Notes by Autumn Light

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


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Q: Have you ever boycotted a business because the business violated your principles?

Yes. Call me pedantic, but…

  • With the possible exception of greengrocers (who can’t help it, poor lambs), I avoid businesses that use apostrophes in plural forms (e.g. leaflet’s), or it’s when they mean its; or discrete when they mean discreet; or loose when they mean lose—particularly if it’s in posh marketing materials, and/or they charge a great deal. If their English is faulty, they may also be careless in their area of expertise, where I can’t spot the mistakes.

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Q: Could the Ten Commandments on stone be or represent the invention of Hebrew writing?

wadi_el_hol-inscription-over

No—just as the works of Shakespeare or the King James Bible don’t represent the invention of English writing. A document of such seminal importance is never the first example of a new script, but on the contrary, evidence of a well-established one.

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Q: 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 Israeli Theatre

“As You Like It”, Cameri Theatre, Feb. 2017 (Photo: Reddi Rubinstein)

Yes—in fact, translating Shakespeare into biblical Hebrew was 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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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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Q: 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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