A Shlimazl ain't no ne'er-do-well

Jason at Positive Liberty begs to differ with a group of linguists who have declared that the yiddish word shlimazl is the second-hardest word in the world to translate. (The hardest word is ilunga, from the Congo, meaning “a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time.”)

Anyhow, Jason writes:

Second place: Shlimazl, which is Yiddish for “a chronically unlucky person.” And yet the plain-old English ne’er-do-well seems to work just fine, as does the equally prosaic jinx.

Say what? A ne’er-do-well is someone who’s lazy, not someone who’s chronically luckless. And a jinx is someone who spreads bad luck to those who work with him – not the same thing as being unlucky himself (or herself).

In short, neither word Jason suggests is an adequate translation of Shlimazl. Score one for the linguists, I guess.

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26 Responses to A Shlimazl ain't no ne'er-do-well

  1. 1
    lucia says:

    My dad, who is not Jewish, always thought a shlmiel was a guy who spilled soup on people. The shlimazl was the guy who got spilled on.

  2. 2
    Jason Kuznicki says:

    Fair enough. I don’t actually claim to know Yiddish–My comments were more a complaint about the article itself, which did not at all convey why the second- and third-place words were difficult to translate.

  3. 3
    parodie says:

    Well, the refutation Jason provided may not have been as complete as possible, but the idea that linguists could just pick the hardest word to translate is still rather out of place. Check out Shaav’s journal (for example) for an explanation of why touting a word as “the most dificult to translate” is somewhat ridiculous. More akin to a group of artists claiming they have picked “the nicest colour”, or that ridiculosity about the “funniest joke” a few years ago.

  4. 4
    Clancy says:

    I saw an interview with Penny Marshall, and when asked to translate “shlmiel, shlimazl,” said the shlmiel was a clumsy person lacking intelligence who would trip and fall, and the shlimazl would trip over the shlmiel and fall too. So, similar to what lucia said.

  5. 5
    lucia says:

    Oh… I wish I still had the article! In the Chicago trib a long. long time ago, someone listed their 20 favorite foreign words that didn’t exist in English.

    If I remember correctly, there is a Russian word for “the feeling one has for someone they once loved, but no longer loved.”

    There was a word in some African language that meant “To throw off all your clothes and dance with abandon”!

    Now, I can understand why we don’t have a word for the naked-dancing thing, since we don’t have a tradition of doing that. But, shouldn’t everyone have a word for the feeling of lost love?

  6. 6
    Stentor says:

    I’ve never heard “jinx” used to refer to a person. I’d always heard it as just a sort of bad-luck spell.

  7. 7
    Amanda says:

    Maybe “always a day late and a dollar short” would be a good translation.

  8. 8
    JoKeR says:

    Knowing next to nothing about Yiddish, from what I’ve read here it seems to me that “hapless” captures a lot of the meaning of “shlimazl”.

  9. 9
    Rachel Ann says:

    I always think of a shlimazel as someone unlucky in life, unlucky in love.
    And Lucia,

    I want to know the African for “thowing off one’s clothes and dancing with abandon!” I’ve had several little ones who have done that in the past. How wonderful that would be if I could just say “Oh she’s just……….” What a geat word!

  10. 10
    lucia says:

    I wish I remembered the word! I read it so long ago. I saved the article, but I’ve moved three times since then. It’s lost by now.

    But you are right, in warm climates little kids tend to throw off all their clothes for any old reason, including dancing. Mom said it was a problem in El Salvador. (Well.. only a problem when one of the naked kids ran to the door and greeted guests! I suspect even then it caused more laughing than anything else.)

  11. 11
    lucia says:

    I wish I remembered the word! I read it so long ago. I saved the article, but I’ve moved three times since then. It’s lost by now.

    But you are right, in warm climates little kids tend to throw off all their clothes for any old reason, including dancing. Mom said it was a problem in El Salvador. (Well.. only a problem when one of the naked kids ran to the door and greeted guests! I suspect even then it caused more laughing than anything else.)

  12. 12
    kStyle says:

    I’m partial to the Portuguese word “saudade”, which means a certain lovelorn homesick sweet melancholy…It can also be translated rather flatly into “blues”. It’s a good, nuanced word.

  13. 13
    Rachel Ann says:

    it happens during winter too (um, this is my first year in Israel); kids just like to shuck those layers… I hope you find it in a box somewhere soon…ugh..I wish I could think of a way to google it..

  14. 14
    Jason Kuznicki says:

    Interestingly, this word (“shlimazl”) is much easier to translate into French.

    In French, any adjective can be taken as a noun designating a person described by said adjective. “Un Malchanceux” means a (male) person with chronically bad luck; a female would be “une malchanceuse.” Where we would never say “an unlucky” to mean a person, French has no problem with this.

    As to “jinx,” I think it can apply to a person, as in “He’s a jinx,” though it’s not so often used I guess as the subject of a sentence. Also, a jinx spreads bad luck around–while the shlimazl seems to be the chief recipient.

  15. 15
    karpad says:

    I agree with Joker. “hapless” seems like a pretty good translation.
    at any rate “chronically unlucky fellow” seems like a pretty clear definition, don’t you think?
    that certainly doesn’t seem all that hard.
    I’m assuming this list including only living languages, as there are terms in sanskrit that take paragraphs to explain their meaning.
    even still, that a yiddish term lands so high up seems odd.
    since yiddish is primarily derivitive of european languages, there really shouldn’t be too many concepts that are entirely foreign to the cultural thinking process. I should think words from cultures more remote and distinct would be harder to translate.
    like the Aboriginal language. I bet there’s something alot harder to translate than Shlimazl in that language.

  16. 16
    Isabeau says:

    I think the book you’re thinking of is They Have a Word for It by Howard Rheingold. And the word that means “throw off all your clothes and dance with abandon” is “mbuki-mvuki” (“He was the mbuki-mvuki bugle boy . . .”).

  17. 17
    lucia says:

    That’s it! They said “boogie-woogie” comes from the word. However, boogie-woogie doesn’t actually mean the same thing, since we do it with our clothes on!

    Thanks for the name of the book.

  18. 18
    Menshevik says:

    Interesting how the meanings seem to change slightly. In German, where the word “shlimazl” is also used quite frequently (spelled “Schlamassel”), it has what appears to be the original meaning, “bad luck, misfortune, fix, scrape, hot water, jam” (German “schlimm” (bad, evil, sore, grave) + Hebrew “mazel” (luck, fortune)). So in German you can say “er/sie hat einen Schlamassel” (he/she has (an instance of) bad luck/misfortune) or “ist in einem Schlamassel” (is in a fix/jam/hot water), but also “er/sie hat einen Massel” (he/she has (an instance) of (undeserved?)good luck/good fortune).

    German does have a word that would translate “shlimazl” as it is used in (American) English very well though: “Pechvogel” (literally “pitch-bird”, “Pech” (pitch) being a common expression for “bad luck”, presumably because it sticks to a person like pitch). There is also the word “Ungluecksrabe” (literally “raven of bad luck/ill fortune”), which probably was popularized by Wilhelm Busch’s (1832-1908) picture-story “Hans Huckebein der Ungluecksrabe”, about the misadventures of a young raven kept as a pet by various owners. This seems to be especially appropriate for a person who is both a “Pechvogel” (shlimazl) and an “Ungluecksbringer” (bringer of bad fortune, jinx, Jonah).

  19. 19
    emilie says:

    my father suggests that “A shlimazl is the recipient of unlucky events, not someone who is unlucky.” perhaps that relates to the suggestion way above, that the shlimazl is the person upon whom soup is split.

  20. 20
    acm says:

    I guess I’d add a vote for “gemutlich” (from German), which is often translated as “cozy” or “comfortable” but goes beyond that with a hard-to-capture sense of rightness + security + hominess . . .

  21. 21
    RA says:

    Why wouldn’t you just use the English word “unfortunate” as a noun to translate schlimazl? Perhaps unfortunate has a heavier connotative force, but denotatively it’s right. Hapless doesn’t work because it’s only an adjective and schlimazl can be used as a noun.

    I think it’s a hard word to transliterate more than it is to translate!

    Tough translation problem: poetry in ASL.

  22. 22
    lucia says:

    I think “unfortunate” doesn’t quite convey the guy who keeps getting soup spilled on him. It might just be someone who is poor. While that is unlucky, there is a nuance of difference.

  23. 23
    Charles says:

    It seems more like misfortunate, except that that isn’t a word.

  24. 24
    Carter says:

    We Americans make suffering from hubris a collective artform: must the difficult translation be into English from another tongue? If not, then the English word “cool” in it’s American usage (as in “Cool like James Dean”) is, if not the most difficult word to translate, easily in the top 10. Just try translating that into any other language and you will see what I mean …

  25. 25
    Berlin says:

    That soup analogy was used on the show “The Flinstones”. I remember seeing it as a kid…

  26. 26
    Russell Moxham says:

    The point is that ‘shlimazl’ is a noun. Translating it using an adjective, like ‘hapless’, is hardly ideal. For similar reasons, I think most of the translations suggested for it here are inadequate.

    There is an Icelandic word ‘ógæfumaður’ that probably does not get mentioned on many lists but has a meaning similar to that of ‘shlimazl’ and is at least as hard to translate. Both the ógæfumaður and the shlimazl are more or less ‘hapless people’ but I wish I could think of a neater English translation for either word than that. ‘Loser’ comes close in some ways but does not in itself convey the sense that what is in question is ill fate rather than just personal inadequacy.

    There is another Icelandic word, ‘mógröf’, that I have also encountered as being hard to translate. A mógröf is (or was) a hole left in a marsh following the removal of a piece of turf (generally to be burnt as fuel or used as roofing material). I suspect that every language conceals heavily loaded words like these. The fact is that you generally do not notice them when the language in question is your own.

    Even apparently simple concepts may not always translate very easily or effectively. For instance, different languages have very different words for colours, with a few languages apparently allowing for description of little more than darkness/lightness. Even in Icelandic, the main adjective for ‘orange (in colour)’ means something more like ‘yellow like an orange’, but Icelandic and English are quite closely related.

    In any case, the idea of compiling a list of phrases that are hard to translate seems alien to me. The philosopher Derrida, for one, might have remarked that translation is a creative process and that the complexity or ‘difference’ arises from the act of translation itself at least as much as from any phrase translated. To translate something is perhaps like breaking a concept down into its constituent parts and then pushing them through a linguistic filter, or like sending a fly through a teleportation machine that has to destroy it in one place in order to reconstruct it in another, or even like making a sausage from the worms of meat squeezed out of a mincer. Whether the thing that goes in at one end is in any sense equivalent or even comparable to the thing that comes out at the other end is open to discussion.