Notes by Autumn Light

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


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To what extent is a translator expected to correct the defects (poor style, poor grammar, wrong spelling) of the source text in his translation?

As I point out in What happens during the process of translation?—

[…] a good translation is [one where] you write the text as the author would have if they were a native speaker of the target language. The translated text should emulate the original in terms of the level of literacy, style, and (if someone is being quoted) the socio-economic/educational background of the speaker.

Since not all texts are written well, however, sometimes one must also engage in a bit of farteischt und farbessert (from the Yiddish, “translate and improve”), to convey the writer’s meaning as cogently as possible.

If a translation is meant for publication (or some other form of transmission), anything that clarifies the intended message is welcome.

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Was Moses the inventor of the first alphabet?

[A2A] No.

For starters, there is no historical evidence for the existence of Moses as a historical figure—i.e., a Hebrew raised as an Egyptian prince who flees into exile then returns to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt.

Secondly, the Exodus story is likely an embellishment of the forced exodus of a quarter of a million Canaanites from northern Egypt at the end of the Middle Kingdom period in 1550 BCE, which marks the beginning of the New Kingdom period. Even if they had a charismatic leader who might serve as the basis for Moses, casual but clearly assured graffiti inscriptions in a well-defined Canaanite/Old Hebrew script on statues in the western Sinai at that time support the evidence of Canaanites indicate that by this time, even ordinary folk (probably teenage boys, or young men) were literate in that script—which indicates that the script was invented a considerable time before that.

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In which languages, besides Arabic, are Jews referred to as “Yahud”?

In ancient Persian—as spelled out in Old Hebrew Script on every modern Israeli sheqel coin, which is based on a Judean coin when Judea was part of the Persian Empire:

1180415_sheqel
The three letters are I-H-D (from right to left)—which is pronounced Yehud or Yahud.

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Were there also checkpoints in ancient Israel?

1180328-Balaam

Oh, yes. Here are a few examples, just from the first few books of the Hebrew Bible:

The most obvious instance of a checkpoint was the one set up by the Gileadites to catch retreating Ephraimite soldiers, after the Ephraimites’ defeat in battle. Since Ephraimites were known to have a particular kind of lisp—pronouncing /sh/ as /s/—the Gileadites put a simple test to every man they caught:

Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand. [Judges 12:6]

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Are Jewish men forbidden to farm pigs?

Many years ago, I was working for a while as ‘Deputy Food Manager’ (i.e., ‘the guy who schlepps the big boxes from the delivery platform at the back to the walk-in fridge’) at a kibbutz in southern Israel.

The kibbutz members frequently complained about the lack of variety of our meat offerings (basically, chicken, turkey, or beef)—so one day the Food Manager took me for a ‘research trip’ to another kibbutz in the southern Negev—Lahav, some forty km to the east, where, it was rumoured, members were very happy with their food.

The ‘research trip’ was a sham—he and I, and everyone else already knew why the Lahav members were happy with their food: they had pork alternatives almost every day, thanks to their pig farm.

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As a translator, which was your favourite project?

Interesting question, which I’ve had to consider for a while.

One of the joys of my work is I get to read a whole slew of interesting research and information in areas as varied as biblical research, social work, history, psychology, and the law—and people pay me for it (well, after I translate or edit it, of course).

So if I had to choose a favourite, it would probably be one of the books that I’ve translated that was on a fascinating topic and taught me a great deal. The following three are very compelling candidates:

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