Translatable but Debatable - אזלת יד (ozlat yad)

Translatable But Debatable — אזלת יד

In something of a contrast to last month’s column, which focused on the idea of כוחניות, this month’s looks at אזלת יד.

According to the Hebrew Wiktionary, the term אזלת יד comes from Deuteronomy 32:36, יִתְנֶחָם כִּי יִרְאֶה כִּי אָזְלַת יָד, with יד understood by metonymy to mean power: “he sees that [their] power is gone,” as the New American Standard Bible translates it.

The word hand can mean “power” or “influence” in English too, of course, although its use is limited.  “Dick Clark had a hand in early Arena concerts,” notes a headline.  “I see the hand of the homosexual in this massive election fraud,” claims former senator Rick Santorum.

Use the same metonymy outside its accustomed context, though, and it becomes comical in English.  On a 1992 episode of Seinfeld, George complains about his current relationship:  “I'm very uncomfortable. I have no power. I mean, why should she have the upper hand. Once in my life I would like the upper hand. I have no hand — no hand at all. She has the hand; I have no hand.”  Turning hand into a non-count noun like power, he suggests:  “she’ll see me with my friends, she’ll observe me as I really am, as myself. Maybe I can get some hand that way.”

Monday before last, Paul Raboff of Jerusalem used the same comic effect rhetorically in the Jerusalem Post: “Evenhandedness is in no way fair to Israel. It undermines Israel.  Actually, we need something much more than even-handedness.  We need pro-Zionist policies that do no harm to Arabs or anyone else.  Even-handedness is actually no-handedness.”

Considering that the term no-handedness departs from everyday English, how do we translate אזלת יד?  Powerlessness is an obvious possibility.  From the Babylon online dictionary, we can add helplessness, impotence, weakness. The Yavneh dictionary by Haim Shachter prefers inability.

But from the way I notice אזלת יד used in the news, I think the dictionary definitions are missing something.  An article about מחאות הימין נגד אזלת יד הממשלה, for example, did not describe complaints that the government had no hand, but rather complaints that the government lacked the will to use the hand it had.  I wouldn’t call that problem powerlessness or helplessness, except in the sense of being inwardly powerless in the office against forces that restrict the use of power in the field.  Not a lack of muscle but a lack of will.

In such a case, I might gamble on the word fecklessness.  It’s a gamble because feckless has assumed many meanings.  Babylon says feeble, weak; apathetic, indifferent; ineffective. I like the inclusion of connotations that have to do with attitude, not only with capacity.  Merriam-Webster’s dictionary lists weak, ineffective, worthless, and irresponsible while its thesaurus explains “having no real worth or purpose <after years of feckless negotiations>” and lists synonyms such as useless, careless, and irresponsible.

As usual, you’re invited to contribute your own on-topic thoughts below (regarding אזלת יד) and to 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.