Unfortunately, vis-à-vis is not an expression that endures repetition well.  You can write מול five or six times on a page, but vis-à-vis that many times would look peculiar. 

Once we take arms directly מול a phenomenon, we have dictionary translations such as against, counter, anti-, confronting, versus.  But when we act מול something, the action is not necessarily one of opposition or even of indifference.  A company’s human-resources department, for example, works מול the other departments with the intent of constructive cooperation.  For benign relationships, the dictionaries are rather poor in מול definitions, although Morfix ventures in conjunction with.  A simple with sometimes does the job.

Trickiest to translate are our experiences מול those who are neither with us nor against us, or who are some of each.  Down the hall from the human-resources department is the customer relations department.  It works מול customers.  Does it work with them?  Not in the sense that they do the job together.  It’s customer-facing work.  I like the suffix -facing and given a little license, I’ll attach it to other nouns too.  The CFO handles investor-facing tasks.  Among the company lawyer’s responsibilities is government-facing work.

(Four dictionaries list the word facing, not the suffix, as a meaning of מול.)

The company lawyer works מול department heads, regulators, opposing lawyers, and licensing authorities.  I don’t know a single מול translation that fits them all.  I don’t know what to do about such situations except to relocate some meaning from the preposition into the verb.  The lawyer interacts with department heads, regulators, etc., or the lawyer has dealings with department heads, regulators, etc.

Please use the space below for your own comments regarding מול.  I’m sure everyone has encountered some tough examples.  If you’d like to discuss another word, please write to me at Elephant — — and I’ll present the word with due credit in a future column.  That way, we can not only conduct a nicely focused discussion but also leave behind a useful archive for future reference, one word at a time.


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.