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When translating a text you have to deal with names. While occasionally names are translated "semantically" (according to their meaning), usually we just keep the name as a name -- approximately. Abraham (or Avraham) in the Hebrew becomes Abraham in the English; ditto Sarah, David, Reuben (Reuven), Dan, Asher, and others. In other cases a name "change" is really just a different transliteration scheme at play; for example, Yitro becomes Jethro, but that's the common Y-to-J change combined with using "th" to disambiguate taf from tet. That all makes some amount of sense.

But then there are names that are actually changed, either in vowels or in consonants. Bilaam becomes Balaam (which I've asked about elsewhere), Moshe becomes Moses, Aharon becomes Aaron, Yitzchak becomes Isaac, Rivka becomes Rebecca, Shlomo becomes Solomon, Noach becomes Noah, Shimshon becomes Samson, many of the prophets are altered, and more.

Why is this? A partial answer might be that gutterals (like in Yitzchak and Noach) are more challenging for English speakers, but that doesn't explain all of them. Is "Rivka" or "Moshe" hard to pronounce? Is "Aaron" more intuitive than "Aharon"? Why do translators make the decision to approximately transliterate a name?

The transformations I've listed are made pretty widely -- even by JPS, which wouldn't be affected by passing through Greek. (I also spot-checked many of these in NIV, ESV, NET, and KJV.)

I am asking here specifically about translations from the Hebrew of the Tanakh. There may well be similar issues in the Greek books and perhaps there is an answer that addresses both, but I'm most interested in the Hebrew.

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I do not know the answer, but intuitively, I find the English names more familiar than the transliterations or the Hebrew names. I have met non-Hebrew people named Isaac, Abraham, Jacob, Noah, Aaron, Joshua, Rebecca, Samson, and others. I am not familiar with the transliterated spellings. –  Double U Jun 24 '13 at 1:34
Right, but are you more familiar with them because translations going back at least a few hundred years have rendered them this way (so people then used them as personal names), or because the translators and others thought they are inherently easier in English? –  Gone Quiet Jun 24 '13 at 1:37
I believe that the former is the case. –  Double U Jun 24 '13 at 11:47
Related: Why Abraham and not Avraham? –  TRiG Jan 29 '14 at 11:37

2 Answers 2

up vote 11 down vote accepted

Most of these changes happened in the Septuagint and stuck around as they became more familiar. I can only assume that the JPS uses these almost transliterations into English because they are so familiar to English speakers.

Greek and Hebrew alphabets don't match up in a one-to-one correspondence. Some of the problems from that would be:

  1. Letters in one language don't have any corresponding letters in the other.
  2. Letters in one language might have more than one corresponding letter in the other.

An example is that Greek doesn't have a character for "sh" while sheen is used often in Hebrew. Greek also lacks an H character (That's right. 'eta does not make the H sound even though it is shaped like a capital H). To mark the H sound, Greek will use a rough breathing mark at the beginning of the syllable. When this goes into yet another language, it might be dropped altogether. And if the H is in the middle of the syllable (such as in Aharon), it might go away all together. Likewise, Greek doesn't have a good equivalent to aiyin.

While Hebrew has several letters to represent S, Greek has sigma. Seen and Samek both map to it. Likewise, when first learning Hebrew, my classes discussed whether tzadi was better represented in English by TZ or TS.

Some other examples are given in this question and the answers.

Assuming that the names were pronounced the same back then as they are now (which we can't know for sure either way and the vowel marks were added much later), some of the specifics you asked about are:

  1. Moshe -> Moses. Greek has no "sh" and really likes to end names with a sigma under certain rules.
  2. Aharon -> Aaron. Greek can't put the H sound in the middle of the syllable.
  3. Rivka -> Rebecca. I'm going to call this one "euphony" (that means "it just sounds better"). It's not that the old name was impossible but this was a lot easier for the Greek tongue. The Hebrew v became a B (and those two sounds are very similar in Hebrew with a bet being used for both and only the presence or absence of a dagesh lene determining if it should be B or V) and the two consonants together (BK) weren't easy to handle. So the second E was slid in.
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There's a lot of names to deal with in your original post.

We would transliterate רִבְקָה into English as Rivka or Rivkah according to the rules of the Academy of the Hebrew Language. The LXX translators transliterated it into Koine Greek as Ρεβεκκα (cp. LXX Gen. 24:15).

We notice the following:

1) The chirik nikkud under the Hebrew letter ר is transliterated into Greek as an epsilon (ε), which represents the /e/ phoneme.

To me, this isn't much of a stretch. There was probably some phonetic overlap between these two vowels.

2) The shva nikkud under the Hebrew letter ב is transliterated into the LXX as an epsilon (ε), whereas we wouldn't transliterate into English in that particular word.

If I am not mistaken, that's a shva nach, which is unvoiced. So, why did the LXX translators transliterate it? It may have been voiced during that era. Or, the translators of the LXX didn't appreciate the idea of this consonantal cluster: βκκ. So, they decided to transliterate the shva so there would be an epsilon between the beta and the two kappas, i.e. Ρεβεκκα. Or, during that era, the shva nach may have been even slightly voiced, whereas today, it is said to be "unvoiced." Or, well, let's be honest, there was no such thing as a shva nach back then, as diacritics were not added until about a millennium later. So perhaps they did pronounce a bit of an /e/ phoneme between the ב and the ק when they said the Hebrew word רִבְקָה. These are just my guesses. A more comprehensive analysis will examine words which possess shva nachs and then analyze their transliterations in the LXX. But, that's a laborious effort.

3) The Hebrew letter ק is transliterated as the digraph κκ.

This may be due to the fact that the ק was articulated at the uvula rather than the velar region of the oropharyngeal tract as it is today. In modern Hebrew, there is no phonemic distinction between the letters כ and ק. Both are pronounced as the phoneme /k/, a voiceless velar stop. However, in Arabic, the equivalent letter ق is pronounced as the phoneme /q/, a voiceless uvular stop. It's quite possible that this was the ancient pronunciation of the Hebrew letter ק. As a result, it would not be transliterated into Greek as κ but κκ. Again, this is my speculation.

4) The ה is not transliterated.

This is no surprise as the /h/ phoneme does not exist in Greek except for the "rough breathing" (δασὺ πνεῦμα) which only occurs at the beginning of some Greek words. Since the letter ה is at the end of the word רִבְקָה, it is simply not transliterated into Greek. There are multitudes of examples of this phenomenon in the LXX. (By the way, this is why אהרון is transliterated into Greek as Ααρων.)

Maybe in the future I will examine more Greek transliterations of Hebrew words in the LXX, but this is all I can surmise for now. Not looking for a best answer. I am just interested in your question and thought I can share some thoughts.

Edit: I do want to tackle one more though: יצחק. We would transliterate that into English as Yitzchak. But, in antiquity, the Greek letter ι and the Hebrew letter י probably represented the same phoneme when located at the beginning of a word, i.e. /j/, a voiced palatal approximant.

So, the י in יצחק is transliterated as the letter ι. The צ does not have an equivalent letter in Greek. The translators probably found it most similar to the Greek σ. The ח is not transliterated, just like the letter ה, because Greek lacks an equivalent. And, finally, the ק is transliterated as the letter κ, as can be expected. So, I can actually see how יצחק became in Greek Ἰσαάκ. Of course, in English, we write "Isaac" because of the Greek, not because of the Hebrew. If we were to actually transliterate the Hebrew, it would be Yitzchak.

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Thank you very much for this information! I didn't intend to ask people to break down every name in the question; they were just examples of the types of transformations that are commonly made. I appreciate the work you put into this. –  Gone Quiet Jun 26 '13 at 1:18
This is great. Regarding #2: I think it’s the /v/—>/b/ (not mentioned here but obviously needed for Greek) that makes the sheva vocal. Presuming the writer had Hebrew pronunciation instincts (and that the rules we know are descriptive of those)...to harden that /v/ would take a dagesh which must be a chazaq (after a vowel), which compels the vocalization of the sheva. I think I just said the same as you: “[they] didn't appreciate the idea of this consonantal cluster: βκκ.” :-) –  Susan Feb 10 at 7:05
@Susan: The [entire] topic would make for an interesting thesis, don't you think? :) –  H3br3wHamm3r81 Feb 10 at 7:28
Ha, yes. Let me know when you write it. :-) Moshe always seemed to me the most unfortunate victim of Greek. It comes out distorted but at least smooth in English - in Greek it feels like they’re trying to compensate for the lack of shin by a really awkward double vowel. There’s got to be a story there. And Eve... –  Susan Feb 10 at 18:40

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