Hugely Popular in Israel, Online Translation Sites Are Pushing Paper Out

Sites like Morfix appear to be rendering traditional dictionaries obsolete, as non-native Hebrew speakers turn to free online translations for help deciphering menus, signs, bills and other Hebrew texts.

The days of paper dictionaries appear to be numbered.

As the field of computerized linguistics has evolved in the last decade, and smartphones have become ubiquitous in Israel, many non-native Hebrew speakers are turning to free online translation services for help deciphering menus, signs, bills and other Hebrew texts.

Perhaps the most popular of these services in Israel is the online Hebrew-English dictionary Morfix, which was developed by the Israeli company Melingo. Launched in 2001, Morfix has caught on with ulpan students, new immigrants and translators due to its ease of use and extensive database of words, including military terms, acronyms and all-important Hebrew slang.

Miriam Moshkovski, a new immigrant from New York, learned about Morfix during an army course and uses it obsessively. "Throughout my day I'll open Morfix probably 15 times a day to look something up, whether it's something that I'm working on in the office or whether someone says something and I'm like, 'Maybe I should learn what that means,'" Moshkovski said.

According to Yoni Neeman, 54, founder and president of technology at Melingo, which is a subsidiary of Encyclopedia Britannica, the Morfix dictionary has around 1 million users per month, 90 percent of whom reside in Israel.

The mobile application for iPhone and Android has been downloaded 650,000 times, providing instant gratification to Hebrew learners who want to communicate more effectively in real time.

In an interview at the Melingo headquarters - located, appropriately, on "Made in Israel" Street in Tel Aviv - Neeman highlighted the unique features of Morfix, including stemming, which refers to the process by which inflected words are reduced to their roots, allowing users to enter any form of a verb or noun and receive a definition.

Beautiful spelling features

Other features include vocalization, spelling corrections and related word suggestions. (Google Translate is built into the dictionary for longer texts, although the resulting translation is only half as accurate as that of a native speaker, according to Neeman, who works with a small staff of lexicographers, programmers and web designers. ) In addition, if a user searches for a proper noun, links appear to relevant Wikipedia articles in Hebrew and English.

While Neeman said the dictionary's primary user base is native Hebrew speakers - the most popular searched-for Hebrew word is "yafeh," because of the non-phonetic spelling of "beautiful" - he notes that an English interface was recently launched and that the company will add text-to-speech functionality later this year so users can hear how to properly pronounce Hebrew words.

For Eliot Abrams, an American student in the University of Haifa's intensive Hebrew summer ulpan, Morfix was a revelation after spending weeks struggling to use the Oxford Hebrew-English dictionary as a beginning Hebrew student.

Searching for the right word

"It's awesome because someone who doesn't know all of the different tenses of the verbs or doesn't really even know quite how to conjugate can type in whatever form of the verb they're currently looking at on the page and get the correct definition, consistently and accurately," Abrams said.

Morfix has also been embraced by those for whom English is a second or third language. Wiebke Ehrenstein, a German student and translator, notes that most Hebrew-German dictionaries are limited and incomplete. Therefore, she said, she relies on Morfix when she encounters unfamiliar expressions and technical terms in Hebrew.

"It's a lifesaver," said Ehrenstein, who is currently translating the autobiography of the convicted Soviet spy Avraham Marcus Klingberg from Hebrew into German.

She noted that the dictionary sometimes lacks the most current slang, while other users complained about the distracting advertisements on the website and the inability to edit words once they have been typed into the search field of the mobile app.

Neeman said the company receives dozens of e-mails each day and is always adding new words words and improving the service. "We encourage people to write us and give us ideas about what they think is missing," he said.

The site looks much like that of Google, with its prominent search bar and stylistic quirks, such as a random terms search and logo "doodles." (Earlier this month, the multi-colored letters of the Morfix logo were surrounded by Olympic rings. )

Melingo was founded as a spin-off of the Rav Milim project for the computerization of the Hebrew language, which was led by famed linguist Yaacov Choueka during the 1990s at the Center for Educational Technology. In addition to Morfix, Melingo also markets paid dictionaries and an automatic vocalization service called Nakdan. As for Morfix, "it will always be free," said Neeman.

Despite its many fans, there are some purists who believe Morfix and other online dictionaries fail to provide a deep understanding of the language. Mina Ben Meir-Sikuler, head of Hebrew studies at the University of Haifa and a Hebrew instructor of 30 years, said that in general she does not object to students using computerized dictionaries. "During regular classes, I allow students to search in any dictionary they want," she said.

But she added: "If we talk about the computerized dictionaries of today, in the context of the language level and accuracy, I don't give them a good mark. What the dictionaries do is make the students lazy. I expect that the student, even in our Internet world, will know how to open a paper dictionary."

And then there are students who use neither online nor paper dictionaries. "I hardly ever use a dictionary," said Yuval Mulla, an ulpan student from the Netherlands. "I just ask someone, 'Ma zeh?' [What is it?] and it works fine."

A Melingo staffer displaying the Morfix app on her phone at the company’s TA headquarters Thursday.
Andrew Esensten