Transliteration

This page is about the transliteration, transcription or Romanization of Hebrew -- the rendering of Hebrew words in the Latin alphabet.

[Note: In some circles, "transliteration" means to render a language's native orthography in some other symbols. Here, that would mean to use Latin letters in a one-to-one correspondence with the original Hebrew spellings, such that you could perfectly convert back to the original if needed. On this page, we generally take transliteration to mean a Romanized phonetic transcription.]


All transliteration schemes involve compromises. There are six issues to consider and one law.

  1. The Hebrew pronunciation

If your goal is a phonetic transliteration, you first have to decide how you think the Hebrew is pronounced. Ashkenazic, Sephardic, Galitzianer. Israeli sephardic vs. Yemenite sephardic. If Yemenite, which dialect? Ancient Hebrew or Modern Hebrew? [See the "Pronunciation" article in the Jewish Encyclopedia. The onlne version appears to be down 1-3-06.)

Do you think the ayin is pronounced or silent? Should the kof be distinguished from the kaf? Are the samech, sin, and sav three different sounds? Two? Or one? Is the sixth letter of the Hebrew alphabet pronounced /v/ or /w/?

Israelis sound their segol much like the tseirei, but American speakers of Israeli-style Hebrew distinguish them. Which will you use?

And goodness only knows how we plan to pronounce the Aramaic, the Old French loan words, and the proper names from neighboring cultures.

  1. Assumptions about how people spell and pronounce English

Romanization would be easier if only we could agree on how to spell things in English. Do we render a long A as <ei> (freight) or <ay> (hay)?

You also have to watch out for ambiguities in your transliteration. You might represent a shin with a segol as <she>, but would the reader pronounce it as /shee/? Maybe <sheh> would make it clearer.

While English pronunciation has a variety of national and regional dialects, most transliterators presume that they pronounce English in a standard way. Even if that were true, many of the readers who use their transliteration system don't. The alt.usage.english FAQ says: 

Beware of using ad hoc methods to indicate pronunciation. The problem with ad hoc methods is that they often wrongly assume your dialect to have certain features in common with the readers' dialect. You may pronounce "bother" to rhyme with "father"; some of the readers here don't. You may pronounce "cot" and "caught" alike; some of the readers here don't. You may pronounce "caught" and "court" alike; some of the readers here don't.

Of course, we wouldn't have this problem if everyone pronounced English the way I do.

One could avoid the difficulties of English pronunciation entirely, by using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), which has a distinct symbol for virtually every sound possible in human speech -- but normal people wouldn't know how to pronounce any of the symbols.

  1. Representing sounds that don't exist in English

Such as the voiceless velar fricative. An <x> would be great because Greek uses the X for the same sound and there's no other Hebrew sound that corresponds to the Latin X. But only the IPA uses an <x>. Others use a <ch> (Chanukah), or <h> (Hanukah). The Conservative Movement uses an academic convention that distinguishes the chet (<h> with a dot under it), from the chaf (<kh>). 

On the other hand, English does have the schwa (sheva na) sound -- it's the <o> in lemon -- but no standard way of writing it. The dictionary uses an inverted e to represent it. In Hebrew transliteration, I've seen an apostrophe, a lower case <e> or a superscripted <e> used. 

  1. Correspondence to original spelling

Do you want your transcription to preserve the distinction between kof and kaf, tav and tet, etc? Do you want to indicate a dagesh forte (dagesh chazak)? It's important if your readers will be discussing the triconsonantal roots of the Hebrew words or other matters of grammar.

Scholars need perfect correspondence in their transliterations, so the system found in the SBL Handbook of Style (published by the Society of Biblical Literature) is generally used. Of course, non-scholars can't read it at all.

  1. Common spellings

Let's say the system you've settled on doesn't indicate the dagesh forte by doubling. You lay out the cover of your new book and it says "Shabat for Today." You show it to your publisher . . . or client . . . or wife. And they say "It's spelled wrong!" Now you have to decide how to handle "common" spellings such as Shabbat, Maariv, Kabbalah, Leah.

One way out is to use the familiar spellings when in an "English" context such as a book title, headings or English text; and use the transliterated form when rendering a Hebrew passage phonetically. This can get funky if you write a passage about the matriarch Leah and the reader tries to find the word in your transliteration where you've rendered it as <Lei-ah>.

  1. Are you prepared to use special characters?

The IPA and the SBL systems (for phonology and orthography wonks, respectively) depend on specialized characters. These are difficult for the layperson to learn, provoke much unhappiness for your typographer, and are problematic for websites and email.

On the other hand, the Latin alphabet -- here let's extend that to mean the ASCII character set -- can be easily typeset, browsed on the web or emailed.

Those who want total correspondence to the Hebrew spelling in their ASCII email, can use the Michigan-Claremont-Westminster (MCW) scheme. However, it takes time to learn and doesn't help with pronunciation.

Those who want total clarity of pronunciation in email could use X-SAMPA, a 7-bit ASCII representation of the IPA character set.

But whatever compromises you make, you'll sacrifice ease-of-use or precision . . . or both. 

The One Immutable Law of Transliteration: No matter what system you adopt, someone will come up to you and say, "I showed your transliteration to six different people and not one of them could pronounce it correctly. Here's a much better system that I've developed."


Sample transliteration schemes:

Reform

URJ [formerly UAHC] Transliteration Guidelines and Master Word List, prepared by Debra Hirsch Corman and Rabbi Hara Person, February 4, 2005. Replaces the Jan. 15, 2002 document and the Feb. 15, 2005 Supplement.

Guidelines for Contributors to the Journal of Reform Judaism, prepared by Dr. Yehiel Hayon, January 1981

Guide to Hebrew Transliteration According to Israeli Pronunciation, edited by Werner Weinberg, published by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1977

Conservative

Siddur Sim Shalom, 1997

Other

Dr. Joel M. Hoffman, 1997

Library of Congress

Jewish Quarterly Review

ASCII system used by Textual Criticism

Jewish Encyclopedia

References:

Articles on the Web:

Software and electronic texts:

We haven't tried it, but Saffa claims to be able to automatically transliterate any Hebrew text. Also, Linguist's Software, a pioneer in Hebrew fonts for personal computers, offers a Semitic Transliteratorô in Unicode that they say can transliterate Hebrew according to any of the following transliteration methods: Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), Lambdin [Thomas O. Lambdin?], Blau [Joshua Blau?], Greenberg [Dr. Gillian Greenberg?], Harrison [Roland Kenneth Harrison?], Kautsch & Cowley [Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar, edited by Emil Kautzsch and A. E. Cowley?], LaSor [William Sanford LaSor?], TWOT [Theological Word Book of the Old Testament?], TDOT [Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament?], Marks & Rogers [John H. Marks and Virgil M. Rogers?], and [Jacob] Weingreen.

A transliterated siddur can be licensed from Jordan Lee Wagner

You can type short bits of Hebrew using an English keyboard at the Am ha-Aretz website.

Some Final Thoughts

We've been confronting the difficulties of transliteration ever since we got involved in the production of Jewish books in the mid-1980's. Then, in about 2003, Tikkun Magazine called and asked for our help with their new house style sheet. This caused us to really think through some of the issues surrounding transliteration. Finally, we wrote it all up and put it on the Web on July 7, 2004.

Because of our work on many Jewish prayerbooks, we have focused on human-readable transliterations. Those interested in machine-readable encoding could look into Unicode, RFC 1555, and the Michigan Code Manual RMUM82-1.

Our friend Bill Wollheim suggests that someone ought to undertake scholarly research into  the transliteration preferences of the various Jewish movements and see whether there is a connection to their respective ideologies.

Rabbi Kim S. Geringer suggests that the stressed syllables be set in bold type, but I prefer the simple accent used in Joe Rosenstein's siddur [http://newsiddur.org/ link broken 1-3-06].

Interestingly, wiktionary.org uses both IPA and SAMPA to represent the pronunciation of English words.

Thanks to our friend, Dr. Ernest Rubinstein, for his helpful suggestions, and to Oren Tirosh for the information about Rules of Transcription: Romanization of Hebrew.

There are two systems of romanizing Japanese: Hepburn, which is easier for English speakers to pronounce; and Kunrei-shiki, which gives a better indication of the morphology.

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