God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

On Transliterations

Having just butchered several transliterations in a post, I thought this would be a good time for a rambling discussion of transliterations.

Even though it’s no longer technologically difficult to insert Hebrew or Greek into a blog post, I still prefer transliteration, because people who know Hebrew and Greek will be able to read the transliteration (except when I type it wrong — more below), but the reverse is not true.

It seems to me that people who don’t know Hebrew and Greek will have great difficulty following a discussion if some of the words are in letters they can’t read. For example, if I’m writing about shalom (which is on my to-do list), even people who don’t know Hebrew can follow the disucssion, and people who do know Hebrew can also keep up. This is particularly important in posts where the ancient words are key.

The question then becomes which transliteration scheme to use. My general practice is, again, to try to be as inclusive as possible, so I try to write the foreign words in ways that people can read and pronounce.

This is important because it turns out that when people read in their native language — even when they read silently — their brain processes the sounds of the words they’re reading. (There’s an article on this from 2003 in the journal Brain and Language with the great title, “Brain imaging of tongue-twister sentence comprehension: Twisting the tongue and the brain.”) So I try to write the words more or less the way they sound, and I try to avoid technical transliteration schemes.

For example, many people use “Q” for the Greek theta, as for example “MORFH QEOU” in a recent comment for “form of God.” I prefer morfi theou.

But this approach brings up two related issues. First, the pronunciation of both Hebrew and Greek has changed over the millennia, and secondly, no one knows for sure how the ancient languages were pronounced. I use an approximation of our best guess.

A third issue relates to the fact that some of the ancient sounds have no convenient spelling in English.

All of this leads me to the futility of a consistent transliteration scheme, which in the end I think is good news, because it frees me up to be flexible.

For Greek, I generally try to spell out the Greek letters, substituting English combinations for letters we don’t have. So, theos for God, christos for Christ, etc. Unfortunately, this means that there are sometimes more letters in the English transliteration than in the Greek; I sometimes find this confusing. This also means that omicron and omega are both “o,” along with some other Greek distinctions that are lost.

For Hebrew, I have two additional complications. First, I happen to speak the modern language well enough that I frequently slip into spelling the words they way they are pronounced now, which differs from their traditional pronunciations. (On the other hand, the traditional pronunciation goes back only about 1,100 years.) Secondly, I touch type in Hebrew, so I frequently automatically hit the key for the Hebrew letter I want, rather than its transliteration. This brings me to the final challenge.

Spell checkers are marvelous for people like me. (I attended an open classroom grade school, so instead of learning how to spell and add and things like that, I learned to feel good about myself even though I couldn’t do those things.)

But foreign words and spell checkers don’t play nicely together. (For example, try spell checking “Ben-Gurion airport” and you’ll get something mildly vulgar.) Two reasonable approaches are to check each foreign word manually — this is what I usually do — or carefully insert the correct spelling of the foreign word into the dictionary — sometimes I do this.

The drawbacks of the first are that it’s easy to miss spelling mistakes, and even easier to miss inconsistencies in transliteration (“f” vs. “ph,” for example, as in nefesh and nephesh).

The drawback of the second approach is that if the wrong spelling gets into the dictionary, the error shows up consistently in the final copy.

Still, I would have all of these problems and more if I used the original Hebrew/Greek, so I’ll stick with my flexible, non-technical, hopefully useful but sometimes idiosyncratic transliterations for now.



January 22, 2010 - Posted by | meta | , ,


  1. Some spell checkers allow you the ability to add words to it. You could add Ben-Gurion, for example, and it wouldn’t flag it anymore, but would flag it if you spelled it Guiron, for example.

    I have a pet peeve, though, and that is when transliterations are used when there is a word that maps well in the target language. For example, “angels” should, IMHO, just be rendered as “deputies.” Why not?

    I’m with you about Greek… if others would do the same, I would love to ditch attempting to replicate the ancient pronunciation and just work with it with modern pronunciation. In these circles, though, the conventions assume textbook Koine pronunciation.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | January 22, 2010

  2. Some spell checkers allow you the ability to add words to it. You could add Ben-Gurion, for example, and it wouldn’t flag it anymore, but would flag it if you spelled it Guiron, for example.

    Yes. As I said, the only catch is that sometimes I accidentally put the wrong word into the dictionary, and then the typo gets multiplied: I’m consistent, but I’m consistently in error.

    Comment by Joel H. | January 22, 2010

  3. I like natural transliterations with no special characters. I do, however, prefer certain traditional conventions, such as ph for φ. In other words I like a transliteration scheme that is organic, the way a word would look like if it came into English naturally.

    Comment by John | January 22, 2010

    • How did phi wind up being spelled with a ph? I would think that f would be more natural. I guess it is because it falls between pi and psi. Still, it is an odd, but well entrenched convention. An f maps so well. I see no down side.

      Comment by WoundedEgo | January 24, 2010

      • Originally “ph,” “th,” and “ch” (or “kh”) were academic conventions for aspirated voiceless stops. The “h” indicated the aspiration. The combinations were not initially meant to convey the /ph/ of “phone” or the /th/ of “with,” etc.

        (English speakers can most easily understand aspiration by placing a hand in front of the mouth and saying “spin” and “pin.” The added puff of air that accompanies the “p” of “pin” is aspiration.)

        Greek grammarians describe this aspiration as dasu, the same term used for the “rough breathing” that is, similarly, usually transliterated as an “h.” For example, the four-letter Greek word upsilon-iota-omicron-sigma (commonly translated “son”) is often spelled in English “huios.”

        But because English speakers generally pronounce “ph” and “th” not as aspirated stops but rather as fricatives (as in “phone” and “through”), the plosive pronunciation gave way to the fricative one. Then people began to assume that the Greek letters phi and theta were pronounced in accordance with their English-revised understanding.

        So it’s not that /f/ came to be written “ph,” but rather than “ph” came to be pronounced /f/.

        If you’re interested in more, you might try Allen’s classic book on Greek pronunciation, Vox Graeca: The Pronunciation of Classical Greek. But more recent research — including my own — has cast doubt on the degree of certainty we can have about how ancient languages were pronounced.

        Comment by Joel H. | January 25, 2010

  4. I share John’s preference for “ph”. And I thoroughly dislike “q” for “th”, a substitution that confuses readers and seems to me to accomplish no useful purpose. I am comfortable, though, with “kh” in place of “ch”.

    I would suggest “ô” for omega and “ê” for eta. The diacritics don’t seem to slow readers who don’t know what they signify. And these characters are very easy to enter using AllChars, a tiny, free Windows utility ( http://allchars.zwolnet.com/ ).

    Comment by Marshall Massey | January 23, 2010

    • I was going to suggest capital E for eta and capital O for omega, but your idea is better. Thanks for sharing that!

      Comment by Gary Simmons | January 25, 2010

    • This strikes me as a great idea. I don’t think it wouldn’t bother people who don’t know the Greek alphabet and it would provide more information to those who do. It seems to me it would be particularly helpful for people who are learning Greek and want to learn more about a word they see.

      As it happens, the technology I currently use — while really good at other things — makes this awkward. But I’ll keep it in mind.


      Comment by Joel H. | January 25, 2010

  5. Transliterations simplify reality. I find books that use them hard to read, especially those that use diacriticals. The writers frequently leave out too much context to allow the reader to get the point without redoing all the writers presentation work. I think they also speed up our reading when we should slow down and listen. The eyeball exercise of reading left to right and right to left is fun even if the software that supports it sometimes thinks it is driving on both sides of the road simultaneously.

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | January 23, 2010

  6. Many, if not most, new words enter a language by repeated transliteration; “Baptize” “ghost,” “spirit” and “angel” spring to mind.

    ISTM that words that don’t map well to existing words are good candidates for transliteration, such as perhaps SHALOM, or PNEUMATIKA.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | January 23, 2010

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