Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confronted quite a challenge when the Atlantic’s Jeff Goldberg quoted Obama administration officials calling him a “chickenshit.”
Israeli reporters, in turn, faced their own challenge: How to translate “chickenshit” into Hebrew.
Modern Hebrew is rich with phrases alluding to the Bible and rabbinic literature. Swear words, not so much. A 2004 song by Israeli hip-hop group Hadag Nachash says “Here, everyone speaks Hebrew/And curses in Russian, English and Arabic.”
So Israeli papers, reporting the anonymous comments Wednesday morning, had to settle on something less evocative than “chickenshit.” The consensus translation that emerged among major news sources was “pachdan,” or coward. Haaretz did a little better, using “pachdan aluv,” or “lowly coward.”
As any poultry farmer can attest, none of these are chickenshit. “Coward” lacks the crude, sandlot insult quality that “chickenshit” conveys. “Coward” is what you’d call someone before a duel. “Chickenshit” is what you’d call someone before a bar fight.
To compensate, Israeli news articles put the word, in English, in their articles, such that “chickenshit” is clearly visible in the opening paragraph, running counter to the Hebrew text.
A friend of mine suggested that Israeli reporters could have avoided all this by translating the phrase to Hebrew literally: “Hara shel tarnegolim.” Of course, that’s also not quite Hebrew: “Hara” is a swear word in Arabic.