Translatable but Debatable – התלבט hitlabet

by Mark L. Levinson

Five years ago, when I wrote here about translations of the song Les trois cloches (“The Three Bells”) into Hebrew, French, and German, I’m sure many readers thought “But what about Yiddish? Who will step forward to translate the song into Yiddish?”  I notice that in the meantime one Marty Green has relocated the story to a Polish shtetl and sung it in Yiddish on YouTube:

Although my understanding of Yiddish is limited, Mr. Green’s adaptation seems spot-on to me and I recommend it without התלבטות (hitlabtut), without hesitation. Well, hitlabtut doesn’t exactly mean hesitation.  Or reservations.  In current usage, I think it seems generally to mean having difficulty with the choice between yes and no, or among (a), (b), and so on.

The sound of the verb התלבת hitlabet makes me think of lobbing and batting the choice back and forth, battling and debating with yourself.

I don’t know anything about Marty Green, but let’s imagine he was wondering, “Do I present my lyrics as subtitles in the Yiddish alphabet or the German alphabet?  Yiddish or German?  Which one, which one?”

In English, we sometimes say that someone is undecided, ambivalent, indecisive, perplexed, or uncertain, but those are adjectives and in general, verbs are preferable to adjectives.  If Marty Green is of two minds and is concentrating on making the tough decision, what’s a good, concise verb for his activity?  “Wondering” is too general; it doesn’t refer to a choice among alternatives.  “Pondering,” “puzzling,” “deliberating,” and “contemplating” have the same problem.

We could say he is vacillating, wavering, waffling, flip-flopping. But those verbs seem to reflect a weak character.  There can be thoroughly legitimate reasons for hitlabtut regarding a choiceIt can be a serious matter for serious people.

A passive but reasonably colorful verb is “torn.”  He’s torn between the alternatives.  But isn’t there an active verb?

When I hit the dictionaries, I discover that actually — this happens again and again — the way I understand the Hebrew word’s meaning, from the street and from the media, isn’t the way the dictionary writers have always understood it. 

The paperback dictionary I came to Israel with, Ben-Yehuda and Weinstein, says that hitlabet is “to toil, to be in trouble.”  The more recent Shachter dictionary defines hitlabtut as “struggle.”  Nothing specifically about the horns of a dilemma.

The Even Shoshan dictionary implies that the word’s root derives from the Akkadian and has to do with being trodden down or suffering.  The Alcalay dictionary notes that livtei gidul are growing pains.  Pains, not necessarily quandaries, although growing up does involve many of those.

The passive form nilbat appears in Hosea, ועם לא־יבין ילבט, meaning that a people without understanding “comes to ruin” or “shall fall” or “shall be beaten” — or “is distraught,” depending on your Bible translation. (Alcalay defines nilbat as “bewildered, distraught, troubled, worried, thrown down.”)

Even Shoshan quotes early twentieth-century writers who use the verb hitlabet itself, the reflexive, as a metaphor for something that happens in the mind; and they also use it to mean wandering around.  Bialik writes וּבְהִרְהוּרִים רָעִים כָּאֵלּוּ הִתְלַבֵּט הָרַב הֶעָלוּב וְהָיָה גוֹנֵחַ וְנֶאֱנָח.  Berkowitz writes כְּדֵי שֶׁלֹּא יִתְלַבֵּט בֵּין נַעֲרֵי הַתֵּימָנִים.

Closer to the present day, Levenston and Sivan’s Galil dictionary defines hitlabet as “take pains, exert oneself, struggle hard, flounder; go round in circles” but adds a subentry saying that התלבט בבעיה means “he struggled with the problem.”

Ya’acov Levy’s Oxford dictionary defines hitlabet as “waver, agonize over, debate (with oneself), wrestle (with a problem) and hitlabtut as “wavering, inner struggle.”

Dov Ben-Abba’s Signet dictionary defines hitlabet as “struggle, strive to cope with difficulties, debate with oneself” and hitlabtut as “worry, mental struggle.”

Looking at the online dictionaries, which of course tend to include more of modern usage, I see that Morfix defines hitlabet as “to have doubts, to be uncertain, to weigh possibilities; to think over, to deliberate, to ponder, to mull, to debate” and hitlabtut as “indecision; having doubts, being uncertain.”

Still I think of the meaning as commonly more specific than that.  When I leave the house and I’m uncertain as to whether I fed the goldfish, it’s not so much that I mitlabet about whether I did or didn’t. I mitlabet about whether or not to go back.  At least that’s how I see the word; maybe my take on it is just personal.

Reverso, which bases its translations largely on film subtitles, comes up with “vacillate, waver, flounder, be torn, debate, wonder, be conflicted, anguish over, have second thoughts, be on the fence, be stuck between, be iffy, not sure, question, mull over, consider it a toss-up, can't decide, can't figure.”

Lots of definitions, but if there’s a simple English verb that means “struggle to make a choice” it’s not occurring to me.  To be “torn” between options is strong and picturesque, but passive.  To “ponder” has the meaning of weightiness, but it’s not specific to choosing.  Which verb, which verb?  I mitlabet and I invite you to add your relevant remarks in the space below.  If 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.