Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Problems in Translating Ancient Hebrew

There is one major translating difficulty found in the biblical language of Israel, especially since Hebrew ceased to be a commonly spoken language no later than 200 A.D., though many believe much earlier. And regarding the Old Testament, the Hebrew language, as anciently written, was the most difficult of all languages to translate, since it was written from right to left; the words contained no written vowels; there were no intervening spaces between words, and no punctuation marks.

Even with the introduction of vowel points [dots or marks below the words that indicate vowel sounds] many words in Hebrew, as in English, have more than one meaning. Without these points, as originally written, the number is increased a hundred fold. The five English words, bag, beg, big, bog, and buy, are quite unlike and easily distinguished. However, omit the vowels, as the ancient Jews did, and we have five words exactly alike, or rather, one word with five different meanings.

The Hebrew language was thus largely composed of words with several meanings. Also, since there were no spaces between words, it was sometimes hard to tell where a word began or where it ended; and as there were no punctuation marks, and no spaces between sentences, paragraphs, or even sections, it was often difficult to determine the meaning of a writer after the words had been deciphered. As an example, one of the best known passages in the Bible is shown below in English as the Jews would have written it in Hebrew (that is, without vowels and spaces):


It is no wonder that Saint Jerome, who published the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible around 400 A.D., admitted: “When we translate the Hebrew into Latin, we are sometimes guided by conjecture.” Furthermore, Jean Le Clerc, a Swiss Protestant theologian and scholar of the 17th century, even went so far as to maintain that “the learned merely guess at the sense of the Old Testament in an infinity of places.” This is in large part because of the ancient Hebrews’ failure to write down their vowels and of the language subsequently falling into disuse—and also of the adding of the relatively modern vowel points, by a few belated Dark-Age rabbis, in order to make up for this deficit, naturally casts very great suspicion and doubts on how the Hebrew vowels were originally sounded and used.

Obviously, the problems in translating Ancient Hebrew are severe and numerous. Nobody today knows for sure how the original Hebrew was pronounced, regardless of the tales commonly propagated about the Jewish rabbis carrying on an accurate oral tradition for thousands of years. Modern knowledge of the evolution of languages would almost certainly deny the likely possibility of such. If old King Solomon were to walk through Jerusalem today and hear the Hebrew spoken there now, he would probably stop in astonishment, listen in amazement, shake his head in bewilderment, and finally conclude that he must be in a foreign country.


  1. Great article! Indeed, Hebrew is quite hard to learn. Heck, even online translators can't translate Hebrew of the Tanakh correctly! Greetings from Brazil~

  2. Thank you. Nice to hear from Brazil.