Translatable but Debatable — l'haskil (להשכיל)

Translatable but Debatable
השכיל ל — (Hiskil + infinitive)

I learned a little Hebrew when I was approaching Bar Mitzva age, then a little more at ulpan, and more from radio, TV, army, internet, colleagues, and my wife the sabra, not necessarily in that order. “מכל מלמדי השכלתי,” as the saying goes. “From all my teachers, I’ve learned.” The Even Shoshan dictionary agrees with King James that when the Psalmist used it, that remark actually meant “I have more understanding than all my teachers.” It was Ben Zoma, quoted in Pirkei Avot, who pivoted on the ambiguity of a single letter and turned “more than” into “from,” remarking: “Who is wise? One who learns from every man. As is stated: ‘From all my teachers I have grown wise, for Your testimonials are my meditation.’”

I’m happy to see a few comments from time to time at the bottom of these Translatable but Debatable articles, because I still have plenty to learn from all my teachers. This month I’m presenting the difficulty of translating that same verb from the scriptures, השכיל, as used these days before an infinitive.

The big Alcalay Hebrew-to-English dictionary translates השכיל as “to become wise, prudent, intelligent” and “to acquire wisdom; to understand, comprehend; to succeed, prosper.” Here are the first five hits I get from Google for הוא השכיל and for אם נשכיל. They all suggest that the meaning could be “succeed.” And not that ten Google hits amount to an exhaustive sample, but note that in every one of them the verb השכיל is followed by an infinitive. That seems to be the commonest usage today (although when they acknowledge being told something they didn’t know before, folks still sometimes say simply השכלתי, “I get it now”).

זה היופי איך הוא השכיל לפרש נכון את הפוליטיקה היישראלית
הפעם הוא השכיל להתאושש בקטעים העוקבים וסיים במדריד במקום השלישי
הוא השכיל להעמיק ולדון בכל עניין
הוא השכיל להשתלב במלוא המרץ בחיים החדשים
הוא השכיל לתמרן בין החברות היריבות 'נאות הכיכר' וה'חברה הגיאוגרפית
אם נשכיל להדריך את ילדינו במשך שנות ילדותם לנתינה, הם ידעו בעצמם להגיע להחלטות נכונות
זה יקרה אם נשכיל לשמור אצלנו את האוצר הזה
אם נשכיל להבין שכל אחד הוא ישות הבאה מהמהות שהביאנו עד הלום
אם נשכיל לשלב ערבים בשירות הציבורי, נרוויח חברה בריאה יותר
ועוד מתנה לכבוד שבת... אם נשכיל לעשות זאת.. הרבה כאב יעלם

But the Babylon Hebrew-to-Hebrew dictionary mentions “succeed” only at the end of a long list of other meanings, and the dictionary at doesn’t mention it at all. Milog talks about learning, and it adds “acting wisely” as a second definition.

1. רכש ידע, קנה דעת; למד.
2. נהג בדרך הנכונה, פעל בחכמה. "הוא השכיל לקחת מטריה בבוקר."

Frankly, the example for acting wisely — taking an umbrella in the morning — doesn’t sound consistent with any usage I’ve come across for השכיל, unless it means someone learned the hard way that an umbrella is advisable. Alcalay’s “prosper” definition is another that seems odd to me, unless it’s in the sense that any plan can be said to “prosper” when it works out, not necessarily implying any receipt of riches. But maybe I just haven’t listened to enough loftily phrased Hebrew.

My impression is that when השכיל means “succeed,” it means managing to succeed by dint of learning or wisdom. Rather than simply “if we succeed at this,” I think it means “if it turns out we’re wise enough, or can become wise enough, to succeed at this.”

I wouldn’t expect to hear השכיל regarding success in a matter of sheer chance where wisdom won’t help. In fact, Google provides eight hits for השכיל לנחש and seven of them are לא השכיל לנחש. The eighth is: חברי השכיל לנחש את תוצאת המשחק במדויק, אך נכשל בזהות המנצחת. A bit ungrammatical, but interestingly also a tale of failure in the last analysis.

What do you think? Consider the example “אם נשכיל לשמור אצלנו את האוצר הזה.” Would you give it a simple “success” translation such as “If we can keep this treasure” or “If we manage to keep this treasure,” or would you try to fit in the element of wisdom even if it means lengthening the translation?

Is there a difference between אם נשכיל לשמור אצלנו את האוצר הזה and אם נדע לשמור אצלנו את האוצר הזה? Does נשכיל imply more strongly that we may need to become wiser than we currently are?

Please comment in the space below. If there’s another word you’d like to see covered by Translatable but Debatable, please suggest it but not in that space, which is set aside for the current topic (השכיל). Instead, write me at ]]

Mark L. Levinson

Born 1948 a few trolley stops from Boston, Massachusetts. Bachelor's degree from Harvard College. Moved to Israel in 1970. Worked and learned Hebrew on Kibbutz Ramat Hashofet. Moved to Haifa and worked teaching English to adults. Did similar work in the army. After discharge, turned to technical writing, initially for Elbit. Then promotional writing for Scitex, and more technical (and occasionally promotional) writing for Edunetics, Daisy Systems (later named Dazix, SEE Technologies, and Summit Design), Memco, and Gilian. Also translated from Hebrew to English, everything from business articles to fiction, filmscripts, and poetry. Served as local chapter president for the Society for Technical Communication, editor of several issues of local literary journals, occasional political columnist and book reviewer for the Jerusalem Post, and husband & father.