On Transliteration of Hebrew and Greek

No doubt the publishers mean well. Supposedly they are trying to make a book look less intimidating, and more “user-friendly.” No doubt there are a (very!) few people out there who want to look up Hebrew and Greek words in their English transliterations, and thus do language study without knowing the language. But the rest of us fall into two categories: those who do not know Hebrew and Greek, and would skip over discussions of the original language, transliterated or not; and those of us who do know Hebrew and Greek, to which transliteration is a pain in the neck, because we always have to “back-translate” the transliteration into the original letters to know which word we are talking about.

I could be wrong about my impression, but it seems to me that there are very few people in the first category (people who don’t know the languages but still want to do word studies in transliteration). We are moving (and have significantly moved) away from being a word-based culture to being a visual-based culture. Interest in grammar and words is therefore on the decline, except in such areas as speech-act theory. Those who really want to do word studies are going the whole hog and learning the language.

One of most ludicrous examples of transliteration is the Yale Anchor Bible commentary series. This is one of the most scholarly, most technical series out there, and they always have Greek and Hebrew words transliterated! There may have been a time early in its history when it was more geared towards the laity. However, under the editorship of Freedman, the series as a whole has become one of the most scholarly series on offer. Why in the world, then, does it retain transliteration? This makes absolutely no sense to me. It only slows the scholar down, and most normal people who don’t know the languages will simply skip it anyway. There is no reason to keep transliteration anymore.


  1. October 24, 2012 at 6:02 pm

    Does seem odd. When I first played with Greek, the tranlits helped me pronounce the words. Since the advent of good electronic study tools, word studies have become accessible to everyone. I still find them helpful for Hebrew, though, in conjunction with the Hebrew itself.

  2. rfwhite said,

    October 24, 2012 at 6:03 pm

    Why in the world, then, does it retain transliteration? Cost, I’d bet.

  3. Cris Dickason said,

    October 25, 2012 at 12:20 am

    To improvise on Dr. White’s theme: it’s not the cost, but the profit$.

    I don’t care for the transliteration of Hebrew for this additional reason: there is no standardization. With the vowel functions of vav and yod, the two /t/ letters (tet & tav), the three sibilants (sin, shin, samek) and unpronounceable alef and ayin, there’s such a need for extra bits beyond normal roman characters, you might as well stick with Hebrew(Aramaic) letters.

    Anyone up fro a game of Scrabble in Hebrew?


  4. October 25, 2012 at 1:44 am

    “Scholarly,” in the Anchor Bible series, usually means “liberal.”

    Plus, they’re slowpokes. The first volume was released in 1964 – almost half a century ago – and the series isn’t complete yet! Some volumes are in their second edition when others haven’t even had their first edition published yet.

  5. Pilgrim said,

    October 25, 2012 at 2:28 am

    What I don’t like is when I’m reading a book, and the author is making their big point and they quote from the Greek, Latin or whatever other ancient language–but there’s no translation.

    if there was a transliteration it might help–but i have read the build up and now, no payoff.

    it’s like hearing a joke where the punchline is in a language I don’t speak.

  6. October 25, 2012 at 2:54 am

    Knock, knock?

    Who’s there?


    Bill who?

    あ. い. う. え. お. か. き. く. け. こ. さ. し. す. せ. そ. た. ち. つ. て. と. な. に. ね. の. ぬ. は. ひ. ふ

  7. hashavyahu said,

    October 25, 2012 at 11:20 am

    Probably a mixture of cost and editorial consistency. In 1964 it was likely significantly cheaper to do the transliteration. Even if the price later went down, the editors probably wanted to retain the style throughout the series. Besides, scholars can read the transliteration just fine. In the case of Hebrew, at least, where comparative semitics often plays an important role in lexicography, transliteration is an absolute must. It allows you to easily see the connections between words in Hebrew, Arabic, Ugaritic, Akkadian, Syriac, etc., without the nightmare of looking at all of these scripts.

  8. October 25, 2012 at 3:25 pm

    I agree with Pilgrim. I don’t particularly like the transliteration, but I can’t stand it when translation is missing. I can handle the Greek and the Hebrew okay, but my Latin stinks. Old commentaries are really guilty of it. They have extended Latin quotes (Newer commentaries do it with French or German or Spanish). It’s not that I CAN’T make my way through it. It’s more that it will take me so long … I’m a slow translator … and I don’t even know if it’s going to be worth it!
    If you’re writing an English book, provide a translation for anything that’s not English.

  9. October 25, 2012 at 10:36 pm

    Older commentaries (and other books), especially from the 18th century on, would reproduce untranslated Greek, Hebrew, Latin, French, German, etc. quotations because they could assume that most of their readers had had a classical education. Such, of course, has not been the case for many decades now.

  10. Craig H Robinson said,

    October 28, 2012 at 11:26 pm

    Totally Agree.

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