Transliteration Blues

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Hebrew Alphabet

My recent opinion piece on the evils of the Oxford comma was more popular than I had anticipated; apparently, I’m not the only person with strong feelings about punctuation. But as much as we love to nitpick and debate about the rules of English, the job of a writer/editor is exponentially more complicated when you mix a second language into the equation, especially one with a completely different character set.

Right off the bat, there’s the issue of transliteration, which is no small thing. Let’s take a word with an almost universally-accepted transliteration: the name Moshe. And yet, the transliteration “Mosheh” is not unprecedented. (272,000 Google results, including Strong’s Hebrew Lexicon, which is a fairly significant source.) It’s hard to say that “Mosheh” is “wrong” because, technically, it’s a more accurate transliteration as the name Moshe ends in a letter hei in Hebrew, which is not reflected by the standard English spelling. (There’s a series on OU Torah called VaYigdal Moshe, featuring divrei Torah by Rav Mosheh Twersky HY”D. I find it interesting that Rav Twersky’s colleagues and students spelled the series name “Moshe” even though the one whose content they present spelled his name “Mosheh.”)

If such a discrepancy can be true for Moshe, as well as for other “simple” names like Avraham (Avrohom), Yaakov (Yaacov), and Eisav (Aisav), imagine the variations we get for names like Achashverosh, Cheftzibah or Mahershalalchashbaz. (Yes, that’s a real name – Isaiah 8:3.)

Let’s get back to Avraham/Avrohom for a second. As much as I like to kibbitz (only half-jokingly) about taf and saf (see this article from the OU’s Jewish Action magazine), the vowel kamatz is actually far more difficult to handle in transliteration. If one speaks with Sefardi-style pronunciation, in which the kamatz is pronounced the same as the pasach (patach), it’s not much of a problem: Avraham, Yisrael, shalom. But for those of us who speak Ashkenazi-style, in which a kamatz is pronounced like “aw” in “fawn,” there’s no good transliteration. “Yisrael” looks like it’s written with a pasach in Hebrew (“ah”), while “Yisroel” looks like it’s written with a cholam (“oh”). But it’s not practical to write Avrawhawm, Yisrawel and shawlom. Please, show me a graceful way to transliterate the bracha “gaw-al Yisroel!”

Another challenge is what to italicize as a foreign word. Certain words, like “Torah” and “kosher” have been adopted into English. Anything that is sufficiently common – like shul and mitzvah – likewise need not be italicized. But where’s the line? I italicized bracha in the paragraph above; was that necessary? And if “kosher” need not be italicized, what about the less familiar verb form, to kasher? Or Hebrew/English hybrids, as in “the rabbi kashered my kitchen?” Sometimes it’s easier to write around it and just say “kosherize!”

One thing that people do that makes me crazy is they capitalize every Hebrew (or Yiddish) word just because it’s Jewish, as in “The Rabbi spoke in Shul about the Mitzvah of Chesed.” No. We have rules in English about capitalization and common nouns are written lowercase: The rabbi spoke in shul about the mitzvah of chesed. This particular overcompensation completely bewilders me because Hebrew doesn’t even have capital letters! So, the particular candelabra that was in the Temple was the Menorah but the thing you will light in your home on Chanukah is a menorah (or a chanukiyah, which I write lowercase even though the name comes from Chanukah, though I could hear capitalizing it as I do “Shabbaton”).

This over-capitalization even extends to pure English words for Jewish concepts, such as “The Jewish People settled the Land of Israel.” There’s absolutely no reason to capitalize “people” or “land” in that sentence. I freely admit, however, that I am guilty of writing about “the Books of the Bible” and “the Name of God,” so we all make judgment calls for various reasons.

Speaking of God, oh my G-d. We have enough trouble deciding between God and G-d but I have also seen GOD, GD and – someone literally just recommended this to me – G0d (with a numeral zero for a “vowel”). How many options do we need for a word that’s only three letters long? (For the record, GOD is unsupported by the rules of grammar, GD looks like an abbreviation and G0d with a zero looks like a typo. I think the standard two options are more than sufficient.)

There are more issues I could discuss, such as the doubling of letters. This is grammatically appropriate when a consonant has a dagesh chazak (look for the dot in a letter that isn’t beis, kaf, pei or taf). Take a glance at the cover of the book we read at the Seder. (Or should that be seder?) The letter gimmel has a dagesh, hence Haggadah. The word for kindness, however, has no dagesh in the samech and is therefore, in my opinion, properly transliterated chesed rather than chessed.

It may seem inconsistent that I spelled the name of the third Hebew letter “gimmel” in the paragraph above even though the letter mem in its name has no dagesh. I did that because the rules of English grammar will ensure proper pronunciation of the short “i” when followed by a double consonant, while the pronunciation of “gimel” would not be as evident.[1] Similarly, I noted earlier that I don’t italicize the word Torah but sharp-eyed readers will have observed that in the second paragraph I wrote “divrei Torah.” I chose to do that because splitting the single phrase “divrei Torah” into half-italics is visually cumbersome.

This is the same point I had regarding the Oxford comma: the rules exist to facilitate communication. Sometimes clarity or elegance requires stepping outside the box of dogma. Will I always do the same thing? Not necessarily. As Walt Whitman wrote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” All I hope is that aspiring writers familiarize themselves with the basics so that their exceptions will be informed, conscious decisions.[2]

  1. So why don’t I double the “s” in “chesed,” which has a short “e?” I feel that the spelling “chessed” makes one more likely to read the “ch” as it is pronounced in chair rather than as it is in “Bach.” You can disagree with my reasons but my point is that such decisions should have reasons!
  2. And don’t get me started on trying to transliterate the shva!

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.