Notes by Autumn Light

On Hebrew, English, translation, editing, and more—by Jonathan Orr-Stav

Which top countries have their own alphabet but have transliteration problem in Latin characters?

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I don’t know if Israel counts as a “top country” in this regard, but it does have a problem with transliteration of Hebrew into English (or in Roman characters in general).

Essentially, the problem is one of what is known in information theory as information loss: in the process of converting from Hebrew to English, information about the spelling of words (including the distinctions between letters that are essentially homophonic, such as ḥet and khaf, tet and tav, kaf and quf, samekh and sin, etc.) is lost, so if you were to try and convert back to Hebrew, you wouldn’t be able to reconstitute the original spelling—even if you were a native Hebrew speaker and recognised the words, as in the following example, from a poem of homophones titled Modern-day Ecclesiastes:

Et le’et – ve’et le’et!
kara ha’ikar. veha’ikar: kara
matzav shebo hi amrah “bo”
vehu, ba’aliya, ba vehebit — aliya vekotz ba
ve’amar:
“ani, ani, velach miyeza — ve’at, at-at, lach
koret, be’odi koret.
“Hakol avir, vehakol — avir.”

Since most Israelis living entirely in a Hebrew-speaking environment and are accustomed to having to improvise in many aspects of life on a daily basis, they don’t realise that this information loss is a problem.

For me, however—as a language geek and profoundly invested guardian of Hebrew cultural heritage—this is a matter of great concern, because as it is, Hebrew in its traditional Square Hebrew form is highly fragile and susceptible to corruption in transition from one computerised context to another, or is even precluded entirely from many computer applications. The entire legacy of electronic Hebrew writings is in jeopardy of being lost, unless a method is found to convert it to and from standard ASCII (English alphabet) with full fidelity. Without this modern-day Rosetta Stone, future historians may not be able to reconstitute much of today’s Hebrew archives in electronic form.

Fortunately, there such a method: the product of eighteen years of development and testing, it is SimHebrew (simulated Hebrew) , but only time will tell if it is taken up.

In the meantime, people will continue to improvise: they’ll spell words or names such as Hanukkah, Hayim, Itzhak, etc. in sixteen ways till Sunday; thinking that Haftorah is related to the word Torah; not know how to present Hebrew titles in the International Standard Book Numbering system and other databases; and Israeli government ministries and commercial websites will use English for their domain names, because there is no agreed way of transliterating their Hebrew names into Roman characters.

*

(Originally written in reply to a question at Quora.com).

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Author: יונתן אור-סתיו | Jonathan Orr-Stav

מתרגם עברית–אנגלית, עורך באנגלית, וסופר. כל הזכויות שמורות © 2016

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