When you translate from one language to another, it is all about the specifics. In that respect, Hebrew translation is no exception. With the Hebrew language, the first question you have to have in mind is which Hebrew language are you translating?

Why is that an important question here? The answer lies in the explanation of the roots of this language and its development through history. As The Academy of the Hebrew Language explains, “Hebrew is an ancient language that has been spoken over many centuries in the land of Israel.” Hebrew was “preserved by Jews throughout the Diaspora as a medium of cultural and religious expression.”

Here’s where the importance of which Hebrew you are translating comes into light. As Britannica explains, Hebrew was spoken in ancient times in Palestine. It is also the Biblical language in which the original Jewish religious documents were written. “The Hebrew Bible, which is also called the Tanakh, or sometimes the Miqra, is the canonical collection of Hebrew scriptures, including the Torah. These texts are almost exclusively in Biblical Hebrew, with a few passages in Biblical Aramaic.”

But, as a living language, Hebrew was supplanted by the western dialect of Aramaic beginning about the 3rd century BC. However, the language continued to be used as a liturgical and literary language. It was revived as a spoken language in the 19th and 20th centuries and is now the official language of Israel (Britannica).

“Modern Hebrew draws on all the previous historical layers of the Hebrew language. Ancient words got new meanings and new words are created in line with patterns and paradigms native to the ancient tongue. As is the case for all languages, Hebrew has also absorbed some modern terms from other languages” (the Academy, above).

The development of the Hebrew language and modern Hebrew

As Britannica further explains, you can divide the history of the Hebrew language into four major periods:

  • Biblical, or Classical, Hebrew, until about the 3rd century BC, in which most of the Old Testament is written;
  • Mishnaic, or Rabbinic, Hebrew, the language of the Mishna (a collection of Jewish traditions), written about AD 200 (this form of Hebrew  never became a spoken language);
  • Medieval Hebrew, from about the 6th to the 13th century AD, when many words were borrowed from Greek, Spanish, Arabic, and other languages;
  • Modern Hebrew, the language of Israel in modern times. Scholars generally agree that the oldest form of Hebrew is that of some of the Old Testament poems, especially the “Song of Deborah” in chapter 5 of Judges.

So, whenever a Hebrew translator has to handle a text, he has to be aware, as well as recognize which version of the Hebrew language he has to translate. This particularly concerns the translation of religious texts or related documents.

Modern Hebrew, based on the biblical language, contains many innovations designed to meet modern needs. “It is the only colloquial speech based on a written language. The pronunciation is a modification of that used by the Sephardic (Hispano-Portuguese) Jews rather than that of the Ashkenazic (East European) Jews.

The old guttural consonants are not clearly distinguished (except by Oriental Jews) or are lost. The syntax is based on that of the Mishna. Characteristic of Hebrew of all stages is the use of word roots consisting usually of three consonants, to which vowels and other consonants are added to derive words of different parts of speech and meaning. The language is written from right to left in a Semitic script of 22 letters.”

Hebrew translation – things to have in mind

In general terms, Hebrew translation corresponds to the translation of any other language. As Andrew Weiler notes, “being a translator is about much more than simply being bilingual.” It is about being able to interpret and transcribe a message suitably, according to its purpose and target audience. A translator has to take into account not only language aspects but also social and cultural factors. In order to successfully and accurately complete a translation, a translator needs a very specific set of skills to overcome language barriers (same source).

To turn translation challenges into opportunities and make efficient, accurate translations, translators should:

  • Not be literal: adapt the translation to transcribe accurately the meaning of the message and use the proper expressions;
  • Know about the industry, its technical vocabulary, its procedures: specializing in specific industries, fields;
  • Be able to do some research, as doubts can always occur;
  • Have good communication skills: to transcribe a message without altering its purpose and keep its actual meaning.

All of the above general notes also apply to Hebrew translation. These notes particularly apply to modern Hebrew, the official language of Israel. Currently, over 9 million people use it as a modern language. After Israel, the United States has the second largest Hebrew-speaking population (about 220,000 fluent speakers).

The fact that Hebrew got a new life as a living language after 2000 years is a very specific fact that each translator of Hebrew has to have in mind. This means that it is a constantly developing language. Old words get a new meaning, and new words constantly come into use.

The Academy of the Hebrew Language (above) is an official body that decides on new words for the Hebrew language. But, as Culture Trip (above) notes, “very often its decisions aren’t followed.”

hebrew translation

Specific Challenges

The above remark that users do not always follow the decisions of the official Hebrew academy poses a specific challenge for Hebrew translation. There, the translator needs to consult all the available resources and references. He needs to discern what terminology and its use in the text actually are.

He also has to have in mind the fact that “pure Hebrew words are always based on a three-letter root word (sometimes four). At the same time, a lot of non-Hebrew words have entered the language, especially in the last 100 years. For example, the word for car is Mechonit but people also call it an auto.

On the other hand, some terms will be easy to transfer. “Many Hebrew words from it have entered the English language. For example hallelujah (praise God ), amen, mammon (money), satan and even abracadabra” (Culture Trip, above).

The fact that Hebrew, like Arabic, belongs to the Semitic group of languages can sometimes be a helping factor for a translator. “Hebrew speakers use many words in Arabic Hebrew speakers as slang words. For example, sababa (great) and mabsut (satisfied).”

A specific challenge for a potential Hebrew translator that is not fully fluent in the language may lie in the Hebrew alphabet. It is an abjad, a writing system that lets the reader supply the appropriate vowel. Hebrew has vowels but they mostly aren’t marked – you have to know how each word is pronounced.

For some, it might be a confusing factor that in Hebrew you write from right to left, but you write numbers left to right. The numbers used are exactly as in English, Arabic Numerals.

The Special Challenges of Translating from Hebrew to English

In an interview for Mosaic Magazine, Jessica Cohen, a Hebrew translator into English, discusses specific challenges she confronts in her work.

“I think of Hebrew as a “depth language,” as opposed to English, which is a “breadth language.” What I mean is that although Hebrew’s vocabulary is substantially smaller than that of English, there are many Hebrew words that carry multiple layers of meaning and allusions (historical, cultural, biblical, and so forth). So, while I can often find several English words that have almost the exact same meaning as a particular Hebrew word, it is usually next to impossible to find one that conveys all of that Hebrew word’s associative weight. This necessitates a painful choice to sacrifice some of that richness in favor of precision and clarity. To put it more simply: you can’t have it all.

“Hebrew is a language of roots and patterns. Every Hebrew word (except those borrowed from other languages) is formed by inserting a root (usually three consonants) into one of these patterns. As a result of this malleability, it is very easy to make up a word in Hebrew and be sure that readers or listeners will immediately understand what it means. It also allows for very inventive puns and wordplay. English has no equivalent process, so tackling these inventions—which sound very natural and not at all puzzling in Hebrew, even if you’ve never come across them before—makes for a huge challenge in English.”

Hebrew translation – Hebrew Scriptures.

Hebrew translation of religious texts is another challenge in itself. “As any translator will vouch, any time you translate thoughts, symbols, images, and cultural idioms from one language to another, there is always some loss of meaning. Cultural metaphors do not translate easily; the “mind map” changes, no matter how hard one tries to maintain it. This is the conundrum of human social history; does culture shape language or does language shape culture? Or are the two so intertwined in human communication that it’s impossible to understand one without the other? (Learn Religions)

To read scriptures in their original languages in order to trace the biblical history, scholars must learn to read ancient Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and possibly Aramaic as well (above). “Even with these language skills, there’s no guarantee that today’s scholars will accurately interpret the meaning of sacred texts because they are still missing a key element. Direct contact with and knowledge of the culture in which the language was used.”

Hebrew translation – concluding remarks

So, Hebrew translation has some general characteristics that it shares with any other translation process. There are certain hurdles you need to overcome that all translations share. You may call them general linguistic problems.

But, on the other hand, Hebrew translation has its specifics, which often depends on the question from the introduction. What type of translation do you need to handle? Is it modern Hebrew or is it one of the older variants of the Language? To help you sort out all your needs for a Hebrew translation, you may also contact our Hebrew experts at BunnyStudio.