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Humanist Archives: Jan. 18, 2022, 8:05 a.m. Humanist 35.469 - transcribing and translating

              Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 35, No. 469.
        Department of Digital Humanities, University of Cologne
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    [1]    From: maurizio lana <>
           Subject: Re: [Humanist] 35.465: beating and translating (43)

    [2]    From: Willard McCarty <>
           Subject: translating? (19)

        Date: 2022-01-17 11:20:03+00:00
        From: maurizio lana <>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 35.465: beating and translating

the very fact that vocalized Hebrew found its route through a number
of servers up to my computer without being in any way broken
leaves me open-mouthed

Il 17/01/22 08:12, Humanist ha scritto:

Date: 2022-01-16 14:53:07+00:00
From: Henry Schaffer <>
Subject: Re: [Humanist] 35.464: beating swords & words about it

Jan Rybicki (perhaps somewhat tongue in cheek) blames translators - and, of
course, this often is the case. But sometimes (echoing Pogo) the fault is
not with the translator but with us.

My favorite example - quoting from the KJV "2 Vanity of vanities, saith the
Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity." The passage continues with
very moving language - but what does it have to do with vanity?
Going back before the translator worked there was
בהֲבֵל הֲבָלִים֙ אָמַ֣ר קֹהֶ֔לֶת הֲבֵ֥ל הֲבָלִ֖ים הַכֹּ֥ל הָֽבֶל
And so the translator translated הָֽבֶל as "vanity". So the question is
whether הָֽבֶל means "vanity"?  Hmm, is this the question?
*NO*! The question is whether הָֽבֶל *meant* "vanity"?
הָֽבֶל meant and means "a gust of air" - look up the meaning of the name of
Adam and Eve's second son Abel (which, in Hebrew, is spelled the same way.)

So why did the translator use "vanity" - that's because "vanity" had a
different meaning 600+ years ago when it did mean something along the lines
of "transient", "futility", "meaningless" or “emptiness".

So *WE* changed the language. The translator is innocent!


Maurizio Lana
Dipartimento di Studi Umanistici
Università del Piemonte Orientale
piazza Roma 36 - 13100 Vercelli
tel. +39 347 7370925

        Date: 2022-01-17 07:23:38+00:00
        From: Willard McCarty <>
        Subject: translating?

The note in yeaterday's Humanist on translating as 'vanity' the 
original Hebrew word sparks a different question. Can anyone give a 
relatively non-technical account of the techniques responsible for the 
radical improvement in translation software over the last decades? 
Consider how well DeepL works, for example.

As some will know -- the story is told e.g. by Yorick Wilks in Grammar, 
Meaning and the Machine (1972, 3-5) -- the Machine Translation project 
failed miserably in the 1960s; out of it came a new or newly invigorated 
Computational Linguistics, and translation dropped out of sight for quite 
a while. What changed?

Willard McCarty,
Professor emeritus, King's College London;
Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews;  Humanist

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