Notes by Autumn Light

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


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So long Genesis, hello Exodus

Imagine a Latin text—e.g. the first verse of the Latin Vulgate Bible:

In principio creavit Deus caelum et terram Terra autem erat inanis et vacua et tenebrae super faciem abyssi et spiritus Dei ferebatur super aquas.
Most of us don’t know Latin, but at least we can read it, and guess at the meaning of some words—or look them up.

Now imagine the same text, but in a non-Roman script, such as traditional Square Hebrew:

אין פרינקיפיו קריאביט דאוס קאלום את תראם תרא אאוטם אראט אינאניס את ואקוא את טנבראה סוּפר פאקיאם אבּיסי את ספיריטוּס דאי פרבּאטור סוּפר אקואס.

If you’re not a fluent Hebrew reader, this is an order of magnitude more difficult, isn’t it? Possibly enough to put you off even trying to deciphering it.

The SimHebrew Bible is the product of this realisation. It is a simulation of the Hebrew Bible in Roman characters, to make it accessible to people who would like to read the Hebrew Bible in the original, but cannot read traditional (“Square”) Hebrew script (or do so with difficulty). Thanks to this simulation, anyone who familiar with the Roman alphabet can see the actual language of the Hebrew Bible, in terms of its spelling, word roots, linguistic patterns, etc.  This provides insights into the biblical text that are not possible in translations (however good), in conventional quasi-phonetic transliteration, or even in linguistic transliteration.

I embarked on this project some two months ago or so—the culmination—and first serious application—of my SimHebrew development project, which I’ve worked on (on and off) for the past eighteen years.With the completion of the Book of Genesis, I feel more confident about seeing the project through.

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How do you say “God’s fury will punish your soul” in Hebrew?

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A straightforward, modern Hebrew rendition would be something like

זעמו של אלוהים יעניש את נשמתך

which, phonetically transcripted, reads:

Zaamo shel Elohim yaanish et nishmatkha

This, however, is almost soul-destroying in itself since, while it is technically correct, it has no rhyme or meter. What you need is something suitably biblical in tone and poetic in nature. I would go with something like:

תנאק נשמתך בחמת ה׳

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Meet Targo—my helper and occasional stand-in

1170401-TargoYesterday, after ten years of research and development at the University of Waterloo—including two years of collaboration with yours truly and a small collection of other selected translators and editors around the world—I took delivery of a device that will allow me to take real vacations (not the kind pseudo-vacations I usually have, where I furtively try and get some work done as Mrs. Autumn Light yells at me to get off my laptop and join her in seeing the sights or just truly taking it easy on the beach).

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

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:

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Test the fidelity and reversibility of any Hebrew-to-Roman transcription system with this poem

Modern-day Ecclesiastes is a poem to illustrate how the spelling distinctions between homophones in modern Hebrew are irretrievably lost in the conventional quasi-phonetic transliteration of Hebrew in Roman characters:

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