Notes by Autumn Light

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


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In the Hebrew, Deut. 8:18 uses the verb for “to make atonement,” but the English translation says only “to make.” Why is this?

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Your impression that the verb לעשות means “to make atonement” is due to the definition given in Biblehub.com’s translation of that verse.

Which is surprising, because in fact it simply means “to do” or “to make” (like the French verb faire).

In this case, it is part of an expression

לעשות חיל (la’asot ḥayil)

which means “to thrive”, “to do extremely well”.

So basically it’s a mistake.

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If you really want to understand the Old Testament, should you read it in ancient Hebrew?

You can get most of the gist of the Hebrew Bible without knowing biblical Hebrew, but you would lose out on many subtleties—such as:

  • The meaning of names
  • Hebrew cognates (related words)
  • The brevity of biblical Hebrew
  • Poetic structures

In detail:

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What is the real meaning of the Hebrew word ‘hesed’ in the Bible?

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An excellent question, because the agonizing and linguistic contortions surrounding this word among non-Hebrew speakers have always puzzled me.

The traditional translation—lovingkindness—is totally inapt on several grounds: it’s a made-up word, cloyingly sentimental, semantically wrong, and rhythmically horrible, wreaking havoc on the meter of any verse in which it is present.

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What is the process of getting into translating?

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From what I can tell, people get into translation by one of two avenues: they attend translation training courses at universities, or they “fall” into it after becoming thoroughly proficient in two or more languages and working in other fields, doing translations on an ad-hoc or informal basis for their employers, friends, or colleagues, and find themselves increasingly in demand afterwards.

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Insights of dictation software

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In the past year or so—at the instigation of my elder son, who pointed out to me that one no longer needs specialist software for this purpose—I’ve been using the built-in capabilities of my Mac computer to dictate a first draft of works that I have been asked to translate.

It isn’t suited to all jobs—works of a highly poetic nature that require due consideration to find suitable English equivalents, or conversely obtuse or convoluted writing that requires close scrutiny just to work out precisely what the author is saying, often cannot be translated so easily on the fly. However, for clear and well-written prose, it works very well, and has doubled my productivity in many cases (far more than traditional CAT—computer-assisted translation—tools).

Of course, this is contingent upon the dictation software being accurate in its “understanding” of one’s speech. Thankfully, the built-in dictation capability within the Mac is remarkably accurate 95% of the time (particularly if one adheres to idiomatic English). However, here and there it makes errors.

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