Translatable but Debatable - הרי and הלא

Translatable but Debatable
הרי and הלא

I don’t have an opinion on oil additives; but sometimes I mentally translate as I read, and I was struck by this headline on the web:

תוסף לשמן מנוע, מועיל או לא מועיל? הרי הוא משאיר לכלוך

How would you translate that into English? If not for the succinctness that’s demanded in headlines, I’d be tempted to go for something like Motor oil additives: helpful or not? Bear in mind that they do, of course, leave residue.

Or Motor oil additives: helpful or not? You can’t deny that they leave residue. The Oxford dictionary includes you can’t deny that as one of its definitions for הרי.

There’s certainly no all-purpose translation for הרי. And given the difficulty, there’s sometimes even a temptation to drop the word and hope the meaning doesn’t suffer seriously. Take for example this well-known sentence:

וכל המרבה לספר ביציאת מצרים, הרי זה משובח

The Hagaddah at translates it:

and everyone who discusses the exodus from Egypt at length is praiseworthy.

A different translation, from The Sephardi Connection, translates it:

And he who discusses abundantly the Exodus from Egypt shall be praised.

The הרי survives in neither translation. And a case could be made that it’s a mere expletive in the sentence, nothing to worry about. But I think that it helps balance the short ending of the sentence against the long subject.

That sort of extra balancing weight may be what had in mind when it listed “why” among the definitions of הרי. And he who discusses abundantly the Exodus from Egypt — why, he shall be praised. But it’s a little conversational for the context.

The Shachter dictionary, from Yavneh, lists “behold” and “surely,” which have a kind of King James flavor:

And he who discusses abundantly the Exodus from Egypt — behold, he shall be praised.

And he who discusses abundantly the Exodus from Egypt, surely shall he be praised.

Other antique-sounding definitions are lo (the pocket Ben Yehuda dictionary) and for surety (Dov Ben Abba’s dictionary in Signet paperback).

Or it could be simply indeed (another definition from He shall be praised indeed.

Maybe it’s my ignorance of Talmudic Hebrew, but when I read הרי זה משובח my mind envisions praise of the deed rather than of the person as such. If I were so irresponsible as to produce the Levinson Hagaddah, it might say:

And lengthy discussions of the Exodus from Egypt are a thing to be praised.

I would throw in the thing there to lengthen the end of the sentence the way theהרי does.

Sometimes when we say הרי we mean obviously or everybody knows. An example off the web:

הרי לפני מעבר דירה... עולים אצלינו רגשות מעורבים

But the הרי about the residue from motor oil, at the start of this column, might only halfway mean as we all know while halfway meaning if you don’t know, you should. Sivan and Levenston (Bantam–Megiddo paperback dictionary) include the definition you see, which generally means I expect you to see from now on, because I’m telling you.

The word הרי also introduces something not previously taken for granted when הרי is used in the sense of here is. And in the Talmud — although I doubt you would find this in everyday speech or writing today — הרי can introduce a hypothetical situation: הרי שדחף את חברו. Alcalay translates that usage as Let us suppose…

Sometimes הרי and הלא are virtually interchangeable. The distinction as Sivan and Levenstein see it is that הרי is used to preface a statement when it should not surprise the hearer and הלא is used to introduce a question that expects a positive answer. But the question can be a rhetorical question that expects no answer at all.

Another distinction is that while הרי goes back to the Talmud, הלא or הלוא goes back to the Bible. But the dictionaries overlap their definitions. Indeed and surely, for example, appear for both words.

One hard-to-translate use of הלא is in sentences like this:

לפני חודשיים חגגנו את פסח הלא הוא הג החרות.

When הלא is used to introduce an alternate designation for some person or thing, it’s hard to translate it even as a rhetorical question. In this case, unlike הרי זה משובח, I’d be inclined to wield the scissors and leave just Passover, the Festival of Freedom, ignoring the technicality that grammatically the original contains something like a question.

Your own comments on הרי and הלא are welcome 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. 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.