Translating Biblical names
— An art of its own —
Translating Biblical Names
Translating Biblical names is an art all by itself. Often Biblical names are like little poems tucked in the narrative, and contain meaning beyond their etymological origins. These origins often only point us in the right direction in our search for meaning, but the actual impact upon the observer (reader/ listener) should be sought in textual references, sound-likes and function of the character that bears the name.
The following procedure seems to work quite well for us here at Abarim Publications:
- Look for words that are identical to the name.
- Look for words that may be compounded into the name.
- Look for words that may be roots of the name, augmented with so-called soft letters (letters that create action or form but do not change the verbal charge of the name); he, waw, waw-nun, yod, or taw as pre- or postfix.
- Try to create a phrase that works.
- Compare results with textual references.
Also note that here at Abarim Publications we are more interested in what a name would have meant to a Hebrew audience than any original meaning, if that differs. A Biblical name that was most probably imported from, say, Persian and in Persian means Banana but in Hebrew is identical to the word for Strawberry would, to a Hebrew audience and the Biblical context, mean Strawberry and not Banana.
Biblical names in the Bible are often accompanied by a reason of the name. And that reason is composed after a certain naming-mechanism or a combination of a few of those. We identify the following naming-mechanisms:
• And his name was Talkie because he wouldn't stop talking.
Quite often in the Bible, people are given a name that consists of a verb or noun that is used in the reasoning for this name. Most of the sons of Jacob are named facsimilative or quasi-facsimilative.
• And his name was Pun because he was a lot of fun.
Biblical names are often quasi-facsimilative and the result of word-play; the name hints at the verb that is used in the description but is obviously altered to also contain hints at other words. HAW Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament says it like this: "There are many places in the OT where it is now recognized that the parallel of a name and its meaning is not necessarily etymological" (page 210).
The name Abraham, for instance, comes as a result of him being the father of many nations, and although the phrase Father Of Many (ab-hamon) vaguely looks like Abraham, the name, in a literal fashion, means something completely different.
• And his name was AT&T because he had a head like a phone booth.
On occasion a place is given a name that is explained by the context but not used by it. For instance, when Deborah, the nurse of Rebekah dies, there is no show of ceremony or emotion. But Deborah is buried at an oak which is henceforth known as Allon-bacuth, or the Oak Of Weeping (Genesis 35:8).
• And his name was Curly because he was as smooth as a Q-ball.
In Scriptures names often occur more than once. One of two sons of Moses, namely Eliezer, for instance, had the same name as the trusted servant of Abraham. Moses gives a facsimilative reason for this name: "The God of my father was my help." Both Moses and Eliezer are literary characters of a cycle that indicates Moses as author of the story of arch-father Abraham and his Eliezer, and we can't help but render the name of his son a possible venerative charge.
The name Jesus means Savior or He Will Save, but this name is the Greek transliteration of a variant of the name Joshua. Again the name fits the person, but a venerative reference to the successor of Moses is readily noticed.
How a legendary name was found suitable for venerative reapplication isn't at all clear. The names of the beloved kings David and Solomon were never repeated in the Biblical records, yet there are four men named Saul mentioned in addition to the loser king Saul. There are eleven men named Joel mentioned in the Bible, nine named Jeremiah, seven named Isaiah, three named Daniel, two named Ezekiel, but only one named Job, one named Jonah and one named Eli.
• And they called her Monterey because she was conceiving during Jimi Hendrix' famous concert.
There seems to be a class of Biblical names which can not possibly be descriptive of the bearers. It seems that in the olden days, people may have been named commemoratively, after great events or perhaps a promise by God.
The name Zerubbabel is obviously commemorative, and so are the names of the children of Hosea and Gomer: Lo-ammi, Jezreel and Lo-ruhamah, and so is Isaiah's son Maher-shalal-hash-baz. The name Jerusha(h) appears to be an example of a commemorative name. And many of the Ab-names seem commemorative, especially those of women. For example, the name Abi (mother of king Hezekiah) means My Father and can only be either venerative or commemorative.
• And his name was John Smith because it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Finally we list a way of naming that is probably quite common in our day and age: the choosing of a name simply because it sounds nice, but with no regard for any special meaning.