HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Transliterating Hebrew: How We Do It at HaYidion

by Elliott Rabin Issue: Hebrew Education
TOPICS : Hebrew

One of the most vexing issues surrounding Hebrew concerns the proper method of transliteration. Hebrew scholars are generally passionate that there is one correct system, and all others are in grievous, even heretical, error. Without q for kuf, th for taf, and a dot under the h denoting chet, the world descends into chaos, as described in the last sentence of Judges: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did as he pleased.” On the other extreme are the many people who seem to think that making it up as they go along, approximating English equivalents that sound right to them, is a perfectly acceptable technique. Everyone will get the idea. Needless to say, these two camps engage in an eternal, simmering, low-level war.

Challenges: Multiple Hebrews, Lack of Uniform Standards

There are two main challenges to Hebrew transliteration. The first lies in the fact that, when we’re talking about Hebrew, we are not talking about one consistent language. In its orthography, the Hebrew language has indeed preserved remarkable consistency: unlike English, whose spelling has changed radically over the centuries, the Hebrew of the Torah is spelled the same way as the Hebrew of Yediot Achronot today. However, in its pronunciation Hebrew has varied significantly across time and culture. Take, for example, the ayin. If you want to hear a “real” ayin, listen to a Yemenite speaker, who can produce the right inflection in the back of the throat thanks to his or her familiarity with the same sound in Arabic. (Increasingly, Torah readers are picking up on this “authentic” way of distinguishing ayin from alef.) In contemporary Israel, the ayin falls silent, an approach pleasing to American speakers whose throat muscles are not accustomed to guttural sounds. The original Ashkenazi pronunciation can be gleaned from the nickname “Yankel” for Yaakov.

When we transliterate, then, we must ask several questions: how was the Hebrew pronounced in the source text, how do the readers pronounce it, and which system takes preference? Biblical norms (which themselves were not uniform, but that’s another story…) dictate one transliteration; poems of Bialik were written for an Ashkenazic (“Yiddish”) pronunciation; there are several variations of Sephardic Hebrew; and modern Israeli Hebrew, often referred to as “Sephardic,” is in reality a simplified hybrid of elements not found in any other Hebrew dialect (for examples, see “Homophonic vowels” below). This challenge is compounded by the fact that we teach more than one kind of Hebrew in our schools at the same time. Students may learn rabbinic Hebrew during tefillah, biblical Hebrew in Tanakh class, and modern Hebrew during “Hebrew.” They may speak with an Israeli accent at school and an Ashkenazi accent in shul. Who is doing the transliterating, and in what context, may make a great deal of difference for how the language looks on the page.

The second challenge to Hebrew transliteration is the lack of uniform standards. There are different guides used by different communities: academic, rabbinic, denominational, camps, etc. This welter encourages a kind of willed ignorance on the topic among many Jews. Just consider how many ways the holiday of Chanukkah is spelled—is the first sound H, Ch, or Kh? Two ks or one? Ending in a or ah? Or even this Yiddish version: Chanike? Additionally, with such a common Jewish word, the question arises as to whose pronunciation the spelling aims to replicate, that of an American (Hanəkə) or an Israeli (Chanookkah)?

Aside from these issues, any person or organization designing a standard for Hebrew translation must grapple with the question of goal. Is the aim to enable someone who does not know any Hebrew to approximate Hebrew pronunciation by getting as close to the original using English (or American) spelling and sounds? Or is it to help people who know Hebrew, whether novices or experts, to reproduce the original quickly? Each goal would dictate a different set of transliteration choices. If the goal is the former, then Hebrew letters that sound alike in modern Israel should look the same; if the latter, those letters should always look different.

At HaYidion, we chose to create a transliteration style that adapts elements from existing systems in a way that seems faithful to the Hebrew language although not beholden to any one particular pronunciation. Our style is not pedantic—no qs or dots under letters, for example—but it does preserve distinctions between letters that are not generally audible on the streets of Israel today. In other words, the style tries within reason to be as faithful as possible to both the written and oral language. There are two main goals of our transliteration system. It should be easily legible to a nonspecialist reader, so that someone who knows just a little Hebrew can make out the sounds, and people with no Hebrew can come close to pronouncing it. At the same time, people who do know Hebrew, whether modern Israeli, biblical, or another variety, should be able to decode it quickly.

Choosing a Style: Legibility in English and Hebrew

Here are a few technical comments explaining some of the choices made in HaYidion’s transliteration guide (see sidebar):

The apostrophe. This symbol is used promiscuously in Hebrew transliteration as a separator: after a prefix (ha’yidion), for a shva (sh’nei), between a vowel and a “furtive patach” (e.g., batu’ach). It is, in effect, the “I-don’t-know-what-to-do” sign. Because the apostrophe can go forward and backward, it is most usefully reserved to distinguish between the alef and ayin, letters otherwise indistinguishable in Israeli Hebrew because they are both unpronounced. These apostrophes have the look in English of these letters’ function in contemporary Israel: letters holding space between two vowels. By distinguishing between the alef and an ayin, we show a) that the letters differ as written, and b) that most Hebrew dialects distinguish between their pronunciation as well. Nonetheless, we chose not to use these symbols at the beginning or end of words, where they can be misapprehended as punctuation marks.

Homophonic letters. Hebrew contains several letters that today sound identical, although originally pronounced differently: alef and ayin (see above), khof and chet, vet and vav, kof and kuf, sin and samekh, the two tavs (with and without a dot). Of these, our style is to note differences only for the first two sets, alef-ayin and khof-chet. These differences are marked to aid people to identify the Hebrew original, and also because the wrong letter could indicate a different word (’ayin, nothing, vs. ‘ayin, eye, or melekh, king, vs. melach, salt). We don’t use different signs for vet-vav, kof-kuf and sin-samekh because there are no good options in English to do so; to use a q for a kuf, as scholars do, for example, is confusing as a pronunciation aid, taking the nonspecialist reader well beyond normal linguistic usage. The two tavs sound identical today, and since an error, which would only appear in writing marked with nikud (such as books for young children and poetry), is immaterial for the meaning, we do not show a difference.

Homophonic vowels. The Hebrew language does not have many vowels to begin with, and modern Israeli Hebrew has flattened the distinction between four of them: patach-kametz, and segol-tzerei. In both pairs, the second vowel today sounds identical to the first. At HaYidion we have chosen to preserve the second distinction, since it continues to be taught and preserved, especially in the context of synagogue and Torah study. The first distinction (“ah” vs. “aw”), however, is generally ignored outside of Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi circles (whether chasidic or “yeshivish”), and hence dispensed with in our pages.

Shva. As students of Hebrew grammar learn, there are really two shvas in Hebrew. The shva nach (שוא נח) marks the end of a syllable (nach means “resting”), hence produces no sound (e.g., in machshev, computer, the shva between “ch” and “sh” is silent). By contrast, the shva na (שוא נע) acts like a regular vowel (na means “moving”) and makes the sound we associate as “shwa” from English phonology. (Of course, the term “shwa” derives from the Hebrew vowel sign.) Since we at HaYidion reserve the apostrophe for aleph and ayin, we use a simple e for the shva na, such as the first vowel in menaseh (tries). (Disclaimer: linguistic rules are made to be broken; in current Hebrew, the vocalization of these two shvas is messier than presented here, with shva na sometimes unpronounced [zman, time] and shva nach pronounced [the last vowel in lamadet].)

Heh. We mark the heh at the end of a word with an h, even though it is not pronounced, to indicate Hebrew spelling. It is important to note that words ending in alef, such as savta (grandmother), do not take an h.

Double letters. A dot in a consonant that is not at the beginning of the word indicates a doubled letter according to Hebrew grammar. Although this phenomenon is no longer heard in speech, we include it in HaYidion both because it helps to identify the original form, especially verb morphology (for example, showing that the word melammed is pi’el) and to help with pronunciation (e.g., melammed does not sound like someone crippled me).

Italics: Marking What’s Foreign

One of the most persistent questions surrounding transliteration is, to italicize or not to italicize? Out of a desire for consistency, some would italicize every Hebrew word, even those that appear in English dictionaries, such as Chanukkah. The reason for this policy, I believe, is to play it safe: the author or editor simply does not wish to spend time worrying over when to italicize, so he or she chooses the default of marking all Hebrew terms (and those from other languages) in italics.

At HaYidion, we take a different approach. Our thinking runs as follows: The purpose of italics is to mark words as foreign. “These are terms we are importing into our discourse from another language and culture,” say the italics. In our view, a Jewish mouthpiece should not make such a statement a priori about Hebrew expressions. For ideological reasons, then, we do not italicize most Hebrew expressions. Expressions that are common to Jewish religion and culture, expressions that are common to our schools—talmud Torah, derech eretz, Shma, Adar, etc.—are not italicized in our pages. Our policy is to err toward not-italicizing: if we’re not sure, leave it. The implicit message to the reader thereby is, if you don’t know this expression, ask someone; it’s worth learning as part of our cultural literacy.

Of course, at HaYidion we can’t dispense with italics altogether.[1] We do italicize sentences, verses, quotations that are not common idioms; “Kol Yisra’el areivin zeh ba-zeh,” “All Jews are responsible for each other” (which appeared twice in a recent issue) is not italicized, whereas “Hinei mah tov u-mah na’im shevet achim gam yachad,” since it is quoted as a verse and not as an expression or idea per se, would be italicized. This last example is admittedly on the cusp, and I bring it merely to make the point that one needs to draw the line somewhere.

Ultimately, italicization comes down to a choice, a judgment. I would like to encourage Jewish editors and writers everywhere not to fear making this kind of choice. By choosing not to italicize certain Hebrew expressions, you are making a statement about what is our language, what is native to Jewish culture. You are quietly proclaiming that expressions such as gemilut chasadim and klal Yisrael are as much a part of our language, the language of English-speaking Jews, as “Brevity is the soul of wit” and “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Do not worry if people question your choice or disagree with it, for the very fact that people may wonder about your policy or motive raises this larger issue to the fore. As we learn from the Passover Haggadah, when people ask questions they come to learn things better and in new ways. May your use of Hebrew, in transliteration or in the original, both teach your readers and inspire them to learn more about our sacred and old-new language. ♦

Elliott Rabin PhD is Director of Educational Programs at RAVSAK and author of Understanding the Hebrew Bible: A Reader’s Guide. He can be reached at elliott@ravsak.org.

[1] Italics originally were a special font, like Rashi script, designed at the birth of the age of book printing purely to save space on the page.

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