Translatable but Debatable - Tsara Tsrura

Translatable but Debatable — Tsara Tsrura צרה צרורה

Troubles have always been with us, but it’s Rabbi Shmuel Hanagid — the eleventh-century scholar, poet, and Chief Vizier of Grenada — whom the dictionary credits with reporting he worked his way through an occurrence of tsara tsrura, “trouble in a bundle.” In our times, that phrase is used all over and defined as “serious trouble,” (Dov Ben Abba), “dire straits, deep trouble, great distress” (Morfix), or “great trouble (distress)” (Alcalay), .

If a translator has any leeway, the first question in translating tsara tsrura is whether the same amount of emphasis is necessary. Maybe the unmodified term “trouble” or “problem” or “difficulty” is enough. Where emphatic language is concerned, the words of William Allen White (evidently not, as sometimes thought, Mark Twain) bear remembering:

“I never give advice,” said Mr. White, “but there is one thing I wish you would do when you sit down to write news stories, and that is: Never use the word, ‘very.’ It is the weakest word in the English language; doesn’t mean anything. If you feel the urge of ‘very’ coming on, just write the word, ‘damn,’ in the place of ‘very.’ The editor will strike out the word, ‘damn,’ and you will have a good sentence.”

Not every tsara needs to be presented as a tsara tsrura.

But what if the term really is appropriate? That is to say, when we consider the trouble we see that it has several components and picking them apart is a challenge. It’s tightly-packed multiple trouble.

The dictionary’s definitions into English give us neither the music nor the picturesqueness of tsara tsrura.

The classic image of a difficult problem in Western classical culture is the Gordian knot, which no one could untie. That reference could be useful in a translation when the tsara tsrura comes in the form of a problem for the mind rather than a simple inescapable affliction.

Even without the classical image, we can refer to a “knotty problem” in English. It’s not a phrase I’d use, because in the accent I grew up with it sounds just like “naughty problem,” but it’s right there in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary: “so full of difficulties and complications as to be likely to defy solution <a knotty problem>.”

Google’s Ngram viewer shows the “knotty problem” increasingly challenged by the “thorny problem” during the twentieth century, with “thorny problem” becoming more used than “knotty problem” as of the early sixties. It’s a different metaphor, of course, substituting the danger of thorns for the difficulty of knots. Synonymously, there can be a “prickly problem,” but that phrase is much less used — less than seven percent the usage of “thorny problem,” though still a respectable 18,600 Google hits including puns about cactus, hedgehogs, and so on.

“Conundrum” is another good word when the tsara tsrura takes the form of a problem. Like the phrase tsara tsrura, it carries a bit of rhetorical fanfare about itself that masks some of the painfulness with the sparkle of creativity. The word “conundrum” is phony Latin. Authentically Latin-based words that may be relevant are “calamity” and “predicament.” They also counterbalance the seriousness of their own meaning, to a small extent, because long words with "P" and "K" sounds strike people as amusing in English.

As usual, comments on the word at hand are welcome below and suggestions for other words to feature are welcome not below but 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.