Why is ‘holy sh-t’ translated as ‘Elohim’?

Whenever a movie character utters a profanity, the Hebrew subtitles will invariably invoke the Lord's name in vain -- and drag it through the outhouse

I’ve been complaining about this for some time. The responses have been about the same as if I had been complaining about the weather: nothing can be done about it. I can’t accept that. And now that I have a new audience at The Times of Israel, I’ll try again.

Every time someone says “holy sh-t” in an English-speaking movie on YES or HOT, the cable and satellite companies, the subtitle in Hebrew running across the screen is “Elohim.”

Going back 3,500 years, the Hebrew word “Elohim” referred exclusively to the Supreme Being.

It’s even a protected word, not to be uttered in wain — or at least that was the impression I got from the Ten Commandments.

The word for “sh-t” in Hebrew is “hara.” How can “hara” and “Elohim” possibly be confused?

I can appreciate the problem the cable companies have to deal with. Most of their foreign movies are made in America or the UK. The spoken language, English, has to be rendered into written Hebrew, the subtitles flashing along the bottom of the screen as the actors speak. American movies, as a rule, are laced with gutter expressions, and Hebrew, being a newly reconstituted language and much smaller in lexicon than English, is relatively barren in this area. The translators can count on the fingers of one hand suitable words or expressions at their disposal, while facing innumerable expletives in English. What to do? The translators took primarily one phrase, “Elohim adirim!” — the Hebrew equivalent of exclaiming “God almighty!” — and used that as a wild-card translation for a multitude of coarse phrases coming in from English.

And then I was, like, OH MY ELOHIM!
And then I was, like, OH MY ELOHIM! (surprise image via Shutterstock)

I realize that the rabbis of our country don’t sully their eyes and ears by exposing themselves to the movies the rest of us watch, but if they don’t speak up when the name of Elohim is not only being taken in vain but dragged into the out-house, then who will?

Ariel Sharon was still prime minister the last time I was inside a synagogue, so you can’t accuse me of being a religious fanatic. But I don’t think what YES and HOT are doing is right — particularly in a country that was founded on Jewish values. Which Jewish value is it that condones broadcasting into hundreds of thousands of homes throughout Israel 10 times a day that the Supreme Being is now to be known as “holy sh-t?”

Here are the facts.

In the following movies, “holy sh-t” was translated as “Elohim adirim.” I list the title, the date, and the main star. You can obtain these movies and see the subtitles yourselves.

— “Too Big to Fail” (US 2011, William Hurt)

— “Idiocracy” (US 2006, Luke Wilson)

— “Crash” (US 2005, Don Cheadle)

— “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” (US 2005, Robert Downey Jr.)

— “The Dukes of Hazzard” (US 2005, Jessica Simpson)

— “Possible Worlds” (Canada 2000, Tilda Swinton)

— “Keeping the Faith” (US 2000, Ben Stiller)

— “Two If by Sea” (US 1996, Sandra Bullock)

— “Nell” (US 1994, Jodie Foster)

— “Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man” (US 1991, Mickey Rourke)

— “Die Hard” (US 1988, Bruce Willis)

How do you say 'yippee ki yay' in Hebrew?
How do you say ‘yippee ki yay’ in Hebrew?

To simplify matters, you can obtain a veritable cornucopia of expletives in the TV series “The Sopranos.” There not only is “holy sh-t” translated as “Elohim,” but also, for good measure, “holy f-ckin’ sh-t.”

Lest someone at YES or HOT offer the lame excuse that they are translating phrase-to-phrase and that this overrides word-to-word symmetry, we have “The Holiday” (US 2006, Cameron Diaz). This is a romantic comedy throughout which there is only one coarse word — “sh-t.” The translation? “Elohim.” They did the same thing in “Hollow Man” (US 2000, Kevin Bacon). In “Map of the Human Heart” (US 1992, Jason Scott Lee) “holy sh-t” was put out as simply “Elohim.”

In “American Dreamz” (US 2006, Hugh Grant), someone said “holy crap,” and that was translated as “Elohim.” In “Man of the House” (US 2005, Tommy Lee Jones) the word “damn” was translated as “Elohim.” In both “Fargo” (US 1996, Frances McDormand) and “Bridget Jones’s Diary” (UK 2001, Renée Zellweger) the word “f-ck” was translated as “Elohim.” There is no end to this

As a rule, you are going from the slime to the sublime — but sometimes it’s just the ridiculous to the sublime. In “Twins” (US 1988, Arnold Schwarzenegger), the expression “holy schmoley” was rendered “Elohim.” In “Titanic” (US 1997, Leonardo Dicaprio), “blimey” became “Elohim.” In “The Engagement Ring” (US 2005, Patricia Heaton), “holy mashed potatoes” was apotheosized. Over on the small screen, in Law & Order (season 12), “oh, man” was made into “Elohim,” an equation which in the past no Jew of sane mind would have made; in “Becker” (season 2), “oh, boy” was also translated thus; as was the expression “holy cow” in “The New Adventures Of Old Christine (season 1). It’s like watching a conveyor belt carrying mass-produced violations of one of the commandments carved in granite.

But there is an even fouler aspect to what YES and HOT are doing. During the 1,000 years prior to the re-establishment of the State of Israel, the Christians in Europe murdered an estimated 3.5 million Jews for not accepting the majority religion. The victims were burned alive, buried alive, drowned, starved, stabbed, shot, bludgeoned, poisoned, hacked to pieces, torn limb from limb, thrown off cliffs, the females gang-raped until they died. In very many cases they had a choice. The Christians would put knives at the throats of the father, mother, and the seven little children. “Convert or die,” they would be told. Some may have managed to spit in the faces of their tormentors before the knives cut into their jugulars. Today the movie translators render every mention of “Jesus” or “Christ” or even “Jesus F-ckin’ Christ” as “Elohim” in as gross a dishonor to the memories of their martyred ancestors as can be imagined.

In 2006, I sent a letter to then-communications minister Ariel Attias, he of Shas, complaining that “Elohim” was being used as the translation for “holy sh-t,” with details. Nothing happened.

In 2008, I informed the Jerusalem Post about this and reporter David Brinn published an article. He talked to the people who do at least some of the translations. He wrote:

A representative of Kibbutz Elrom Translations, which provides much of the translation services for the television providers, confirmed that “Elohim” was used, for example, to translate “holy sh-t” in “The Dukes of Hazzard,” but stood by the choice.

“The word ‘Elohim’ in written form doesn’t represent the ‘God’ we say verbally, but represents an exclamation. It’s an accepted expression in spoken Hebrew. There’s no accurate parallel expression in Hebrew for ‘holy sh-t’ that appears in ‘The Dukes of Hazzard.’ There was certainly no intention to offend anyone’s sensibilities,” said the representative, who described “The Dukes of Hazzard” as a teen comedy full of slang, and rude and offensive material with young characters often in a minimal state of dress that a religiously observant person would not watch in any case.

I’d buy that if I also saw Allah being referred to as “holy sh-t.” You can’t even do a cartoon on Muhammad without tens of thousands of people rioting in the streets.

Holy sh-t, that's a lot of people!
Holy sh-t, that’s a lot of people! (demonstration image via Shutterstock)

These companies receive licenses from the government, which is all the people — no matter what they watch. They are not writing their translations for a closed-circuit network of night clubs in Tel Aviv. The taxpayers include people like myself who are offended even from the point of view that the translation is grossly inaccurate. This is the height of laziness. Let them earn their money like everyone else instead of just faking it. I was married to a French-English translator, and if she ever translated “merde” as “God,” she not only would have lost her job instantly but they would have called the men in white coats to take her away, away.

Someone is crazy here, too. And it ain’t me.

About the Author
Dov Ivry is from the Maritimes in Canada, born in Nova Scotia, raised in New Brunswick. He worked as a journalist there for 20 years with a one-year stop at the Gazette in Montreal. He's been hanging out in Israel for 36 years, doing this and that, and managed to produce 66 books.