Translatable but Debatable
In 1985 I started a job as technical writer for the Israeli subsidiary of a flourishing hi-tech company and found my presence was resented by the large staff of writers ensconced at the home office. My boss shrugged it off as merely תופעת האוטובוס. I asked him what that is, and he said every Hebrew speaker knows the expression. In case you don’t (Google provides only three hits), it goes like this: You’re waiting at the bus stop and when a bus finally approaches, it passes you by because it’s an express. When the next bus eventually approaches, you rejoice to see it’s not an express. But its seats are full, it has a dozen people standing, and it passes you by too. By the time another several minutes and another express bus have passed, you have a whole philosophy of public transportation worked out: Express buses are evil. The few seconds it would take them to stop are nothing compared to the extra minutes they make you wait. And there is no reason a bus should pass you by just because a few standees would have to shift an inch closer if you got on. Every bus should stop at every stop, it’s as simple as that, and those who think otherwise should have some sense pounded into them.
Then a bus does stop, you get on, and after a couple of hundred meters it stops again. What? What’s the point of delaying all the passengers for the sake of someone who can’t be troubled to walk to a major stop? And anyway, how many people does this crazy driver want to squeeze aboard? There comes a point when the bus is simply full.
There’s a pretty useful one-to-one translation for תופעה, and of course it’s phenomenon. Your philosophy turns entirely around when you board the bus. That’s a phenomenon. But you wouldn’t call it the bus phenomenon. You’d call it the bus effect, or maybe the bus principle.
In English, the word phenomenon is claimed both by scientists who consider that, as in Greek, it means anything that has come into view, and by circus ringmasters who like to reserve it for things they would call phenomenal, while the rest of us are caught in between. You may know the Sondheim song lyrics from Gypsy that go “We have so much in common it’s a phenomenon.” Nachama Kanner wrote in asking about those cases where phenomenon doesn’t quite work as a translation for תופעה.
It works when it’s something that many people experience, like the phenomenon of locking your door and then forgetting whether you locked it. Or something that happens many times, like seeing a crow on top of your car every morning. A pattern, or a lapse in one, that causes you to think. It could even be the phenomenon of diaper rash among babies in general, although when your individual baby gets diaper rash, that’s a תופעה but unless you find it mysterious, it’s not a phenomenon. Just a problem.
You’re invited to add further examples of where the ideas of תופעה and phenomenon diverge, alternate translations that you find useful, or other remarks about either word. Regarding other words entirely, please just write to me at email@example.com so that I can bring them up in another column and this series will remain well organized for future generations of scholars.