Can We Talk?

One of my friends is visiting Israel this week. We have a kind of strange rule to our friendship: I am teaching him Hawaiian and he is teaching me Modern Hebrew, typically a phrase or greeting at a time. I am now pretty good at translating Hebrew into Hawaiian, should there ever be a market niche opening up for that skill. Elad, however, is way behind on Sheuré Ivrit (Hebrew lessons). I've been trading Hebrew lessons for Hawaiian lessons; although once in a while, he throws in a Yiddish expression. Yiddish is a language that was created from a mix of other European languages and spoken by predominantly Eastern European Jews. I've found both Hebrew and Yiddish to be wonderfully descriptive and colorful languages.

As some of you may have guessed, I really like languages, and apparently that seems to go hand in glove with being a security weenie. Lots of people who were linguists ended up being recruited for cryptography work in the Second World War (e.g., at Bletchley Park), and not merely for their translating skills, but for their ability to detect patterns of usage and their ability to do frequency analysis (how often certain letters are used, which helps immensely in code breaking). Some of you probably know also of the Navaho Code Talkers who played such a key role in US victories in the Western Pacific. The code was never broken, in part because there really weren't many native speakers of Navaho.

In a previous life, I studied Biblical Hebrew and classical Greek, motivated in no small part by the desire to read various Great Works (e.g., the Bible, the Iliad, the Odyssey) in the original languages. (I can add to my personal list of what constitutes Great Works Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, which has been translated into both Latin and classical Greek. Call me a Philistine, but having read both, I can say honestly that reading about Quidditch is a lot more fun than reading Herodotus.)

One of the things you realize after reading works in the original language - though in my case, "picking at the text painfully and slowly, with lots of dictionary lookups" is a more accurate description than "reading" - is how careful translators have to be - and how hard that is sometimes - in their word choice. People reading works in translation don't necessarily have access to or understanding the original text, and the nuance is lost sometimes. Translators do the best they can, but in some cases there may not be an exact equivalent for a word, or they may have to choose one word among many possibilities.

Even if you aren't a linguist, all of us have had that experience of using a word (for example, in an email) we thought was perfectly clear and meant "X," only to have someone on the receiving end hear (or read) "Y." I get regular reminders of this when I give public presentations or interviews on security, read the press coverage, and get emails from people asking, "Did you really say that all British are criminals?" (No, I didn't say that.) It's easy to complain that you are misquoted but some honest introspection leads to the conclusion that, perhaps, if you made a different word choice, the likelihood of being misquoted or misunderstood goes way down. The quest for the right word is something we all struggle with. Please do not misinterpret this point as a concession to political correctness. No one has ever accused me of being too PC! I really mean picking the right words is essential so that the meaning you intend is the one the audience receives.

In some cases, it's literally impossible to know what a word in an ancient text actually meant because it does not exist anywhere else in the text, to provide context or reinforcement for the meaning. There is actually a linguistic term for this phenomenon: hapax legomenon or ‘απαξ λεγóμευου, from the Greek participial form of λεγω, to speak. (I am indebted to my Biblical Hebrew teacher, Jack Love, for this arcane bit of knowledge, and in the "small world" department, I ran into Jack at an Oracle OpenWorld conference several years ago. He'd become an Oracle DBA and was no longer teaching Biblical Hebrew.) For example, there is a word in the book of Ruth (3:7) that is an hapax legomenon, wherein Ruth uncovers Boaz's margolot (מךגלות), translated "feet." Not to be prurient, but nobody really knows what Ruth uncovered because the word doesn't exist anywhere else.

I used to say in my early days working in security that security was an hapax legomonon in many organizations: the word usage only occurred in one place, and nobody really knew what it meant. A lot has changed since then. There are lots of books about, emphasis upon and awareness of what security is and what it means. Many if not most organizations now have written security policies, train people on them, and measure compliance against policies. Oracle has many such policies and they cover everything from responsible use (of corporate assets), to who can access our corporate networks and how we handle security vulnerabilities in our software.

When I think about how security has changed over the last 10 or 12 years, it's as if some dusty old word that nobody used - an hapax legomenon - started cropping up in what we read and digest every day. (Maybe margolot will make a linguistic comeback? And high time, too!) The next step now that security is no longer an hapax legomenon is to get the deeds to match the words.

Using the wrong word, or an imprecise word, can leave people walking off with entirely the wrong idea and sometimes the wrong idea takes on a life of its own. People argue all the time over what words mean in linguistic contexts, and reading literature in translation is always risky to the extent that someone can - maliciously or unintentionally - slip one by you. For example, I have often heard people quoting a Biblical passage to support the view that women are not supposed to be pastors, or otherwise preach or speak in church: "As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says." (1 Corinthians 14:33). I confess that I have a particularly strong reaction to this passage since I come from a long line of outspoken women. Which is why I wanted to know what it really says in koine Greek (Biblical Greek), and not what the translation says.

Greek, as it happens, has many, many words for speaking, only five of which pertain to preaching or proclamation. None of the five were used here. What was used is the word laleo - meaning "to chat, talk or converse."

(Hawaiian has at least three words for talking I know of: kama'ilio, to converse, ‘ōlelo - to speak, and namu - to mutter. Obviously, telling someone not to talk (Mai ‘ōlelo ‘oe!) is a lot different from telling someone not to converse (Mai kama'ilio ‘oe!) To cut to the linguistic chase: what St. Paul was really saying was that women shouldn't be chatting in church, which makes even more sense when you realize so many women were not educated and didn't get out in public much in Hellenistic times. This was, in fact, an admonition to the ladies to be on good behavior in church, not a dictum to women to refrain from speaking at all.

There are religious arguments over what is really meant by this passage, in part because the people arguing are reading a translation, and translators often have to translate words for which there is no exact equivalent. My mother insisted I not chatter during church as a child, but my mother and grandmother are both outspoken women and would be the last people to tell anyone not to "speak up and out," even in church.

(Attribution: I am indebted to a former Oracle SVP, George Koch, now pastor of a church in Wheaton, Illinois, for his analysis of this passage in 1 Corinthians from a sermon entitled "Shall a Woman Keep Silent?" Only George would link Joan Rivers' exhortation "Can we talk?" to the meaning of laleo. Thanks, George!)

In a day of instant gratification, instant messaging, instant everything, learning a hard language - and Greek and Hebrew are ferociously hard (although Elad would disagree about Hebrew) - seems to have little relevance. I probably switched to Hawaiian because it was a lot easier, frankly (no verbs for "to have" or "to be," hallelujah!). The value of learning a difficult language and struggling with it comes from understanding - truly understanding - what something says and not what a translator chose to convey. You also learn to be very mindful of your word choices in everyday life, because you realize entire orthodoxies can rest on what a word really means. "Laleo." "Margolot." "Security." "Full disclosure," the visceral reaction to which makes religious arguments seem tame by comparison. For me, the "translation takeaway" is that when I disagree with something I read - I try, before hitting Reply All in a huff - to go back to the person and tell them what I understood them to say, and ask whether that was, indeed, what they meant? A little patience, or he ho'omanawanui li'ili'i, as the Hawaiians would say.

And as far as whether women can speak, for myself, I think being outspoken is a gift, because there are a lot of people who talk an awful lot without saying much of anything. (There's probably a Greek word for that.) Life is short; get to the point. On the other hand, you want your bluntness to reflect what you really meant to say, and not something else, so that people agree or disagree with what you really said, and not something they perceived "through a glass, darkly."

One Biblical passage that says this succinctly, whether you take it religiously or just as it is: "Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No.'" (Matthew 5:37) That's good advice for all of us.

For more reading:

  • The Joys of Yiddish by Leo Rosten. Yiddish is just so descriptive that everybody ought to have a few words in their linguistic repertoire. Momzer is a particularly useful word for the evening commute on Highway 101.

  • For a really delightful "translation experience," listen to the Brothers Cazimero singing the theme song from 1979's the Muppet Movie (The Rainbow Connection) in Hawaiian. (Who knew Kermit was a Hawaiian frog?) You can find it on their Greatest Hits Album.

  • The Wikipedia definition of hapax legomenon

  • An interlineal (you can read in Hebrew and/or Greek and English side by side) Bible; third chapter of Ruth

  • More on the Navaho code talkers

  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in Greek (ΑΡΕΙΟΣ ΠΟΤΗΡ ΚΑΙ Η ΤΟΥ ΦΙΛΟΣΟΦΟΥ ΛΙΘΟΣ)


Thanks for the insight into who you are a person, as well as interesting subject matter that was able ,to keep my attention to keep me reading. God bless you.

Posted by Greg Low on August 03, 2006 at 03:45 PM PDT #

This is fun.

Posted by Greg Low on August 03, 2006 at 03:46 PM PDT #

Do you have a webpage that discusses and/or tranlates words between Hawaiian and Hebrew and vice versa? That sounds fascinating to me. If you do have such a site, may I add a hyperlink from my language webpage? All the best. KM

Posted by Keith Martin on August 15, 2007 at 12:04 PM PDT #

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