Have you ever thought you were saying one thing and found you were saying something else entirely? It might not be your fault. Recently I saw an interview with a jubilant Iraqi filmed just after Saddam Hussein's execution. "Kul kalb biji yomo," he exclaimed. The same expression, in almost the same words, and definitely the same meaning, is also common in Hebrew: "Kol kelev ba yomo." The phrase is familiar to English speakers, too: "Every dog has his day." But here's the twist, while the Semite version is negative, more like, every dog has its comeuppance, the English connotation is more in favor of the underdog coming out on top at last.
As they say in Hebrew "Po kavur hakelev" (literally: "Here the dog is buried") which is not a sign above Saddam's grave but an expression roughly translatable as "here lies the heart of the matter."
The differences between the canine concepts gave me "paws" for thought.
Animal issues being my hobby horse, I started to look into other animal expressions and found several that proved it's linguistically a wild world out there where dog eats dog - or as they say in Hebrew: "adam le'adam ze'ev" (one man to another is a wolf). It's frustrating when you find that something common in one language is a horse of a different color in the other.
Work on the column was "avodat nemalim," the self-explanatory painstaking "ants' work." It had me working like a dog, but once I got the bee in my bonnet, or the "cockroach in my head" (juk barosh) as the less poetic Hebrew has it, I couldn't stop. I decided to tackle the expressions one at a time, "para, para" (cow, cow), as we say in these parts, and often found that the direct translators were barking up the wrong tree.
Take the common cow, for instance. In English the epithet is used almost interchangeably with a bitch (kalba in Hebrew, the Yiddish klaffe or the Ladino chilba). The Hebrew para, on the other hand, almost always refers to a fat, ugly woman, milking her size for all it's worth.
I nearly chickened out at one point, or in Hebrew mode, considered becoming a rabbit, shafan. But in the end I decided I could show doubters "me'eifo mashtin hadag," "from where the fish pees," i.e. teach them a thing or two in slang. I tried to grab the bear by the tail, or alternatively, place my head between the lion's jaws (lehachnis et harosh leloa ha'ari).
Cats are, in fact, a purrfect example of the problem. Take for instance the black cat. In England, it graces greetings cards as a sign of good luck; in Israel (and much of the Middle East since the fall of ancient Egypt), a black cat is sinister and the phrase "a black cat came between them" (hatul shahor avar beineihem) means two people fell out and had an argument. A fat cat in Hebrew is "hatul shamenet" "a [sour]cream cat" and "letting the cat guard the cream" ("latet lehatul lishmor al hashamenet") is the obvious non-direct translation of letting the fox guard the henhouse. A copycat, by the way, is, with equally good logic, a parrot (tuki).
If some of the corrections people make to your speech are hard to accept, well, sometimes you just have to "swallow the frog" ("livloa tzfarde'a"), which is not the same thing at all as having a frog in your throat - lihyot tzarud.
Obviously some animals translate well: A lone wolf is a "ze'ev boded" and a strange bird is "off muzar." Talking of which, an ostrich (bat ya'ana) sticks its head in the sand, be it in the Negev or South Africa. The straw which broke the camel's back ("hakash sheshavar et gav hagamal") was not restricted by time and space. And a lame duck is the same in Hebrew, "barvaz tzolea," but if you try directly translating a "sitting duck," you will be off target - it's a "stationary target" or "matara nayahat" in Hebrew.
The snake, nahash, has had bad press since the beginning of time (give or take a few days), and both Hebrew speakers and Anglophones understand the connotations. Although, when it comes to the Bible, the Good Word didn't always end up with a good translator and many animals have gone through an amazing transformation as they went from one culture and language to another. The mythical behemoth of yore has even now and again ended up as the humble hippo, and zoologists, linguists and Bible scholars have had a whale of a time trying to figure out what exactly swallowed Jonah.
If arguments over biblical translations have often set the fur flying, it's the nature of the beast. Nobody wants to make an ass of himself (like all those newcomers who confuse the word hamur [serious] with hamor [donkey or jackass]).
When will we stop making such beastly mistakes? Probably only when kosher pigs fly.