Notes by Autumn Light

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


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Cobwebs of the Righteous?

cobwebs_of_the_righteous

(with thanks to Dahlia Beck)

You would think that one of Canada’s major banks would use someone who knows Hebrew to design the artwork aimed at its Jewish customers—or at least give the artwork to a Hebrew speaker before approval.

The intention in the front cover illustration of what appears to be a calendar in the run-up to the Jewish New Year was to write Tombs of Tsadikim (tombs of the Righteous) in Hebrew below the English —

קברי צדיקים

In fact, what is written is

קורי צדיקים

which means “Cobwebs of the Righteous.”

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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 Israeli Theatre

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

Translating 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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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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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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