Monday, August 08, 2005

Lost in Translation

Going to the Modern Orthodox and ‘Ivrit B‘ivrit high school that I went to, I was a big fan of Frank's Practical Talmud Dictionary. It fulfilled my grammar needs, as well as explaining the contextual significance of key Talmudic terms, and it gave each word or phrase both an English and a Hebrew translation. This fit in perfectly with my ‘Ivritocentric schooling, and to this day in learning Gemara (or anything in Aramaic) I translate it into Hebrew instead of English.

Late in the game, I discovered Jastrow, who at the time was much too technical and 'Latinate' for my tastes. And then I found the blue dictionary of R' ‘Ezra Tziyon Melamed. Love at first cite. Here was an Aramaic-Hebrew dictionary which included conjugated verbs, many more words than R' Frank's, and had short and to the point translations. Frank was for keywords and expressions; Melamed was for vocabulary. And not only that, but it included footnotes explaining the Greek, Latin, and Persian sources of many words in Talmudic Aramaic.

Recently, a new English version of R' Melamed's dictionary came out — an Aramaic-Hebrew-English dictionary with a green cover, with each vocabulary item translated also into English, removing the necessity of looking up unfamiliar Hebrew words when the translation from Aramaic to Hebrew was insufficient.

A friend of mine just called me up (cellphone ringtone: Magical Trevor) and told me that he saw this new dictionary, and that the philological footnotes with Greek, Latin and Persian etymologies of words had disappeared! Do they think Anglophones aren't interested in Linguistics? Could it be somehow "frummer" to not have Indo-European etymologies for Talmudic terms? Doesn't everyone use Jastrow anyway? He's chock full of that kind of stuff! It's a mystery...


Blogger AMSHINOVER said...

read Jastrows hakdama, towards the end he goes of on bena torah

8/08/2005 4:50 PM  
Blogger Mar Gavriel said...

Have you ever used Michael Sokoloff's Dictionary of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic and Dictionary of Palestinian Aramaic? He's great. If only he had one for Rabbinic Hebrew and one for Tragumic Aramaic, we could be-gauneiz our Jastrows. (Yekkishe "hhaulem" gratuitously added for fun.)

You see, Jastrow copied his explanations of words mainly from Rashi and the `Arukh, neither of whom were native speakers of Babylonian Aramaic. In fact, the explanations of these two authorities (zatsa"l) have been copied and re-copied again and again, even though many of them are based on guesses.

However, in the time when the Geonim presided over the Methivatha of Babylonia, Jews from around the Jewish world wrote to them, and asked them: "What does this word mean? You should know, because you still use Aramaic, along with Arabic, as a spoken language."

Sokoloff uses Geonic evidence to understand the meaning of words. And when there is insufficient evidence, he does not mislead you with a guess; he says "meaning unknown".

8/08/2005 4:58 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...


Unfortunately, Sokoloff's dictionaries aren't as comprehensive as Jastrow's and Melamed's. Many times i've looked in Sokoloff to find a word and it just isn't there.

8/08/2005 6:32 PM  
Blogger Mar Gavriel said...


That's probably because he considered those words non-Aramaic. The infallible software program that Sokoloff used catalogued every single word in the Bavli (+many Gaonic and other Babylonian Aramaic texts), and it was up to Sokoloff to decide which ones were really Aramaic and which ones were not. I guess he disagrees with you about the Aramaicity of certain words.

(I must admit, though, that the same thing has happened to me vis-à-vis Sokoloff's dictionary. Weird. Or, as I would say, wierd. Af `al pi khein, he remains the best dictionary of JBA out there.)

8/08/2005 7:50 PM  
Blogger Mar Gavriel said...

Steg, you've got to get rid of these awful advertisement-posters.

What do you call the equivalent of spam that lands on blogs?

8/08/2005 9:01 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

I think it's now called "spam" regardless of medium. I know i've called snailmail 'spam' (formerly: "junk mail"), and telemarketers 'spam'.

8/08/2005 9:06 PM  
Blogger Mar Gavriel said...

By the way, Jastrow's etymologies are notoriously apologetic (and incorrect). Apparently, there were 19th-century scholars who had really gone over the top, and had argued that all of hhokhmath yisra'el had been borrowed from the gentiles. In reaction, Jastrow tried to prove that virtual every word in the Talmud was of Semitic origin; he made outlandish etymologies for some words, even inventing a number of binyanim (e.g. the par`el). The number of words that he is willing to attribute to non-Semitic roots is actually tiny.

However, I do not wish to detract from the great work that Jastrow has done for the English-speaking Jewish people.

8/08/2005 11:21 PM  
Blogger Heshy said...

On many occasions, especially within the last few weeks, many confused Jews have questioned me regarding the Torah’s opinion on the Kahane idea. To most Jews, it is a very complex topic, where you may find some people for it and others in vehement opposition. But what do our great sages say?

Find out totally new stuff at

8/09/2005 12:11 AM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

heshy, stop spamming me.

8/09/2005 7:59 AM  
Blogger AMSHINOVER said...

steg i was wrong the agor is a achron,so the earlist mar makom is the shulchan orach,sorry

8/09/2005 9:29 AM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...


that's okay, still really interesting

8/09/2005 9:56 AM  
Blogger Mar Gavriel said...


Did you see the e-mail that I sent you yesterday?

8/09/2005 1:10 PM  
Anonymous Joe said...

Do they think Anglophones aren't interested in Linguistics? Could it be somehow "frummer" to not have Indo-European etymologies for Talmudic terms?

Or maybe it's just marketing. The publisher wants to continue selling the "blue" dictionary in addition to the "green" one.

Doesn't everyone use Jastrow anyway?

I stopped using Jastrow because the one I have and all the ones I've seen for sale are really bad offset printings. IF someone re-typeset it using modern legible fonts, I'd buy one in a heartbeat.

8/09/2005 3:41 PM  
Blogger Mar Gavriel said...

Nu, Steg? Week-end plans?

(E-mail me. Thanks.)

8/09/2005 11:15 PM  
Blogger Joe said...

I also tried to use the Sokoloff dictionary for a while and found that it rarely had the word I was looking for.

8/10/2005 4:10 AM  
Blogger Joe said...

(that's a diff Joe, BTW)

8/10/2005 4:11 AM  
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