Translatable but debatable – הקל hekel

by Mark L. Levinson

In my days as a software documentation manager, I cared about every word that the people working for me wrote.  It can’t have been very pleasant for them.  One day, in describing some shortcut for operating the software, one of my team wrote that it “makes life easier” for the user.  Fine in casual conversation, but not something I would include in a solemn user manual.  The intrusively broad concept of “life” gets invited into the sentence because in English when we grant ease to people we can’t say simply that we “make easier” for them.  We have to make something in particular easier for them.  If not life in general, then work, or their job, or the specific task.

Hebrew, in contrast, has the versatile verb הקל (hekel) which means easing the burden, and it can take the work or the job or the task as its indirect object, or just as easily take the workers themselves as its indirect object, or function perfectly well without an object at all.

An announcement from Maccabi Healthcare Services says:

אנחנו יודעים מה עובר עליך לקראת טיפולי שיניים ואנחנו עוסים הכל כדי להקל

That is, “We know what you go through when you have dental treatment coming, and we do everything we can to hakel.”  They could have said “to hakel for you” or “to hakel for your fears,” but “to hakel” all by itself sends the same message in context.

The four-volume Galil dictionary, by Levenson and Sivan, defines hekel as “lighten (in weight), make lighter; ease (pain), mitigate (punishment); be lenient (a judge); make easier, facilitate; treat lightly, slight.”  The last two definitions jibe with the expression hakalat rosh, which Alcalay defines as “disrespect,” a meaning that diverges from the others.

For hekel itself, Acalay gives us the additional definitions “reduce” and “palliate.” From Zilberman, we can add “alleviate” and “relieve.”  Reverso, which extracts translations largely from the context of movie and TV subtitles, mentions “comforting” a person and “dulling” pain.

The dictionaries have more to say about translating hekel as applied to a problem — alleviate, mitigate, palliate, etc. — than as applied to the person who has the problem.  If you find the software complicated to use, and the company supplies shortcuts to reduce that difficulty, then actually none of those dictionary definitions can describe what the shortcuts do for you.  The point in this particular case isn’t that they “comfort” you or that they “relieve” you.

It’s something of a shame to add the clutter of an otherwise unnecessary word or two just to serve as the object of the verb — resorting to “reduce your burden” or “make matters simpler for you” or “improve the ease of work.” 

For the sake of a one-word verb, I’m inclined to switch perspective and say “help.”  It doesn’t mean the same thing.  Helping is more like stepping in to participate and less like providing a tool and stepping back out of your way.  But in many cases, I think the difference doesn’t matter.

What’s your opinion?  Do you have a good translation for hekel, especially as it applies to a person rather than to a task or a difficulty?  Please feel free to use the comment space below for anything about hekel, or there’s another word or phrase that you believe deserves a column, please write to me at An index of words and phrases discussed so far is here.

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.