Notes by Autumn Light

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


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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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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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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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Why is the Passover song called “דַּיֵּנוּ” instead of “זה היה מספיק”?

‏זה היה מספיק

is very funny—I will propose it as an alternative to Dayennu at our next Passover meal: it will definitely crack people up.

Modern colloquial Hebrew has many fine qualities, but poetic metre isn’t one of them.

So that’s one reason why we don’t use that phrase here — but the second reason is that the true meaning of Dayennu is not “That would’ve been enough”, but rather: “We would have been content with that.”

Thanks for the chuckle, though…

ADDENDUM, March 31, 2018: We tried it at last night’s seder, and it was indeed hilarious…


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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?

darvasa_gas_crater_panorama-750x361

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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