25 October, 2011

Translating creation

Filed under: Divrei Torah,Hebrew,Siddur,Tanakh by Joel @ 11:18 pm, 25 October 2011.

A dvar torah, given at Or Chadash, Parashat Bereshit, 22/10/2011.

In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep.

This line is so familiar and iconic, that you probably didn’t even notice when your own chumash said something else entirely. If you’re using the Hertz chumash, you’re excused; that’s precisely how it begins. Whereas:-

Artscroll says:

In the beginning of God’s creating the heavens and the earth – when the earth was astonishingly empty, with darkness upon the surface of the deep…

NJPS says:

When God began to create heaven and earth – the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep…

They both understand the opening verse in agreement with Rashi and Ibn Ezra, who both contend that here the word בראשית means “the beginning of”, not just “the beginning”. Still, these medieval commentators were potentially influenced by the science of their day, and certainly by the vowels on the Torah text, which were first written down only a few centuries before them. (Had the Masoretic scribes written בָראשית, the reading “In the beginning, God created…” would be clear. Instead, the Masoretic vowels seem to indicate “in the beginning of” or “in a beginning”, as the LXX translates.) Yet, it makes sense that the translation בראשית ברא אלהים is introducing the Bible’s whole first chapter, which concludes with ויכולו השמים והארץ (“the heaven and the earth were finished”).

We already see from this that a good translation takes account of fiddly grammar, textual context, and cultural context. Seeing as none of us are native speakers of Biblical Hebrew, translations are a very important part of how we understand the bible, among other essential Jewish texts.

17 November, 2009

Kohelet and the lost art of piyyut

Filed under: Divrei Torah,Hebrew,Siddur,Tanakh by Joel @ 10:34 pm, 17 November 2009.

A dvar torah given at Or Chadash on Shemini Atzeret, 10 October, 2009.

What has been is what will be, and what was done will be done again, for there is nothing new under the sun.

Though often deeply profound, the words of Kohelet can be depressing.

Some have said that’s precisely why Ecclesiastes is read on Sukkot; to temper its joy, and its famed frivolity the likes of which led to the institution of the mechitza in Second Temple times.

Others connect the book to the theme of transience and fragility we feel in our sukkah, not certain if we’ll be eating dinner with a garnish of rain; how we sit there despite the prefabricated hut convulsing around us, like it did during Thursday’s breakfast. We are vulnerable to the elements, and are forced to understand that the world is turning and life will pass quickly.

A poetic approach might say that the book was written in the autumn of Solomon’s life, and so its connection to sukkot is seasonal; a chassid could suggest a theme of letting the divine shine into the mundane.

I, a lover of words, will note that the common translation of Kohelet as “assembly” is a synonym for one translation of Shemini Atzeret, “the eighth, a day of assembly”. Now, the pedantic could point out that we read it on shabbat of Sukkot, not always Shemini Atzeret; I would point right back and say: that it’s always read on the eighth day by Yemenites, Italians, some Sefaradim and others.

The custom to read Ecclesiastes on this festival was a late one, first evidenced in the 12th century Machzor Vitry. As well as being the last book to join our festival rite, it was apparently the last book to join the Bible. The Mishna in Yadayim makes clear that there was debate regarding whether Kohelet was to be canonised, but Beit Hillel essentially forced the Sanhedrin to include it, against the will of Beit Shammai.

What makes Kohelet so controversial?

The Babylonian Talmud in Shabbat relates that the Sages wanted to destroy Kohelet because of numerous internal contradictions, but did not, for its beginning and its end are words of Torah; which presumably justifies the 11 chapters in between.

The Midrash complains about its heretical advice: “Rejoice in your youth, … and walk in the ways of your heart” is the opposite of the shema‘s “do not turn after your heart and your eyes.” Once people are given free rein to follow their desires, the midrash claims, “לית דין ולית דיין”, there is no law and no lawmaker! But Kohelet completes its passage: “for all these things God will bring justice.” And once again, it is redeemed.

The Tosefta brings the argument of Rabbi Shimon ben Menasia, that Kohelet is the unholy word of man, in contrast with the almost-as-controversial Song of Songs which was divinely inspired (written with רוח הקודש).

But Ecclesiastes isn’t the only thing we read today that has been criticised for its unholy authorship.

We recited the prayer of Geshem by Eleazar ben Kalir, instead of simply declaring: God is the One who makes the wind blow and the rain descend. This piyyut begins by introducing an angel named Af-Bri whose role it is to bring the rain, and whose name is derived from a midrashic reading of a verse in Job.
The Artscroll Siddur cites Rashi for the midrash, which makes little sense as the piyyut‘s traditional attribution precedes Rashi by centuries. For all we know, Eleazar Kalir may have come up with this interpretation himself.

Modern readers of such a piyyut may be worried by the latent polytheism in seeking an angelic intercessor whilst otherwise acclaiming the One God in the opening of the Amida. Medieval Rabbis were concerned just the same. Certainly, it is hard to tell in such poetry: what is authentic doctrine, and what is newly introduced by the poet who, Maimonides exclaims, was often not a scholar?

Piyyut, a cousin of the English word poem, can broadly refer to all Hebrew poem-prayers. They are often given purpose-specific names such as selichot, yotzerot, hosha’not, kinot, zemirot; they count among their ranks such distinguished members as Yigdal, Adon Olam, El Adon, An’im Zemirot, Vechol Ma’aminim, etc.

Piyut is certainly a poetic art-form, though quite different from the proverbs of Kohelet. For example, Solomon’s words: “a name is better than scented oil, and the day of death than the day of one’s birth”. This mini-poem condenses deep meaning into a single line with beautiful chiastic structure and alliteration. Listen to it: טוֹב שֵׁם, מִשֶּׁמֶן טוֹב; וְיוֹם הַמָּוֶת, מִיּוֹם הִוָּלְדוֹ.

Though it retained some of these literary methods, the Kaliric piyut focused more on innovative allusions to text and tradition within witty patterns of rhyme, rhythm and acrostic, a little reminiscent of poetry in the Book of Psalms. In today’s Prayer for Rain, we asked to be blessed in the memory of each of our patriarchs, though none of them are named explicitly. Instead, the poet alludes to water in each of their lives, beginning each line with the next letter of the alphabet, and ending it with “מים”, water. The piyut was a new genre in which to transmit tradition, and a new form for Jewish poetic expression.

Yet this early genre of piyut came under fire, not only for its creation of divine intercessors; its out-dated world-view; and its anthropomorphism of God as is replete in An’im Zemirot, but also because its riddling language was often so obscure as to be unintelligible. Avraham Ibn Ezra was outspoken against Eleazar ben Kalir’s predilection toward rare words – even made-up words – and poor Hebrew grammar, which became the foundational prototype for many later paytanim. Admittedly, I do find Ibn Ezra’s poetry (e.g. Ki Eshmera Shabbat), much much easier to understand.

There are other reasons these poems were controversial; the Babylonian Geonim saw it as a custom of the Land of Israel, intruding into the space of the statutory, standardised prayer service.

Maimonides blames piyutim as “the major cause for the lack of devotion and for the lightheartedness of the masses which impels them to talk during prayer” (though I think the evidence disagrees with him). These additions to the prayer, coupled with a chazan basking in the spotlight, made the service unbearably long (much like my divrei torah). Kohelet was quoted at them: “It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise, than for a man to hear the song of fools!”

Yet these poems brought creativity into the prayer service. In fact, they only became popular once the regular prayers became more fixed. A curious example: it was once common to use the texts of related berakhot interchangeably. So in the Cairo Geniza we find a siddur where the blessing “ולירושלים עירך” in the Amida is replaced by “רחם נא ה’ אלהינו על ישראל עמך”, which we know from birkat hamazon; after all, both end by blessing God, “rebuilder of Jerusalem”.

But the Amida text was eventually fixed, and the piyutim began to appear. The piyut library soon also settled; very few great piyyutim were composed after the thirteenth century. With printing, congregations could select from a wider choice of poems, but eventually certain songs found permanent homes in the liturgy, and others disappeared.

To expand on the Artscroll Machzor:

A few piyutim that are omitted by the vast majority of congregations have been included in an appendix which can be read with a magnifying glass, a dictionary of obscure Hebrew words, a PhD in medieval Hebrew literature and a two-week speed-reading course we call sliches (סליחות).

We have seen that there was a time when the bible was in flux, with books like Kohelet in question; later it was the regular prayer service, and after that, its poetic supplements. So it may be no surprise that the waning of piyut in 19th century Europe came with the flourishing of the cantorial and choral art in the synagogue, and the creation of a new song, vastly distinct from the previously chanted nusah. This change, too, has been hotly debated.

So history repeats itself. What will our next avenue of controversial creativity in public prayer be, when, somehow, the music stops?

Thus said Kohelet, “What has been is what will be, and what was done will be done again.”

Perhaps it’s not so depressing after all.

18 May, 2009

Four letter words

Filed under: Language by Joel @ 10:41 pm, 18 May 2009.

As one does at birthday parties, some friends of mine attempted on Saturday night to find words which have newly appeared in English in the last 50 years or so and which have exactly four letters. (Of course looking up a list of neologisms online would be cheating!)

The only completely new word I’ve found is blog.

Other words since suggested include [to] text [someone], spam and perhaps [the] dole. All of these are new senses to words, rather than wholly new words.

Can you add to the list (without cheating)?

Edit: where possible, make sure that it is a recent addition to the language, perhaps with citation.

28 September, 2008

Hebrew-English online translation

Filed under: Hebrew,Technology by Joel @ 12:22 pm, 28 September 2008.

It seems Google Translate has finally added Hebrew to its canon of transled languages (along with another 35). It seems they don’t have translation from web search enabled yet, but you can play with it (translate Dutch to Hebrew for instance) at Google Translate.

I borrow the example text used in one reporting blog:

משטרת גרמניה עצרה שני צעירים בחשד שהתכוונו לבצע פיגוע במטוס של חברת התעופה ההולנדית קיי-אל-אם. כוחות משטרת גרמניה פשטו על המטוס שחנה בשדה התעופה בקלן, זמן קצר לפני שהמריא בחזרה להולנד והוציאו ממנו את שני הצעירים, אזרח גרמני יליד סומליה בן 24 ואזרח סומליה בן 23.

Google Translate says:

German police arrested two youths suspected Shaatcwano an attack on the plane of Dutch airline Kay – to – if. German police forces raided the plane parked at the airport Cologne, shortly before Smria Leclnde back and took him to the two young men, a German citizen born in Somalia 24 Uezarh Somalia age 23.

There are a number of interesting things here:

Assuming something is a proper name if it can’t otherwise be understood is quite a normal approach. But it’s unusual that Google has particular trouble with “שהתכוונו”, “שהמריא” and “ואזרח”, which I don’t consider particularly uncommon words. These, and the messed up “להולנד” all have the common feature of attached prefixes (proclitics), and Google gets it right for all but “המריא” when these are removed. Obviously their word segmentation systems could be improved, or could be adjusted so that if the end system resorts to considering it a proper noun, it might go back and check whether there were some proclitics it failed to lop off. In practice, implementing such a feedback loop may not be worthwhile if the system wants to be fast.

Go take a look at the proper names it forms. It puts some funny letters in there, transliterating:

  • ה ([h]) as nothing (which a lot of Israelis do, but I’m guessing that the system is being hugely biased by the silent הs at the ends of many female names);
  • ו ([v]) as “w”, maybe because “w” always translates to Hebrew in names as ו, but it makes Google look very academic (or Iraqi/Yemenite) to transliterate the vavs in words as waws.
  • כ ([k]) becomes “c”, but so does some non-existant letter in להולנד! What’s going on there?
  • ח (usu. [x]) becomes “h” (rather than “ch” or “kh”), but I guess it is only ever found when transliterating Arabic names, and Ahmed is more common than Achmed.
  • The vowels are also interesting. Especially the spurious “e” on the end of להולנד, but it’s already clear that it’s done a strange job on that one.

Kay – to – if (KLM) is obviously entertaining, but there’s not really much to say about it (except that apparently they split tokens on hyphens).

The most interesting phrase translation is “and took him to the two young men” from “והוציאו ממנו את שני הצעירים”. It would appear as if they took the ו on the end of והוציאו as referring to the object (והוציאוֹ) rather than the subject (והוציאוּ), but seeing as the former is quite rare in contemporary written Hebrew, this may mean they have a wide variety of texts from various ages. And then ממנו seems to disappear altogether. So maybe I’ve just misinterpreted how the system makes a mistake. At the end of the day, the system is all numbers, so no one can really be certain how it made the mistake…

One of the few other online Hebrew-English translation services is Reverso:

A police of Germany stopped two young on suspicion that meant to execute an attack in the airplane of the Dutch airline KAY but them. Forces a police of Germany spreaded on the airplane that parked in the airfield Bkln, a short time before took Off back/in return to Holland and withdrew from him you two the young, German born citizen Somalia ben 24 and citizen Somalia ben23.

Comparing to this translation, we see that Reverso generally does a better job of splitting off proclitics and so makes less apparent mistakes. But its grammar is certainly much poorer, both in English and in Hebrew, thinking for instance that “צעירים” should be understood as an adjective rather than a noun; and that one makes an attack in a plane rather than on it; or that the singular משטרת should be translated “a police”; or that “את” is better translated “you” than as a direct-object marker. Compare also Google’s handling of the compound noun phrase “כוחות משטרת גרמניה” as “German police forces” rather than “Forces a police of Germany”. Also interesting is Reverso’s offering of a choice for בחזרה as “back/in return”.

Overall, while reverso handles word segmentation somewhat better, Google has a much more fluid grammar and chooses more appropriate words in translation.

I haven’t tried translating the other direction (English to Hebrew) yet, or any other combination of languages where I would be under-qualified. I leave that as an exercise to the reader.

And no, they don’t do Yiddish yet. Real Soon Now.

Yes, it’s been a long time. Yes, I won’t be talking much here till November. Shana tova anyway! Enjoy translating your New Year cards from strange Israeli rellies…

29 May, 2008

No q in Nakba

Filed under: Language,Society and culture by Joel @ 10:00 am, 29 May 2008.

After a few articles about “Al-Naqba” in the AJN, I wrote to suggest that they should be using a k and not a q:

There is no q in “Al-Naqba”. The Arabic spelling includes the equivalent of a Hebrew kaf, not their quf.

It seems ‘q’ is used, often by Jewish sources, to Arabise the word and make it seem more foreign and distasteful.

Even the spellings of words can express one’s biases, just as “Moslem”, once an accepted variant, is now considered more derogatory than “Muslim”.

The AJN should utilise the more neutral and accurate spellings, and write articles on “Nakba” rather than “Naqba”.

The printed letter stops after the second paragraph, which I maybe should have made more clear: I do not accuse the Jewish press of a conspiracy to use a stigmatised spelling variant. Language is more subtle and subconscious than that.

I try not to dictate others’ language use. In the case of a newspaper, though, there are always editorial style guides, and I wanted to point out two factors in the spelling of this word:

  1. Phonology: there is a letter q in Arabic, but it’s not used in the word “nakba”.
  2. Sociolinguistics: people have a choice to use “nakba” or “naqba” as both are found in the English press (according to Google in about 10:1 ratio). They may actually use the latter because they perceive it as a more “authentic” transliteration. Of course, it is not. On the other hand, it does make the word look more foreign, and so its use carries some pre-conceived “Arab” feeling that makes the word no longer neutral.

Of course, the word is naturally not a neutral word, whichever way it is spelt. People will often react to it either with distate or with pride. Nonetheless, it shouldn’t be spelt in the “unbiased press” in a way that shows one’s side and one’s ignorance more than necessary.

29 January, 2008

On swearing and swearing: sociolinguistics and the third commandment

Filed under: Halakha,Hebrew,Language,Tanakh by Joel @ 12:30 am, 29 January 2008.

The Third Commandment treats the matter of mistreating God’s name quite bluntly:

Do not take the name of the Lord your God in vain; for the Lord will not acquit one who takes His name in vain.

Rashi follows the translation of Onkelos in suggesting that the repeated “taking in vain” is once an injunction against those who swear by the Name falsely, and once against those who swear needlessly.
((*dibrot:”Commandment” might be a misnomer here, as the Hebrew term for commandments is clearly mitzvot (or huqqim, mishpatim, etc.) The Ten Commandments are only ever referred to in the bible as aseret hadevarim (Ex. 34:28; Deut. 4:13), or in later writings as aseret hadibrot. Devarim would often mean “words” or “things” or “utterances” or “statements”; its root means “to speak”.*))

Judaism abounds in traditions of protecting the sanctity of Divine Names in writing, and avoiding them in speech except when necessary. In fact, (להבדיל) the Rabbinic manner of protecting the divine name has taken on characteristics commonly found in linguistic taboo associated with swearing (the other type), euphemism, or political correctness. (more…)

23 December, 2007

Evening’s roses: erev shel shoshanim

Filed under: Hebrew,Music,Poetry by Joel @ 5:41 pm, 23 December 2007.

Another upcoming wedding, another song. Erev shel shoshanim is a classic. Unfortunately, the first few results for translations of its lyrics are far too literal and hardly able to be sung to its beautiful tune.

The original song also approximately rhymes the 2nd and 4th line of each of its three stanzas, which none of those translations do. So here is my go at a singable translation of Erev Shel Shoshanim:

Evening of roses
Let’s go out among the trees
Spices, perfumes, sweetest myrrh
Furnish beneath your knees

Slowly the nighttime falls
A rose-scented wind above
I whisper to you, my love, a song
Softly a song of love

At dawn, a cooing dove
Your hair’s filled with moisture’s beads
Your lips to the morning are a rose
The rose that I pick for me

Erev shel shoshanim
Netze na el habustan
Mor besamim ulevona
Leraglech miftan

Layla yored le’at
Veruach shoshan noshva
Hava elchash lakh shir balat
Zemer shel ahava

Shachar homa yona
Roshech malei telalim
Pikh el haboker shoshana
Ektefeinu li

ערב של שושנים
נצא נא אל הבוסתן
מור בשמים ולבונה
לרגלך מפתן

לילה יורד לאט
ורוח שושן נושבה
הבה אלחש לך שיר בלאט
זמר של אהבה

שחר הומה יונה
ראשך מלא טללים
פיך אל הבוקר שושנה
אקטפנו לי

26 November, 2007

Strength and yearning: translating Hebrew poetry

Filed under: Hebrew,Music,Poetry by Joel @ 12:23 am, 26 November 2007.

I just came back from the first in a series of close friends’ weddings. All in all it was beautiful and a lot of fun. As the bride entered, I and another three (including her grandmother) sang (two verses of) a setting of a 17th century poem, based on the Song of Songs, which I also had the opportunity to translate.

Having never tried to translate poetry before, it was an exciting challenge. Some poems require a literal translation; others need to have the right sense but also the rhythm and rhyme. In this case, I chose the latter.

With the help of others, especially Simon Holloway, this is what we came up with:

Chishki Chizki (חשקי חזקי) by Isaac Aboab da Fonseca (1605-1693)

My strength, my yearning day by day:
O king, dispel my dark away!
My source, my sun, though still so bright:
Your sun, my king, shall give me light.

Awake; Awake! O ten-stringed lyre:
Sing all your songs in voiced desire.
Your moon, your glow, need not return:
Here comes your light; my light is born.

חִשְׁקִי חִזְקִי מִדֵּי יוֹם יוֹם
מַהֵר הָאֵר מַלכִּי חָשׁכִּי
רִמְשִׁי שִׁמְשִׁי עוֹד לֹא יִכְבֶּה
יָאִיר לִי אוֹר שִׁמְשֵׁךְ מַלְכִּי

עוּרִי עוּרִי נֵבֶל עָשׂוֹר
בְּקוֹל זִמְרָה שִׁירִים שִׁירִי
יַרְחֵךְ זַרְחֵךְ לֹא יָבוֹא עוֹד
כִּי בָא אוֹרֵךְ קוּמִי אוֹרִי

8 November, 2007

Abraham in discourse

Filed under: Hebrew,Tanakh by Joel @ 11:24 pm, 8 November 2007.

Genesis reports Abraham being involved in a few very intense dialogues, and it is interesting to notice some of the phrases he introduces his speech with. In chapter 15, his address to God is “My lord, Hashem”. When bargaining with God over the lives of the people of Sodom (chapter 18), he is more elaborate:

  • Here I venture to speak to my Lord, I who am but dust and ashes… (הנה-נא הואלתי לדבר אל אדני ואנכי עפר ואפר)
  • Let not my Lord be angry if I go on… (אל-נא יחר לאדני ואדברה)
  • And again: Here I venture to speak to my Lord… (הנה-נא הואלתי לדבר אל אדני)
  • Let not my Lord be angry if I speak even this last time… (אל-נא יחר לאדני ואדברה אף-הפעם)

Appropriate language to speak with God? Maybe, but when it comes to negotiations with men, the relationship is more equal. Abraham discusses the purchase of a burial site for his late Sarah in chapter 23, and from both parties involved, the speech introduction is usually “my lord, hear me” (אדני שמעני) or “hear me, my lord” (שמעני אדני) or “no, my lord, hear me” (לא אדני שמעני) or “but if you will hear me” (אך אם אתה לו שמעני). Listening skills are in high demand, but…

29 October, 2007

Regular expressions for Mishnaic tractates

Filed under: Hebrew,Judaism,Technology by Joel @ 4:37 pm, 29 October 2007.

Various transliteration conventions (or a lack thereof) and dialectal differences make it very difficult at times to gather all possible variations for transcribing Hebrew words into English characters. This can make using search engines to find Hebrew terms in English sources very difficult, or could make it hard for a piece of software to identify what someone is referring to when they enter a string of text. For example, biblical book names each have a number of ways of being written, and my BibRef solves this by simply storing a list of alternative names and abbreviations.

Another way of identifying an entered string with one of many options is with regular expressions. As such, I have attempted below to devise regular expressions to match all expected spellings for each tractate (masechet, masekhet, maseches, meseches, etc.) of the Mishnah. Please note that this is only a draft: I expect to improve the regular expressions, and feedback is much appreciated.

Using this as a background study, it may be possible to automate the building of regular expressions for Hebrew words (with vowels given), although many of the expressions below also cover a number of irregularities that would be hard to incorporate into such a builder. Consequently, one could also build a list of all possible alternative spellings for a word, which could then be used with a search engine to make searches of these Hebrew words comprehensive. (Edit: the current expressions below overgenerate way too much and would probably be inappropriate for that task.)

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