Notes by Autumn Light

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

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How do you say ‘The Gates of Hell shall not prevail’ and ‘no weapon formed against me shall prosper’ in Hebrew?


Certain expressions are inherently foreign to Hebrew, because they are absent in the Jewish tradition. Gates of Hell is one of them: the notion of Hell as a terrible underworld of fire and brimstone is really founded on the Greek idea of Hades, with subsequent embellishment by the Christian Church during the Middle Ages (and Dante, of course), in a bid to keep congregants in line.

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Why does the sculpture of Moses have horns?

Moses' face shining

ומשה לא ידע כי קרן עור פניו | and Moses did not know that his face’s skin shone

This is the result of a misunderstanding (and therefore mistranslation) of the Hebrew (Exodus 34:29):

ויהי ברדת משה מהר סיני ושני לחת העדת ביד משה ברדתו מן ההר ומשה לא ידע כי קרן עור פניו בדברו אתו

The bolded text in Hebrew above, transliterated, says: uMoshé lo yada ki qaran or-panav bedabro itto—meaning ‘and Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone as he spoke with him.’

The word qaran is a verb form of qeren, which can mean either ‘ray’ (of light), or ‘horn’.

Some Latin translations chose—either deliberately, or out of ignorance—to interpret it as ‘horn’, when in fact, what is meant in the original is that his face glowed (presumably as a result of exposure to something during his meeting with God on Mt. Sinai).

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What is the Hebrew word for “excellent”, “amazing”, or “awesome?”

Standard Hebrew for ‘excellent’ is metzuyan or me’uleh, but if you’re looking for colloquial equivalents of awesome (or the British brilliant), that’s more complicated. As in English (and, I imagine, any other language), the word you use tends to use date you, and in some cases, pigeonhole you socioeconomically, as well:

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What is the Hebrew word for “God’s purpose”?

The word purpose presupposes that one has no control over the future, so can only hope to achieve a particular outcome through intent, action, and hope.

This doesn’t apply to God in the Judaic concept: He knows and controls the future, so it’s only a question of what does He want.

God’s want, or desire, in Hebrew is רצון האל (retzon ha’el).


Is it risky to study to become a book translator since machine translation is becoming increasingly accurate?

A surprising number of translators still parrot the old line (as I did myself, as recently as 2015), that “machines will never substitute humans in translation.”


I beg to differ. In answer to the above question—yes, it is risky: human translators, I’m afraid, are about to go the way of farriers and saddle-makers a century ago.

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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?


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

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

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