Translatable but Debatable – זו נבלה וזו טרפה (twin evils)

When Americans were planning independence from Britain, more than one local patriot floated the idea of speaking Hebrew instead of English.  If Americans all spoke Hebrew today, they would be better able to discuss elections in which zu nevela v’zu treifa (זו נבלה וזו טרפה) — meaning “it’s six of one, half a dozen of the other” or “Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee” but in a particularly bad way.

Ultimately the phrase is inspired by Leviticus 22:8, which says that no member of the community is to eat “that which dieth of itself, or is torn with beasts.”  The nevela is “that which dieth of itself,” any animal that you may happen to come upon after its peaceful end, while the treifa is literally an animal that has fallen prey to another — a distinction nearly without a difference, although as M. Rimer notes on his Tapuz blog, “with time, the meaning of treifa expanded to include all kinds of animals soon to die from wounds or diseases” (my translation). 

Describing alternatives as זו נבלה וזו טרפה — one is a nevela and the other a treifa — is a popular way of saying that (as Paul Simon put it) when you've got to choose, any way you look at it you lose.  Wikimilon, the Hebrew Wiktionary, says it’s a relatively modern phrase and points to its use by kabbalist Rabbi Ovadia Hadaya (1890–1969) in reference to Balaam and Amalek, two enemies of the Hebrew people.  Today you can see the same phrase used to describe such alternatives as married life and single life (in a Ynet article by Keren Ben Simon) or the two leading Israeli newspapers (in a blog by Dr. Yuval Dror).

Of course you don’t have to read either leading newspaper.  Zu nevela v’zu treifa doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to choose one or the other.  But when such a choice is necessary, English offers some colorful translation possibilities.  You can be between a rock and a hard place.  You can be between the devil and the deep blue sea.  Neither of those expressions has a clear origin.  Several websites trace “a rock and a hard place” back to the dilemma of some Arizona miners who had to either keep their terrible jobs or take their slim chances finding work elsewhere, but the expression doesn’t seem to emerge very naturally from that situation; I imagine there may be an earlier usage, maybe even inside the same mines.

The classic twin undesirables are Scylla and Charybdis.  According to their Wikipedia entry, they “were mythical sea monsters noted by Homer; Greek mythology sited them on opposite sides of the Strait of Messina between Sicily and the Italian mainland. Scylla was rationalized as a rock shoal (described as a six-headed sea monster) on the Italian side of the strait and Charybdis was a whirlpool off the coast of Sicily. They were regarded as a sea hazard located close enough to each other that they posed an inescapable threat to passing sailors; avoiding Charybdis meant passing too close to Scylla and vice versa.”   

As old expressions lose popularity (“the devil and the deep blue sea” is listed on the English language embraces the new.  The 1994 movie Dumb and Dumber inspired a bit of a fashion for describing a pair of things or people unfavorably:  ugly and uglier, crooked and crookeder, etc.  As with the figurative use of nevela and treifa, it didn’t really matter which of them was which. 

But after giving thought to the image of the nevela and treifa, with the idea of odious animals and the auditory hint at someone who is villainous (m’nuval — even though the Hebrew spelling מנוול demonstrates that the words aren’t closely related), I think that given poetic license, I’d translate an election-time zu nevala v’zu treifa by using two insulting terms based on animals that aren’t quite the same as one another but, at least in the American mind, are close enough to be conflated:  “One is a polecat, the other’s a skunk.”

If you have another translation to suggest, or a remark regarding the phrase under discussion, please add it in the space below.  Or if you’d like to see another particular word or phrase discussed in a future column, please write me 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.