Translation, Transliteration, and Greek Letter Magic

One of the more common sets of search terms I get on my blog, for some reason, involves how to write Japanese words, characters, or kanji in English, or whether there’s a Japanese to English alphabet conversion.  I mean, there are ways to write Japanese using the Roman script (which is what the English alphabet actually is), but it’s not translation, and people are stupid and don’t understand the basics of writing things in different languages well.  Let me clarify some linguistic terms:

  • Translation is the conversion of words with meaning from one spoken language to another.  For instance, to say the word “love” in Latin, you’d say “amor”, ερως in Greek, (“erōs”), and 愛 in Mandrain Chinese (pronounced “ài” with the voice falling slightly from a high level to a lower level).  The meaning is preserved although how it’s pronounced is not.
  • Transcription is the conventional means by which one writes a spoken language in a graphical, non-spoken medium.  For instance, for English, we use a variant of the Roman script as conventional, while Japanese uses a mixture of hiragana and katakana (syllabic scripts) combined with kanji (Chinese characters).  I could write English using Devanagari, the writing system most commonly used in India to write, say, Hindi, and it’d be a way of transcribing spoken English, although only people who use Devanagari could read it.
  • Transliteration is the conversion of written symbols from one writing system to another.  As opposed to translation, transliteration preserves the sound of a word while the meaning is not.  For instance, my name “polyphanes” in Roman script is written πολυφανης in Greek alphabet, ポリファニース in Japanese katakana, and полыфанис in Russian script.  The sound is preserved across each, although it has no meaning in any language but Greek (meaning “many appearances”).

It must be remembered that a writing system is not a language; a writing system is a means by which one transcribes a spoken language with a set of symbols that represent sounds or meaning, and a spoken language is a means by which one person orally communicates to another person.  However, the two are not the same; consider the status of Hebrew, German, and Yiddish.  “Hebrew” refers both to the spoken language used in Israel as well as the script used in, say, the Torah; “German” refers to both the spoken language used in Germany as well as a variant of the Roman script used to represent the same.  Yiddish, however, blends the two by using the writing system of Hebrew but the spoken language of German.  A German speaker can understand spoken Yiddish but could not read written Yiddish (because it’s written using the Hebrew script); a Hebrew speaker can not understand spoken Yiddish but can read written Yiddish aloud without understanding its meaning (because the Hebrew script is here transliterating German words that have no meaning in spoken Hebrew).  I gave an example about all this specifically with Japanese back in my January 2014 Search Term Shoot Back:

“japanese alphabet with english letters” — This is one thing I really don’t get; so many people have come to my blog looking for Japanese writing translated into English, when I’ve mentioned Japanese four times on my blog to date, and none were about transliterating Japanese into English.  First, Japanese does not use an alphabet; an alphabet is a system of writing that uses letters to indicate either consonants or vowels.  Japanese uses several writing systems, among them kanji (Chinese characters that are combinations of semantic, phonetic, and pictoral images drawn in a codified way) and the syllabaries hiragana and katakana.  A syllabary is a writing system that use letters to indicate syllables, often consonant-vowel combinations.  Thus, while English uses the two letters “k” and “i” to write the syllable “ki” (as in “key”), Japanese might use キ (in katakana), き (in hiragana), and any number of kanjifor the syllable depending on the context and meaning of the character; some might be 幾 (meaning “some” or “how many”), 氣 (meaning “energy” or “atmosphere”), 木 (meaning “tree”), 箕 (referring to the “winnowing basket” constellation in Chinese astrology), or any other number of kanji, all of which we would transliterate as “ki”.  So it’s not as easy as it sounds; not everything is an alphabet!

So why am I talking about writing systems and languages?  Because this is a fundamental distinction between writing systems and spoken languages, and it impacts mathesis and grammatomancy, and Greek letter mysticism and magic more generally, in an important way for many of us non-Hellenes.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the use of stoicheia is a valuable tool in mathesis and grammatomancy.  It’s like isopsephy, or Greek gematria, in a lot of ways, but instead of evaluating a word in Greek using number, we evaluate it using the forces of planets, zodiac signs, and elements.  For instance, if we wanted to use the Greek name ΜΑΡΙΑ, “Maria”, we’d say that it’s a mixture of the forces of Libra (Μ), Capricorn (Ρ), the Sun (Ι), and the Moon (Α), perhaps indicating a balance of masculine and feminine or receptive and active powers balanced through darkness turning into light.  It’s a useful tool, especially when interpreting barbarous words of power that are best or originally written in Greek, but we have a major stumbling block when we come to the use of non-Greek words and names that aren’t historically written in Greek.  After all, I only know of systems of stoicheia and isopsephy for Hebrew and Greek, and I generally distrust anything for the Roman script since it’s highly language-specific, yet most languages I work with tend to be written in Roman.  Thus, for me to get a meaning out of something normally written in Roman script or one of its descendants (English, French, Spanish, German, Swedish, etc.), I need to find a way to transliterate a non-Greek word into Greek script.

Consider my first given name, Samuel.  Samuel is a Hebrew name, originally written שְׁמוּאֵל (ShMVAL) and pronounced something more like “shmūwehl” originally.  However, in Latin, it’s written SAMVEL, and pronounced “sahmwel” as in modern Spanish.  In Greek, however, the name is written Σαμουηλ, or Samouēl and pronounced “samūīl”.  Since my name is natively a Hebrew one, I find a good argument to use Hebrew gematria and stoicheia for analyzing it, but since I also have a correspondingly clear way to write it in Greek, I can just as easily use Greek stoicheia and isopsephy for it.  However, the problem is that the meaning of the name is not preserved; in Hebrew, depending on your interpretation, the name means “God has heard” or “Name of God”, while in Greek it’s just a string of letters that’s pronounced “samūīl”.  If we were to translate the name, we’d end up with either Θεοκουσος (“Theokousos”) or Θεονοματιος (“Theonomatios”); these are straightforward translations of the name, and while we preserve the literal meaning of the name, we end up with radically different spellings, pronunciations, isopsephies, and stoicheias because the pronunciation, and thus the spelling, have changed.  So we can either go with the conventional spelling of Σαμουηλ, or we can go with the translation (properly “calque”) of Θεοκουσος, though I’m inclined towards the former, since a name is what you’re called, and the literal meaning of a word is often occluded by the importance of pronunciation (cf. all the barbarous words we use, which we don’t know the meaning of but we pronounce and intone them all the same for great effect).

Worse yet, the problem with my name is simple compared to many others, because Samuel is an old name in a well-known and well-translated/well-transliterated text in Greek from Hebrew.  Other languages, such as Chinese or Russian or parts of Africa, have no standardized way to transcribe names or words from their languages into Greek; the closest you can get is what best approximates the sound of it, unless you want to go the way of calquing things, which…honestly, if someone called me Theokūsos, I’d never respond to it as I would Samuel, so calquing is basically right out.  For many names in English, it can be easy, since Greek and English tend to share many sounds; for some languages like Chinese, this can be exceptionally difficult, since Chinese has many sounds that Greek does not, and the Greek alphabet isn’t equipped to handle the sounds or structure of Chinese spoken language.  (Worse, there’s no official means to transcribe Chinese using Greek, as there is with Hanyu Pinyin for Roman script, though there are some unofficial means to go from Hanyu Pinyin into Greek.)

Meditation on names is important; I claim that you don’t know yourself or where you’re going if you don’t know your own name, either given at birth or chosen at will.  And since I’m a big fan of using Greek to meditate on as a sacred or mystical writing system, then I like meditating on Greek letters if at all possible so as to understand what’s in a name.  It’s just that getting names into Greek, if they’re not already in Greek, can be difficult, especially for people like my Brazilian, Chinese, or Malaysian readers, especially if the language-to-be-transliterated-from doesn’t share the same sounds as Greek does, or as what the Greek alphabet is meant for.  However, there are some exceptions, and generally speaking what I do is this:

  • If the word is just a word and not normally used as a name or isn’t used as a name for a given entity, like discussing what a rose is, I’ll use the Greek word for it.  Thus, to talk about roses, I’d use the Greek word “rhodē” (ροδη).
  • If the name is natively a Greek name, like “Stephan” from Greek Στεφανος meaning “crown”, then I’ll use the Greek form of the name.
  • If the name is not natively Greek but has a corresponding form in old works like the Bible, like “Samuel” above, then I’ll use the Greek spelling of the name regardless of how the name is spelled or pronounced in the originating language.
  • If the name is not natively Greek, I’ll transliterate the name according to modern Greek rules of spelling and other conventions.  Thus, someone given the Chinese name Yuping (宇平),  I’d transliterate it as Γιουπιν, “Gioupin” pronounced “Yūpin”; the final “-ng” is typically written as “-ν”, since “ng” is a weird phoneme in Greek.
  • If the name is a common word, like a flower, I’ll typically use the phonetic spelling and not the Greek word.  Thus, if someone is named Rose in English, I’ll use the phonetic transliteration of Rhoūz (Ρoουζ) and not the corresponding Greek name Rhodē (Ροδη).

Transcribing a name or word from one spoken language (or written language!) into Greek can be difficult, since it requires a good understanding of what the letters actually sound like so as to prepare an accurate transliteration and transcription of the name or word.  However, once that’s out of the way, it’s then straightforward to understand the mystic meaning behind such a name using Greek letter mysticism via isopsephy and stoicheia.

Now, let’s say we’re comparing the names of two different people, say Stephen and Sarah.  Stephen is a native Greek name from Στεφανος, while Sarah is natively Hebrew spelled שָׂרָה (ShRH), yet we know it’d be spelled Σαρα since she’s a figure in the Old Testament.  Conversely, from Hebrew translations of the New Testament, we know that Stephen would be spelled סטיבן (STIBN) in Hebrew.  How do we go about comparing these two names?  Do we convert both names to one language, or do we mix-and-match based on the native language of each name?  When simply doing a run-of-the-mill analysis, I’d stick to the former when possible; I’d run a stoicheic and isopsephic analysis of Στεφανος in Greek, and a similar analysis of שָׂרָה in Hebrew and compare what results.  Thus, I’d reduce the name to what it mystically means on a stoicheic and numerologic level, and use that as my means of comparison:

  • The Greek name Στεφανος has the stoicheia Aquarius (Σ), Pisces (Τ), Mercury (Ε), Air (Φ), Moon (Α), Scorpio (Ν), and Mars (Ο).  It has the isopsephic value of 1326.
  • The Hebrew name שָׂרָה has the stoicheia Fire (Shin), Sun (Resh), and Aries (Heh).  It has a gematria value of 505.
  • Sarah has almost entirely fiery symbols, while Stephen is mostly air and water.
  • Although the number of Stephan is close to thrice that of Sarah, by reducing the value down by adding up the individual digits, we get 1 + 3 + 2 + 6 = 12 → 1 + 2 = 3 for Stephen and 5 + 0 + 5 = 10  → 1 + 0 = 1 for Sarah.  Alternatively, we ignore the powers of ten: for Stephen, we get Σ + Τ + Ε + Φ + Α + Ν + Ο + Σ = 200 + 300 + 5 + 500 + 1 + 50 + 70 + 200  → 2 + 3 + 5 + 5 + 1 + 5 + 7 + 2 = 30  → 3 + 0 = 3, and for Sarah, we get  5 + 200 + 300  → 5 + 2 + 3 = 1.

So, when we’re comparing two names against each other for the sake of a pure stoicheic and isopsephic analysis, I’d prefer to use the systems in place for the scripts in which a name is derived.  However, as I mentioned before, I only really trust the systems for Hebrew and Greek, and when possible, I prefer Greek; thus, if I were comparing Stephan and, say, Julius, I’d convert Julius to Greek as Ιουλιος and go from there.  And, even if I were analyzing a Hebrew name, I’d convert it to Greek anyway if I were using something like Christopher Cattan’s Wheel of Pythagoras or the onomatic astrology of Vettius Valens I mentioned last time; if there’s a Greek-specific system in place that I don’t have in place for another language, then I’ll convert any and all names into Greek for that system if I have to.

Thing is, however, that Greek (and Indo-European languages generally) tends to complicate things because of how it’s written and spoken.  There’s the whole problem of word endings: case and declension for nouns, and the voice, tense, mood, and the like with conjugation for verbs.  English, mercifully, has tended to drop those things out or simplify them dramatically from its Germanic ancestry, but Greek uses them heavily.  As a rule, when analyzing a word on its own, I tend to use the nominative case for nouns, and for verbs…well, I’m not great with Greek grammar too well just yet, and I haven’t decided how to approach that.  Still, because the ending of the words change based on how they’re used in a sentence, their letters change, and so too do their isopsephic values.  For uniformity, I just stick with the “plain jane” or “unmarked” endings.

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About polyphanes
I'm a software developer and Hermetic occultist living near Washington, DC, USA. I claim that I'm youthful, dashing, daring, and other things. I make things and chant stuff, and periodically write about them.

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