Sunday, April 5, 2020

The uniqueness of translating Hebrew

Comparison of several words in Hebrew with and without vowels.*

Translation is the art and skill of translating an idea in one language to another language while both faithfully transmitting the various levels of meaning of the source language text and respecting the integrity of the target language. As each language is unique, even if they sound similar, such as Spanish and Italian, this conversion of ideas can be sometimes quite challenging, even incomplete. It is not always possible to full capture the layers of the word or create a seamless text. For example, in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the Russian word сознающий [soznayushi] implies both knowledge and conscience, a combined meaning difficult to transmit into English (and vital for the story). Clearly each language has its unique aspects that pose challenges to the translator. For example, modern Hebrew is a both very young and very old, in linguistic terms, Semitic language. This affects its alphabet, vocabulary, structure and registers.

The first aspect of Hebrew that strikes non-readers is its alphabet, which initially appears alien. However, fundamentally, it is not difficult to learn how to recognize and read Hebrew letters. The process of learning a foreign alphabet is essentially a mechanical process, a matter of practice, not actually cognitive. The difficulty with Hebrew letters for a new learner and an experienced translator alike is the fact that in most text the vowels sounds are not presented, i.e., the reader is given the consonants only and is assumed to be able to insert the right sounds. As Hebrew words follow strict rules in terms of form, it is possible to most cases to properly ascertain the sounds, such as a short or long e or a. The greatest challenge comes with foreign words, especially names, that are transcribed into Hebrew and don’t follow established patterns. For example, a drug begins with a short a, as in tap, or a short e, as in bed, would both begin with the letter aleph. It requires to knowledge or research to discover the original name in English unless the vowels are marked, which is rare. When I receive a “simple” birth or marriage certificate to translate into English, I often have no idea how to spell many of the names, which are extremely idiosyncratic by nature. Thus, the challenge of the Hebrew alphabet is not in what is seen, but what is not seen.

One characteristic of Semitic languages, which include Hebrew and Arabic, is their extreme genderification. All nouns and personal pronouns, singular and plural, reflect gender. There is no way to express neutrality. For example, if the staff at an elementary school has 20 female teachers and 1 male teacher, teacher being a neutral word in English, in Hebrew, the writer must decide whether to apply the standard rule, the masculine gender applies for all mixed groups, or the minority approach that majority rules, the feminine form in this case. Since the verb also reflects the gender, in academic writing, the translator must find out who exactly is A. Jones in order to insert the right form of the verb. My wife, a medical translator, has a whole series of tricks to figure this out but it can be a very time-consuming task. The fun really kicks in second-person texts, including questionnaires and marketing materials, where the translator has to understand who the potential audience is and find an elegant way to address it. For example, since there are men that suffer from breast cancer, the masculine form may be appropriate in some medical forms. Sex is everything in Hebrew and complicated.

Almost uniquely, Hebrew is both an ancient and new non-Latin-based language. Its root date some 23 centuries but its modern form is not even 150 years old. In terms of vocabulary, this ancient past and newness create some strange versions of rich and poor. On the one hand, some areas of activity have numerous words, including putting on a piece of clothing, each type with its own verb, and types of rain, depending on when it falls. On the other hand, while English has effective and efficient, two clearly distinct meanings, pure Hebrew has only one word, יעיל [ya’il], leaving the translator to use a borrowed English word, effectivi, or use multiple words, a less than elegant solution. Starting off with such a limited pool of words for modern concepts, Hebrew is still in its lexical growth period, adding words at an incredible pace and creating numerous disputes on which Hebrew-rooted word should be used to describe the concept or whether an English word recognized by most Israelis should be applied. This uncertainty forces translators to choose between readability, the understood English borrowing, or purity, the new Hebrew word, if it exists at all. In terms of vocabulary, the lexical earth for a Hebrew translator is not very stable.

Finally, there is the curious issue of register. More established societies, almost without exceptions, have social classes. The relations between these social classes are reflected in the form of address and vocabulary. Examples of distinction include titles, such Mr. and Mrs., use of first names, different forms of the word “you” and the choice of active or passive structure. Israel is a young society essentially composed of generations of landless, poor immigrants of all religions. This economic equality was reinforced by a socialistic/communistic ethos of the rejection of European formalism. Thus, everybody from the youngest to oldest is addressed by their first name without titles. In fact, the best way to shock, if not insult, a woman is to call her “giveret”, Ms. Her reaction probably would be “What, do I look that old?” Not only that, having such a small number of roots, there are simply almost no sources for alternative “high-fulutin” alternatives, except for the Bible, which, alas, is to modern Hebrew what Shakespearean English is to modern English, artificial (except in certain subgroups). So, Hebrew essentially has really only one register, so different from more complex and older societies.

These features of Hebrew are far from negative. They enrich the language and process of working to and from it. Translators enjoy their job specifically because it involves the effort in finding the right turn-of-phrase that transmits the idea to the target language in the best possible way, even if something often gets lost in translation. In point of fact, translators are no less writers than the original writers, especially when working with Hebrew.

* As my friend from yesteryear Len Burns has reminded me, blind people also should be able to know what the picture is. Please label your pictures.

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