I Really Don’t Like Transliteration

For those who don’t know, transliteration is the practice of rendering letters of a foreign alphabet into English letters that correspond roughly in sound to the foreign letters. I doubt that I’m the only one who dislikes the practice. Especially with Hebrew transliteration, I feel that it only slows down one’s reading of, say, a commentary when it has transliteration. After all, it isn’t going to help the English-only reader very much, and it only slows down the person who can read Hebrew, since they have to back-transliterate the English into Hebrew characters. So it really doesn’t help very much. The most ridiculous commentaries in this regard are the Anchor Bible Commentaries from Yale Press. Honestly, those commentaries are pretty much the most technical commentaries available today, and yet they use transliteration to “help” the person in the pew! I’ve got news for them. The people in the pew don’t read the Anchor Bible Commentary series very often. I’ve known only a very few who have read any of them. The category of “educated layman” is becoming virtually extinct. The AB commentaries are scholarly commentaries, in which case they shouldn’t need to use transliteration!

Transliteration is marginally more helpful in Greek, since English-only readers could theoretically benefit by being able to look up transliterated words in some language helps. Furthermore, there are considerably more words in Greek that are cognate with English than with Hebrew. However, doing this kind of work is known as “dabbling.” Dabbling is a very dangerous thing, because the person usually learns just enough to make themselves dangerous, while not really learning enough to help them read the Greek New Testament. If they desire to read the Greek New Testament, then they should go all out and learn Greek!

If there is anyone in the publishing business who is reading this, please eschew transliteration! It is pretty much only annoying to those who can read the original, and it doesn’t really help those who can’t. And, given the deterioration of the educated layman, there isn’t really a market left for it.



  1. JC said,

    February 14, 2014 at 5:11 pm

    Amen! Sadly, I don’t even purchase commentaries (I know I miss some good ones) with transliteration b/c I get so darn frustrated with it!

  2. Reed Here said,

    February 14, 2014 at 5:31 pm

    Two thoughts:

    1. Transliteration, bleh. I actually can’t stand “baptize”.
    2. Educated layman, oh the sadness of the reality you note. I find myself constantly “dumbing down,” and it never seems to be enough. The problem is not lack of brain power. It is the demise of what used to be considered essential for education, a liberal arts foundation secured in high school.

    I fear the future “mistakes” that will be made by those who need to rediscover the hard way the gems their forefathers already dug out of the ground, all because no one ever told them that a dictionary should be the second book one owns, next to the Bible.

  3. Stephen said,

    February 15, 2014 at 8:58 am

    I think you are misunderstanding why the more technical commentaries, especially ones dealing with the Hebrew Bible, often transliterate.

    It’s precisely so that specialists with philological expertise in other Northwest Semitic (e.g., Ugaritic) and broader ANE (e.g., Akkadian) languages can more readily engage matters from various philological and historical-grammar angles. Transliteration is the convention for scholarly work in these areas because languages like Akkadian aren’t alphabetic. Even the experts in those languages would be greatly slowed down if the technical literature featured primarily the signs and wedges instead of the breakdowns afforded by transliteration when possible.

    Your complaints would, I guess, be more applicable for commentaries written primarily or only for non-scholars, not for a series like the AB. But I am not that familiar with the conventions (for transliteration or not) when it comes to commentaries on the Hebrew Bible written at a more-popular/accessible level for pastors and interested “laypeople.”

  4. Cris Dickason said,

    February 15, 2014 at 8:58 am

    I completely agree, Lane. I believe the only rationale for transliterating Greek and Hebrew would be the typographic/typesetting expense. But I question even that. The Anchor Bible series is a good case in point, are they really saving anything on the cost? The AB volumes are ridiculously high priced already, what possible difference would the use of Greek and Hebrew characters add? And those prices prove the AB is a specialized or niche product, so why insult your already limited audience? That observation applies across the board to exegetical and theologiocal works.

    Now in the hopes that publishers might catch wind of this… Publishers, if you are investing in a work to bring it to marekt, do the author, editor, and subject the kind justice of better quality oproduction values and choices.

    Now if Lane will indulge me. Lets see if we can get some traction in the comments. Of course, Lane, remove this if I am too presumptuous here.

    My two big griefs (both illustrated with P & R): (1) Paperback instead of Hardback. The American Reformed Biography series gave us high quality hardback volumes on Dabney, Nevin and Van Til. Sadly, strangely, the biography of Charles Hodge comes out in paperback. This is just sad, and wrong. Let’s hope they revert to hardback for the forthcoming Warfield biography. Also, maybe P & R can preail upon Dr. Hoffecker to revise (even slightly) or expand the book, and brink out the 2nd edition in hardback?

    (2) Cheap Paper between the covers: The Herman Bavinck biography by Gleason: once again, it’s a paperback binding. This too is wrong. Eerdmans is at fault for bringing out the Bratt bio of Kuyper in pb too. But back to the Bavinck biography, not only a pb binding, but the quality of paper used seems sub-par. The pages of my copy have this tannish color that I associate with the cheapest of pb novels. I don’t know if this the Bavinck bio pages are actually that low in quality, maybe it is an artistic effect? My suggestion to P&R – the Bavicnk bio should ave been in hardcover and the jacket should have mimiced the dust jacket of Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics. Shucks, they should have made it a joint venture with Baker, the publisher of Reformed Dogmatics. P&R has done that in the past.

    Because where I’m located, not who I am (half-way between WTS-PA and the OPC offices) I know I can find someone who has the ears of the folks at P&R. I can’t presume on my contacts from way back in WTS Bookstore’s Assistant Manager days (well, maybe I can).


  5. rfwhite said,

    February 15, 2014 at 9:01 am

    Bros, all of the above … One addition: it used to be about keeping the cost of publication down by using transliteration, as I understand it. Don’t know for sure if that still applies.

  6. rfwhite said,

    February 15, 2014 at 9:04 am

    Oops … #4 Cris and I had similar comments crossing virtually simultaneously in the ether.

  7. Cris Dickason said,

    February 15, 2014 at 9:51 am

    Reed at #2: I actually can’t stand “baptize”.

    Hey, brother, are you trying to start a war on the mode? Just kidding.

    But I recall from reading one book on the translators and production of the KJV that the translators/editors forced to use certain “ecclesiastical” words, and were not allowed editorial freedom. The baptism-family was one area, words related to church office another. I cannot remember the actual source, it was a library book read many years ago.

    Would the KJV have been as influential if it had introduced us to John the Dipper:

    In those days came John the Dipper, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea…

    Jest aside, I think the KJV men were considering, John the Baptiser.


  8. Cris Dickason said,

    February 15, 2014 at 10:00 am

    Running a Google search on “history of the KJV” didn’t yield the book I am trying to recall, but this as is too funny to not share…

    Ad related to history of the KJV

    RSV Symptoms And Signs‎
    Is Your Baby Showing Signs of RSV? Learn About The Signs & Symptoms.

    Brothers, don’t let your children show signs of the RSV!

    With apologies, a cold and snow-covered icy roads are preventing me from running or otherwise being productive. Perhaps I’ll get over to the WTS library for a real search.


  9. greenbaggins said,

    February 15, 2014 at 12:27 pm

    Stephen, transliteration in the AB could be limited to the ANE languages that are not Hebrew, then. There is no reason to transliterate Hebrew and just slow people down. Also, I have read a goodish chunk of the AB series by now, and references to ANE words outside of Hebrew are fairly rare. I don’t buy the cost argument anymore, either (though you are not making that argument). There are scads of fonts available now that are easy to use, look good, and don’t take up any more space on the page than the transliteration would.

  10. Stephen said,

    February 15, 2014 at 1:06 pm


    Perhaps I did not make this clear enough. The point of transliteration in the case of Hebrew within some scholarly publications is to make it easier for scholars of the Hebrew Bible who have some broader Northwest Semitic and ANE language expertise to already have the Hebrew texts presented for them in the way that scholars in those areas often engage NW Semitic and broader ANE languages. I don’t really know another way to put it; it is simply what they do and how they work. Some technical, academic journals in those fields likewise prefer transliteration of Hebrew and the other ANE languages.

    This especially makes sense for a technical commentary series like the AB, which is supposed to be a comparative historical and philological series. Even if the commentators are not frequently including quotes from Akkadian and Ugaritic sources, the commentaries are written by and largely for the people who have been trained the way most university doctoral programs in Hebrew Bible and/or broader NW Semitic Philology, Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, Ancient West Asian Studies, etc., train their students.

    You’re treating transliteration as a signal that the publisher is trying to make the work more accessible, whereas pastors like you who have been to seminary and taken several semesters of Hebrew do not like transliteration because it “slow[s] people down.” My point is that transliteration in scholarly publications signals precisely the opposite, as scholars in those areas are trained and work often with transliteration, because (due to their expertise) it actually speeds things up for them and formats the data to make it more conducive to kinds of analysis that may be of interest to them. It’s the people who lack a certain kind of scholarly expertise that consider transliteration to slow them down.

    And again, I cannot speak with any confidence as to why transliteration (at least these days) continues in commentaries written for non-scholars. Doubtless it used to be much more trouble to typeset Hebrew and Greek characters. But, as you and others point out, that shouldn’t be the case anymore for an up to date publisher.

  11. greenbaggins said,

    February 15, 2014 at 3:27 pm

    Thanks for the explanation, Stephen. It does make things quite a bit clearer. Since I do not have expertise in Akkadian and Ugaritic, I would prefer not to have the Hebrew transliterated either. But you have helped me to understand why they do it.

  12. Stephen said,

    February 15, 2014 at 3:56 pm


    I certainly understand where you’re coming from. Since I specialize primarily in Hellenistic through early Roman Imperial period Judaism and the first two to three centuries of early Christianity, I also don’t have expertise in ANE languages outside of Hebrew and some Aramaic. I thus lack the scholarly expertise associated with taking advantage of transliteration. I just have many colleagues who do have such expertise, have been in doctoral seminars run by profs in those areas, try to keep up with some research in Hebrew Bible and ANE culture/religion, etc.; so I can understand why some of that technical literature uses transliteration. But I too very much prefer publications that put Hebrew text in Hebrew characters.

    FWIW, your point about the problem of transliteration (especially in non-techincal commentaries) facilitating “dabbling” in Hebrew and Greek, and all the problems that tends to bring, is spot on! Every time I hear pastors or other kinds of teachers who are clearly “dabblers” talk about “the Greek” and “the Hebrew,” I want to mail them a copy of Silva’s God, Language, and Scripture…not that they’d read it…

  13. Frank Aderholdt said,

    February 15, 2014 at 9:53 pm

    Is this a faint whiff of elitism I detect here?

  14. greenbaggins said,

    February 17, 2014 at 11:06 am

    In whose comments, Frank? I hope not mine. I am trying to say that, by and large, transliteration doesn’t help matters either for pastors or laymen.

  15. Tim Harris said,

    February 17, 2014 at 4:31 pm

    I’ll take up the opposite position. I wish they would settle on a standard orthography in the latin alphabet and TEACH hebrew on that basis in the seminaries.
    There is nothing holy about the Phoenician alphabet.
    In King David’s time, the alphabet looked quite different again.

  16. Frank Aderholdt said,

    February 18, 2014 at 4:44 am

    My comment was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Lane, and intended to provoke just a little. I recoil in horror to anything that remotely resembles “the tyranny of the expert,” intentional or not.

    I agree that “dabbling” can be dangerous, and that superficial knowledge is sometimes worse than no knowledge.The “know-it-all” type will seize any opportunity to appear more learned than he is. As you correctly noted, though, transliteration may be helpful to English-only readers. At the very least, it serves as a handy guide for pronunciation.

    Preachers and scholars who know the original languages will usually have the text before them. I don’t see how transliteration, which may be cost-effective for the publisher, impedes or inconveniences the reader in any way.

  17. Paul W said,

    February 19, 2014 at 12:11 pm

    I prefer accented Greek and pointed Hebrew, but using a transliteration may allow a layperson to become conversant with (English pronunciation of) some Biblical words, and perhaps draw them into further study or using more advanced commentaries they would ordinarily shun. It could be a bridge to more academic circles and provide a middle level (well, lower-middle) of competency to aid in understanding exegesis for the linguistically challenged. Shades of grey instead of all-or-nothing.

  18. Cris Dickason said,

    February 21, 2014 at 2:07 pm

    I have to throw out my previous preference for Greek fonts and embrace the transliteration: Just received (on my lunch break) copies of the 2nd edition of Dr. Gaffin’s By Faith, Not by Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation. Second edition has a new cover (different portrait of Paul), new foreword by Mark Jones, indices of Scripture and subjects/names. Hopefully all the old typos are gone. Greek font has been re[placed with transliteration (thus tytos has become typos, word corrected, but now transliterated).

    Transliteration in this book, who cares! This is a great study to have available again. I’m putting out 10 copies on the church book table, here’s the blurb on the payment envelope:

    A new edition, with spelling errors gone, indexes added, same excellent analysis and description of Paul’s teaching on important topics. Get this, read it, absorb it. This would be worth it at 4 times the price here. – Cris Dickason

    Friends, remember: I am a stuffy Orthodox Presbyterian, no hyperbole here.


  19. March 17, 2014 at 11:06 pm

    It makes editing easier not having to deal with foreign language fonts, and especially not having to deal with the silly accent marks and diacritics in Greek. If a publisher were to get rid of transliteration and just use Greek letters, but dispense with diacritics, would the loss of diacritics bother you?

  20. greenbaggins said,

    March 18, 2014 at 9:00 am

    No doubt many editors need a better education! The diacritical marks often distinguish one Greek word from a very different Greek word. Unfortunately, both the breathing marks and the accents often do this. My advice to the editors is simply to have someone who knows the language help edit and proofread.

  21. March 18, 2014 at 9:02 pm

    Or maybe the readers need to learn Greek better. Greek without diacritics was good enough for the apostle Paul. Now spaces between words, although not used in his time, are an improvement. But diacritics is a step back.

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