Sunday, February 28, 2010

Difficulty in Translation "Shofar"

In H-Judaic a listserv for Jewish studies, someone asked about the translation of "shofar" as used in the Tanach.

There is a difficulty because words have connotations and associations that change over time. One can explain a word based on it usage in context and etymology, but sometimes current usage interferes with that meaning. The person asked why Jewish translations use "horn" most of the time while non-Jewish translations all use "trumpet."

In a modern band or orchestra trumpets and its cousin the cornet have valves that enable a full chromatic scale. Before valves were added in the mid 1830's the players used several trumpets in the keys the music required or used variable tubes. Trumpets trace their roots back as far as 1500 BCE. Bronze and silver trumpets were found in Egyptian tombs. ("The Trumpets of Tut-Ankh-Amen and Their Successors Percival" by R. Kirby in The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 77, No. 1 (1947), pp. 33-45 ) A definition of a modern trumpet would be a metal instrument that uses lip vibrations to produce a variety of sounds. Thus horns from animals, bamboo, reeds, and shells would not qualify.

The word, "shofar" in the Tanach may refer to a metal instrument or an animal horn. There is another word, hotzotzerah, that is never used as a ritual instrument and was most likely made of silver. Ritually we only use horns from kosher animals. Thus today, "shofar" only refers to a ritual instrument.

Job 39.24-25 is talking about a battle. It does surprise me that the word "trumpet" is the translation.

Cyrus Adler in the article, "Shofar" in the Jewish Encyclopedia ( claims "trumpet" is a mistranslation according to the words' etymologies. Adler did not know Howard Carter's discoveries in Egyptian tombs in the 1920's.

In my humble opinion when the Tanach is referring to a horn used by soldiers, "trumpet" is an adequate translation. However, in modern usage, "trumpet" has very little resemblance to that kind of military horn. If you were translating according to how the instrument is used, "military bugle" would be more correct, but no one would use that translation. "Bugle" and "trumpet" have connotations that make translating "shofar" difficult or imprecise.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Information Needs in Star Trek

I am reading a Star Trek -- Next Generation novel. The story has Will Riker going to a planet on a trade mission to attend a trade conference and ensure that the planet will be a trade partner with the Federation. His contact is murdered. During the trade which corresponds to Carnival, high technology is forbidden to be used. Although the definition "high technology" is not made clear, standard Federation weapons are not allowed, but limited communicators use is allowed. Even medical devices needed to repair injuries are limited during the "high tech" ban.

The actual mission is secret from all the members of the Enterprise crew except the captain. Several crew members try to figure out the mission by doing research.

I find it very interesting that the Star Trek universe can imagine space travel and how to over come the speed of light for travel, but for communications and information gathering they are decades behind what we do today. They have no concept of a a library data base. The interaction with the computer is voice activated. Their computers some how can read minds and figure out intentions. Even in 1990 the writers had no concept of personal computing devices or distributed computing resources. The idea of a communicator is still based on the walkie-talkie concept rather than a personal telephone. A star ship and its crew must need huge amounts of information for its missions, but the writers give very few clues how the information is gathered, organized and used.