Notes by Autumn Light

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


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Has anyone ever tried translating Shakespeare into old Hebrew, so its speakers get the same sense of antiquity as they read it as English speakers do?

shakespeare-in-love8Translating Shakespeare into biblical Hebrew was certainly the default approach in the early days of Hebrew theatre (end of 19th, early 20th century)—since Shakespeare’s English is roughly the contemporary of that of King James translation of the Hebrew Bible.

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Why is the original Hebrew called “the Holy Tongue”?

Prior to the First Exile of the Judean aristocracy to Babylon in 586 BCE, Israelites referred to themselves as ‘Hebrews’ (ivrim – עברים)—e.g.:

  • And there came one that had escaped, and told Abram the Hebrew [Gen. 14:13]
  • And there was there with us a young man, an Hebrew [Gen. 41:23]
    when Moses was grown, that he went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens: and he spied an Egyptian smiting an Hebrew [Exodus 2:7]
  • And if thy brother, an Hebrew man, or an Hebrew woman, be sold unto thee [Deut. 15:12]
  • That every man should let his manservant, and every man his maidservant, being an Hebrew or an Hebrewess, go free [Jer. 34:9]
  • And he said unto them, I am an Hebrew; and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, which hath made the sea and the dry land [Jonah 1:9]

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If the Bible were set in the forests of ancient Europe, how would the stories be different?

If the Bible were set in a purely desert environment (as it is usually depicted in Western films), it would not likely not have produced stories that Europeans could relate to. But it wasn’t. The landscapes of the Galilee and the Judea-Samaria mountain range west of the watershed were (and are) very similar to those found in southern Europe (Greece, Italy, and Spain).

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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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