Translatable but Debatable: The Hebrew words תקין (takin) and תקינות (tkinut)

Translatable but Debatable

Sometimes I find consolation in a line from Saroyan:  “Only fools seek perfection, which is death. Perfection seeks you. You need not seek it.”  I was coming to the end of a translation, the topic was software installation, and the Hebrew said that the mission wasn’t accomplished till the תקינות of the newly developed interfaces was tested.  I didn’t have a word for תקינות.  I suppose it might have sufficed to say “till the interfaces are tested,” jumping straight past the word.  After all, what aspect would you test that doesn’t fall under תקינות?  But תקינות does add to the meaning of the sentence.  It means we’re not going to invest in testing whether the interface deserves a grade of A-minus or B-plus, we’re merely testing whether it passes or fails on various criteria.

Nina Davis, in her glossary, says תקין means “in good running order; functioning, serviceable, up to standard, proper, normal, in order, in operating order,” or in medicine, “normal.”  Most small dictionaries seem to say “normal” or “regular.”

I’d say “serviceable” is the most exact, concise translation to fit the context.  Merriam-Webster defines it as “Fulfilling its function adequately; usable.”  (Unfortunately, if the noun תקינות were translated as“usability” the hi-tech reader would understand it not as the ability to be used, but as the ease of use.)  But Merriam-Webster goes on to say that “serviceable” also means “Functional and durable rather than attractive.”  John Kubicek, a TV reviewer, applies it to Ashley Judd:  “‘Serviceable’ might be the best adjective to describe her as an actress since I’ve never understood her appeal. To me, Ashley Judd is the kind of woman you’d cast in a coffee commercial, someone so bland and generic that you hardly notice her. It’s not that she’s bad, it’s just that she makes no impression on me at all.”

And whereas תקין is a simple word, “serviceable” an unusual word in everyday speech.  Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t dissociate it from King Lear as sampled at the end of the Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus”:  “I know thee well:  a serviceable villain, as duteous to the vices of thy mistress as badness would desire.”

What would be a more everyday thing to say?  I decided to say that “the quality of the interfaces” is tested, leaving the reader to understand that the quality is tested to the necessary degree and trusting the reader not to wonder whether it is tested far beyond that.  Was my translation מושלם?  I think it was תקין.

In the space below, please feel free to add your comments regarding תקין and תקינות.  Regarding any other words you’d like to discuss, please write to me personally, 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.