Translatable but Debatable: תקן (teken)

Translatable but Debatable

This sounds like an Israeli science fiction movie, and quite a believable one:  “After World Wars destroy much of civilization as we know it, the remaining territories are no longer run by governments, but by corporations the mightiest of which is Tekken.”  Surprisingly, though, the new movie Tekken is not about a hulking privatized Israeli standards institute; it’s a martial-arts potboiler based on a series of Japanese video games.

Only by coincidence does something called the תקן also dominate Israeli life.  All our important industrial activities must comply with the תקן, which is of course the standard in English.  On its website, the Academy of the Hebrew Language lists sixty phrases including the word תקן, and in more than fifty of them the translation uses standard.  Most of the rest is normal and norm.

But reader Jonathan Danilowitz points out that there is “trouble when it refers to the number of employees for a certain task — ‘standard’ doesn't work— or for the time allowed for something, or quantities for various purposes.”

Carta’s Dictionary of Finance, Banking, Capital Market & Insurance gives us the specialized כוח-אדם definition of תקן as strength.  It’s certainly common enough in the military, where a unit is referred to as being at full strength or below strength.  And Google shows respectable non-military uses:  “The history department is below strength,” sadly notes a report at the Queens University of Charlotte, North Carolina.

The three-volume Alcalay dictionary lists complement and cadre as possibilities, and it notes that the military also uses the term establishment — especially peace establishment and war establishment — to refer to the proper amount of deployed forces.  “A Peace Establishment for the United States of America may in my opinion be classed under four different heads,” wrote George Washington in 1783, namely the standing army, the militia, the arsenals, and the military academies and industries.  I’m afraid few English-language readers would recognize the term peace establishment as meaning that today.  I think complement carries the meaning of a prescribed quantity better than cadre does.

Oddly, a department’s תקן of workers consists of items each of which is also called a תקן and might be a position or a slot or (if vacant) an opening in English.  I hear there are human-resources people who call it a req. 

The Nina Davis glossary (distributed at the recent Israel Translators Association convention) suggests that the complement consists of manpower slots. But the word manpower may trigger someone’s sexism alarm.  Some people say staff slots if slots isn’t clear enough.

The dictionaries pay less attention to the other meanings Jonathan mentions: “the time allowed for something, or quantities for various purposes.”  I would call such a תקן an allotment or allocation, but maybe someone else has a better term.

Please add any comments below regarding תקן.  If you’re reminded of another word worth discussing, please don’t start a digression.  Instead, write me at  In the column discussing your word, you’ll appear in the capacity of initiator — על תקן של יוזם.


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.