Wednesday, 21 May 2014

The (almost) speechless translator

It is estimated that there are over 7,000 languages in the world. As a translator, this brings me down to earth. I can communicate properly in just two of these languages (English and German), with a reasonable reading level in one more (French). I know a few isolated words in one or two other languages, but I would not be capable of holding a conversation in any of them. This means that I am speechless in 99.9996% of the world’s languages.
This is underlined whenever I travel to a country where one of these 99.9996% of languages is spoken. Over recent years I have had language adventures in Italy, Mexico, Spain, Kenya, Turkey, Iceland and Israel. In all of these countries I am dependent on people who speak an “international” language. Usually this is my native English, sometimes my adopted German.
On my latest international holiday earlier this month, I was intrigued by this road sign, and I still don’t know what the author wants me to do:
I also found it challenging to cope with this parking ticket machine in Jerusalem:
However, in my experience Israel was usually good at catering for multilingual needs, and traffic signs and road names were usually given in three languages:

In some cases, monolingual Hebrew signs were supported by pictograms, and in a few cases pictograms were used without any text.

A special curiosity was this clock in the town of Zikhron Ya’akov, which uses the traditional numerical values which are expressed by using the first few letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
For the record, the clock shows half past one (1:30 or 13:30 hrs). Otherwise, I only saw western numerals in Israel – except on the automatic car park information signs in Tel Aviv, which show the number of free spaces in Hebrew numerals.

As a final remark, I was very encouraged by a sign that I saw in the small town of Mas’ada in the very north-east of the country, a town with a large Arabic-speaking population close to the borders with Lebanon and Syria. As we drove out of the town, we saw a sign in three languages (Hebrew, Arabic and English) which said “Peace be with you”. I hope that this multilingual and multicultural attitude will prevail more and more in Israel.


  1. Did the clock's hands move anti-clockwise? The only Hebrew clock I have ever seen in my life is in Prague, on the wall of a (former) synagogue, and its hands move anti-clockwise. I am not sure now about the numerals; my last visit there was in the early 1990s.

    As for languages, I do not fare much better than you, although I am fluent in reading, speaking and writing in 3 languages and reasonably able to get by in one language, as well as understanding the most crucial words (road signs etc.) in two or three more.
    I admire those hugely gifted people who are fluent in many languages and don't like the feeling of looking at a sign and not knowing what it says. That must have been the way it was before I learned to read, which is so long ago I can not really remember it.

  2. @Librarian, the hands on this clock didn't actually move while we were there - the clock seems to have a mechanical problem, and I took the picture at eight o'clock in the morning. I don't know whether this is a short-term problem that is being fixed or a long-term problem.
    However, the numbers are arranged clockwise around the face, so the hands on this clock were designed to move clockwise. I have just checked the "Hebrew clock" images on Google - one or two have the Hebrew numbers arranged anti-clockwise, but most are designed to run clockwise.

  3. Doesn't it depend on the meaning of "clockwise"? :)

    1. Haha, a nice stroke of linguistic philosophy!
      The conventional definition of the term can be found at But perhaps you may wish to deviate and create an anti-anticlockwise protest movement.

    2. I was actually thinking about that when I wrote my comment, but I did not want it to become even longer than it already is, and therefore did not elaborate on the question of clockwise/anti-clockwise :-)

  4. Dear Mr. Dewsbery,

    I sent you an email in regard to possibly using one of your images on the blog (number 10 above the clock). I am writing a book on Arabic in Israel. I would appreciate your permission for me to use it.


    Dr. Camelia Suleiman