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.

Thoughts?

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January 22, 2010 Posted by | meta | , , | 10 Comments