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Understanding Transliteration and Translation

December 5, 2011

You may have seen Hebrew words written in Roman characters (transliteration) in many different ways, and translated in a variety of different ways as well. This can make learning Hebrew and saying prayers more confusing, but there are good reasons why all this diversity exists: there is often no clear-cut answer for the one letter that sounds the most like a Hebrew letter, or the one meaning of a word. (You can learn more about different ways of pronouncing Hebrew here.)

There are two main factors that influence why transliteration is more of an art than an exact science. The first is that not all the sounds in Hebrew exist in English or in other languages. For example, the ch in challah or, Chanukah can be transliterated in a variety of ways (hallah, ḥallah, etc.) The second reason is that Hebrew is pronounced in a variety of different ways, depending on where the speaker is from and the customs in their community. The Hebrew word for the welcoming ceremony for baby boys, brit (rhymes with feet), could also be pronounced bris (rhymes with miss) and, in all likelihood, many other ways as well. While transliteration may not be a science, each transliteration system will have hard and fast rules about how to convert Hebrew letters into Roman ones, so as to create a more standardized system for the people using their texts.

While there are many, many, systems of transliteration, the following chart goes over some of the most common ones for the letters of the aleph bet, the Hebrew alphabet. The aleph bet only has consonants, and vowels are added around the letters when producing materials for children or those learning Hebrew. These vowels are also transliterated in a variety of ways that vary from one system to the next. You can experiment with transliterating Hebrew to Roman characters on the Open Siddur Project website, which helpfully links to many transliteration guides including the ones listed below. Keep in mind many people will use a blend of different transliteration systems. In the original documents that I used to make this chart, the Hebrew letters aleph and ayin are sometimes transliterated with characters that are nonstandard, and that I have yet to see in a prayer book, so I have not included them here.

Letter Symbol Name of Letter ALA/LC Romanization Tables Hebrew Academy of Languages Society of Biblical Literature
א Aleph ʼ or ignored ' ʾ
Bet b b b
ב Vet v v v
ג Gimmel g g g
ד Dalet d d d
ה Hey h h h
ו Vav ṿ v w
ז Zayin z z z
ח Chet
ט Tet t
י Yud y y y
Khaf kh kh ̲
כ Kaf k k k
ל Lamed l l l
מ Mem m m m
נ Nun n n n
ס Samech s s s
ע Ayin ʻ ˈ  
Pey p p p
פ Fey f f  
צ Tzadi ts ts
ק Kuf k q
ר Raysh r r r
Shin sh sh š
Sin ś s š
Tav t t t
ת Tav/Sav t t t

Now we get to the issue of translation. Like with pronunciation, part of the issue is that there are not always English words that precisely convey the meaning of a given Hebrew word. While the translation of the Hebrew word dag, meaning fish, might be relatively clear-cut (and I look forward to seeing in the comments if it is not), the translation of Avinu Malkenu, a standard prayer recited on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, is commonly translated as Our Father, Our King; Our Parent, Our Sovereign is less so, as many people wish to avoid depicting God as masculine, while others seek to preserve the original imagery of the Hebrew. There are many names of God in Hebrew, and many names for God in English. Prayer books translate the name of God according to what the Hebrew means, in a way that they want the congregants to think about God, or in all other sorts of ways, leading to a great diversity in the way that God is addressed.

Another translation issues is reached when there are words that do not have a precise English translation, such as davka, which sort of means "specifically" as in, "Lori knew her sister hated lima beans, but Lori requested them for her birthday davka for that reason."

In prayer book Hebrew, you will find translation systems that preserve the original gendered and hierarchical language seen in the original Hebrew, systems that use gender-neutral language and systems that translate more poetically in order that the English text might rhyme while still having a rhythm of the poetry in the original Hebrew prayer.

The more you understand transliteration and translation systems, the easier it will be for you to follow along in prayer books and during home rituals. While transliteration systems can make the same group of sounds look wildly different, and lead to hilarious pronunciations if you sound out the letters using standard English sounds, when you learn how to use them they can make your synagogue experience make more sense.

Amanda Koppelman Milstein

Amanda Koppelman Milstein is a freelance writer and evaluator who lives in Washington, DC. She has a masters in Public Policy with a focus on Poverty Alleviation. She enjoys seeing how much butter and heavy cream she can put into baked goods, performing standup comedy, and secretly sometimes pronounces her tavs as savs when her father isn't around to hear.

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