Translatable but Debatable – נרתם Nirtam

by Mark L. Levinson

It might indicate different mentalities, or it might be by chance, that in Hebrew if I harness myself — nirtam — to something, generally I’m making a noble gesture, whereas in English I’m more often assuming a regrettable burden.

  • הבלניות והרבנים נרתמים למאבק למניעת אלימות
    (“Mikveh assistants and rabbis harness themselves to the struggle for preventing violence”), says an item from the Mateh Yehuda Regional Council.
  • ועידת הביומד בת"א: עולם הטכנולוגיה נרתם לעזרת עולם הרפואה
    (“Biomed conference in Tel Aviv:  The world of technology harnesses itself to assist the world of healing”), says a report in Maariv.
  • “Tristram's difficulty is that he's harnessed himself to a policy, dictated by the unions, that he knows is absurd,” says a 2013 commentary in The Telegraph regarding Tristram Hunt, Britain’s Shadow Secretary of State for Education.
  • And George Eliot’s Middlemarch has Will Ladislaw “sit up half the night, thinking over again, under a new irritation, all that he had before thought of his having settled in Middlemarch and harnessed himself with Mr. Brooke.  Hesitations before he had taken the step had since turned into susceptibility to every hint that he would have been wiser not to take it…”

Of course you can harness yourself to something wonderful in English or to something baleful in Hebrew, but the tendency seems to be otherwise.  She can correct me if I’m wrong, but I suppose that Debbie Sharf, who suggested a column about the problem of nirtam, never considered the literal “harnessing” translation as an option.

So what alternatives do we have in English for nirtam?  The Alcalay dictionary says “to be harnessed, bound, hitched.”  But to be “bound” is a more permanent connection than we mean.  And in English to be “hitched” to a cause or a movement implies coming along for the ride, not investing effort to advance it.

Morfix, the online dictionary, includes the meanings “to volunteer” and “to undertake,” which are workable but not nearly as vivid as the image of the harness.  Ya’acov Levy’s dictionary (Oxford) includes the meaning “buckle (down) to,” which is vivid enough but doesn’t carry the sense of lending yourself to something apart from your own everyday concerns as nirtam often does.

Under “volunteer,” gives us “enlist,” “step forward,” and “sign up” (for the figurative sense, I’d be more inclined to use “sign on”), which could work in some contexts.  So could “commit” and even “espouse.”

But interestingly the notion of burdensomeness that English attaches to harnessing yourself can be somewhat avoided if you create a remove by harnessing not yourself but your energies.  When energies are harnessed, the context in English seems to be favorable much more often than not.

  • In the 1850s, “blacks and their white supporters harnessed their energies and employed their associations for the protection of the fugitive and the black community from the slave catchers,” according to a history book.
  • “More than 125 years ago, a group of New York’s most influential philanthropists harnessed their energies and resources to build a hospital with a social mission,” the Montefiore Medical Center.

You are welcome to harness your energies to the quest for a better translation of nirtam.  Please use the space below for relevant comments.  Or if you’d like to suggest another word for discussion, please write to 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.