Translatable but Debatable — ?לא חבל Lo khaval?

by Mark L. Levinson

Near the border with Israel, Gazans shouted warnings to a determined fellow who was heading for the fence.  He took a bullet in the leg, and a tweet from Ofir Gendelman of the Prime Minister's Office is reported as starting with the words “?לא חבל” (Lo khaval?) It’s an everyday expression bewailing something counterproductive, but not it’s always easy to translate.

I give Haaretz a bit of credit for thinking past the obvious translation — “Isn’t it a shame?” — when reporting the news in English. When we say “Isn’t it a shame?” the remark is commonly just an exclamation, not a question to be thought about. If the neighbor’s dog is struck by lightning, we might say “Isn’t it a shame?” but we wouldn’t say Lo khaval?  The Hebrew implies that the misfortune could have been prevented, or could be prevented in the future.

However, although it avoids one bad translation Haaretz substitutes another: “Would it not be a shame?” Where they got the “would” isn’t clear. The man was shot, no woulds about it. 

I don’t envy anyone who translates against a tight deadline, but the same article includes another curious point.  In Hebrew it goes on to quote the same source as saying:

חמאס לא שולחת את בני המנהיגים שלה לגדר והיא יודעת היטב למה.

That is, “Hamas doesn’t send the sons of its leaders out to the fence, and it knows very well why not to.”  But the Haaretz translation into English says “Hamas does not sent its leaders to the border and it knows very well why.” Maybe the problem is that the remarks were originally made in Arabic and somehow “sons of the leadership” and “members of the leadership” can be expressed in the same way?  Maybe translating from an Arabic source is what put the inexplicable “would” in the first sentence? 

A co-worker of mine, who came from Holland and spoke very good English, once said “It’s worse than a shame, it’s a pity!”  We native speakers scratched our heads and agreed that they’re not very different but if either is worse than the other, a shame is worse than a pity.  The same degree of misfortune would be more distressing as a cause for shame than as a cause for pity.

But as I was saying, when we exclaim Lo khaval? about something, we’re implying it didn’t have to happen.  A Gazan man doesn’t have to walk up to the border fence; there are no attractions there.  Or we might say in a general sense, “Look how much money gets spent on elections. Lo khaval?” It’s not something a single person decided to do, but we think of it as something that somebody somewhere ought to do something about.  On the other hand, if we said, “You can’t keep the same dog all your life. Lo khaval?” then the remark would have a kind of facetious quality because only God could overcome that problem.

And as I was saying, I think Haaretz was on the right track.  Just try to tweak the remark so that it sounds more like a sincere appeal to common sense, more like a conversation starter.  “It’s a shame, isn’t it?” 

Or you could say “Why do it?” “What’s the point?” “What good does it do?”

Or “Isn’t it a waste of —” whatever it’s a waste of. Or “Is it really worth —“ whatever the consequences are.

There’s a comment space below where you’re welcome to add your own suggested translations of the phrase of the month.  Some months, it stays empty.  Lo khaval?  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.