Translatable But Debatable - The phrase לסגור חשבון (lisgor heshbon) and its component words

Translatable But Debatable — סוגרים חשבון

Unintentionally silly things are broadcast on television, and Channel  10 mounted an intentionally silly program commenting on them called Mah Nisgar? The title, of course, is a modern expression meaning How did that turn out? or What ever happened with that? and I guess it’s justified by some occasional relevance to the program’s content but mostly it’s just a trendy title.  In English closure is a trendy word but we haven’t taken to saying What’s the closure?

Indeed, as Rudy Gireyev pointed out to me by e-mail, לסגור has quite a broad meaning in Hebrew.  In English we have the idea of closing a deal or closing on a deal, which can be called simply closing with the rest of the phrase left out, as it often is in Glengarry Glen Ross or Boiler Room. But in Hebrew we can close just as briefly on whatever we agree to.  Meet you at the mall at six?  Sagarnu.

If you don’t show up at the mall as promised, then I have a חשבון פתוח with you and I may feel the urge to settle accounts, לסגור חשבון.  I don’t believe the resentment is ever called an open account in English, but it’s an account in English when you settle it.  You can even close it.  (“I  have no quest for the pretended parents, who threw me away in my babyhood, to record.  They closed accounts with me when they left me on the asylum steps, and I with them.” — Edward Everett Hale, “The Children of the Public")

חשבון is one of the most mistranslated words in Hebrew-to-English, because of the false friends על חשבון and on account of. Einat Schiff wrote an article for Walla! titled רשות השידור נגד קרן נויבך - ציניות מוחלטת על חשבון משלם המיסים and the Jerusalem Post referred to the article as “The IBA against Keren Neubach – total cynicism on the taxpayer’s account.”  No, that should be at the taxpayer’s expense. “On the taxpayer’s account” means because of the taxpayer.  The army doesn’t want a huge sudden influx of haredim but it may need to take some on the taxpayers’ account — that is, because the taxpayers demand it.

The coverage in the Jerusalem Post repeats the error, remarking that “This is all on account of the pocketbooks of the citizens.”  No, at the expense of their pocketbooks.  On account of means because of. For example, the game was cancelled on account of rain.

Since the Jerusalem Post article comes from Hebrew-speaking contributors, I suppose the error belongs to an anonymous translator.  (Why are they anonymous?)  The Post would do well to perform חשבון נפש, and improvement could follow.  I wonder what they would call חשבון נפש in English.  The Alcalay dictionary says moral stock-taking, introspection, self-examination (observation) and Babylon says self-criticism, self-scrutiny, self-examination. No dictionary that I checked lists the obvious self-accounting. It can be found in the sense of חשבון נפש on many web pages, but those tend to be pages connected with Judaism or with Islam (where the term is a cognate, muhasabat al-nafs). And the term self-accounting is used on other pages to mean taking an account independently, without reference to external authority, so presumably that meaning and the religious meaning could clash.

If you have something to add about חשבונות or about סגירה, please use the space below.  If you’d like to see particular other words discussed, please suggest them to me by e-mail 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.