Hebrew Fail in ‘Left Behind II’

Here’s a screen-grab from Left Behind II: Tribulation Force that needs to be highlighted on its own:

What we have here is a failure to translate. Or even to transliterate.

As Jeff W. and Makabit noted in comments to the previous Left Behind post, the filmmakers didn’t translate the English into Hebrew for this sign, they roughly tried to reproduce the English in the Hebrew alphabet. Backwards.

I have to think this is related to the movie’s portrayal of Tsion Ben-Judah and its generally weird and offensive conception of Judaism overall.

In the previous post, I described the filmmakers’ notion of Judaism as “Pelagian” — based on a misreading of Saul that, in turn, produces a misreading of Paul. There I’m following prolific theologian N.T. Wright in What Saint Paul Really Said.

Here’s Wright:

The picture I have drawn is a very different picture of the pre-Christian Saul that I grew up with. I was taught, and assumed for many years, that Saul of Tarsus believed what many of my contemporaries believed: that the point of life was to go to heaven when you die, and that the way to go to heaven after death was to adhere strictly to an overarching moral code. Saul, I used to believe, was a proto-Pelagian, who thought he could pull himself up by his moral bootstraps. What mattered for him was understanding, believing and operating a system of salvation that could be described as “moralism” or “legalism”: a timeless system into which one plugged onself in order to receive the promised benefits, especially “salvation” and “eternal life,” understood as the post-mortem bliss of heaven.

I now believe that this is both radically anachronistic (the view was not invented in Saul’s day) and culturally out of line (it is not the Jewish way of thinking). To this extent, I am convinced, Ed Sanders is right: we have misjudged early Judaism, especially Pharisaism, if we have thought of it as an early version of Pelagianism.

That may seem a bit esoteric or academic, until you realize that, in his characteristically polite and affable way, Wright is pointing out that Sanders and other recent scholars of first-century Judaism have done to Luther and Calvin what Copernicus did to Ptolemy. Mistakes were made.

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  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    I don’t fully understand the significance of the blockquoted text. Could someone who knows how to translate religious scholar speak tell me what this means?

  • Anonymous

     It means that the popular view of pre-Christian Jews at the time of Christ is wrong. Be nice if we got more of what an accurate picture is, though.

  • Anonymous

     To be fair, the popular view of what first century Christians were like is drastically wrong as well.

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    The popular view of just about every group in history is wrong. 

  • Anonymous

    You know, I watched the clip yesterday, and that sign caught my eye. I wondered what the odds were that it was correct Hebrew. The reality is kind of amazing.

  • Anonymous

    Invisible-

    Others can probably do a better job, but since Saturday afternoons are quiet around here, I’ll try. Basically, Christians (particularly Protestants, I gather) have, for centuries, characterized/caricatured Jews at the time of Christ as believing in a sort of “salvation by works” whereby, if they follow all the rules set forth by Moses, they can go to heaven. And it turns out to be completely untrue – nobody thought that way, especially not Saul/Paul. But this mistaken interpretation has underpinned lots of Christian/Protestant theology, because they were treating the writings of Paul as being in opposition to a set of beliefs that nobody actually believed.

    If I’m understanding correctly, it’s a bit like having only Lincoln’s side of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and assuming that Douglas was arguing in favor of, I dunno, Marxism. You’d misunderstand Lincoln, because you think he’s responding to something other than what he actually was.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Ah. :)

    Yeah, I was doing some research and LaHaye is one of those salvation by grace type people but I always assumed the “faith/salvation by ______ (works/grace)” debate was an internally Christian doctrinal conflict – in particular used to trash Catholics who do penance prayers etc upon direction by a priest.

    I never knew it was also used as a way to say “Hey, Jewish people are wrong TOO so there”. (o.O)

  • Evan Hunt

    What fascinates me about that sign is that someone put an effort into it.  There’s no perfect one-to-one mapping between roman and hebrew letters, so they had to get creative.  The lack of a hebrew equivalent of W, for example, is addressed by using the letter shin, which looks vaguely W-ish.  But that means they can’t use the shin for “SHOT”, so they map S and H to samech and he, and so on.  The project took time and thought on someone’s part.

    So it can’t be just that the producers are cheap.  I’m sure they paid more on the salary of the art director who pieced this together from a hebrew alphabet than they would’ve paid for the eight seconds of a translator’s time the job would have taken if they’d simply asked.

    I’m afraid I have to speculate that they chose to do it the hard way as an intentional insult to anybody educated enough to notice. 

  • http://redwoodr.tumblr.com Redwood Rhiadra

    Actually, I think what happened is that someone just loaded one of those pre-Unicode “Hebrew fonts” that maps Hebrew letters to English ones, and just retyped the English message. If I remember correctly, Windows came with a font like this way back in the days of Windows 3.1. It still comes with the “Symbol” font, which has Greek letters mapped to the English ones.

  • Anonymous

    I think that if they had done it mechanically, the machine would have used a vav for ‘w’ instead of a shin.

  • http://www.facebook.com/xiphias Ian Osmond

    No — I’m pretty sure what happened here was someone downloaded a Hebrew font, and just took “Do Not Cross — Violators Will Be Shot” and dropped it into the font.  Could as well have been Wingdings.

    In a bunch of Hebrew fonts, they need to find another letter for shin, since English doesn’t have a single-letter “sh” sound, so some of them use “w”, because, why not?  So I bet there was ABSOLUTELY NO effort done here, no art director, no translator — rather, just downloading a free font, highlighting the word, and changing the font.

  • Tricksterson

    I susoect rather that They Just Didn’t Care.

  • MaryKaye

    I don’t think this had to be a lot of work.  When I was a kid, my dictionary had a table of alphabetic equivalents in the back, and I used to produce signs like this–it was fun, and I had no one around me who knew any better. I think someone could have opened his dictionary to a similar table and dashed this off in a couple of minutes.  After all, who would notice?  (People of this kidney tend to vastly underestimate how many people know a foreign language.)

  • P J Evans

     It’s really obvious when you look at it, too. Even without knowing Hebrew, the word lengths and the double letters say ‘English in a different alphabet’ to me.

  • Anonymous

    I put the shot up on my Facebook page, and challenged my Hebrew-reading friends to identify what was wrong with it.

    My husband, who does not know alef from bet solved it in under a minute, looking at the matching word lengths, double letters, and repeated letters.

  • ako

    Ooh, I loved those pages in the dictionaries!  And when I was eight, I thought all foreign writing worked on “This symbol is precisely equivalent to a letter in English” rules, and it was, for instance, possible to write your name in hieroglyphics much the way you’d write it in, say, Wingdings. 

  • Abigail

    That sign is hilarious, not least because both the font and the choice of transliterated letters (in particular AYIN instead of ALEPH in “shall”) make it fairly clear that whoever did the job was more familiar with Yiddish than Hebrew.  Which, if you’re aware of modern Israeli society’s ambivalent attitude towards diaspora Judaism in general and Yiddish culture in particular, just adds a whole new level of hilarious not-getting-it to the exercise.

  • Dawn

    I doubt they’re famliar with Yiddish at all, either. Ayin and Aleph are both likely to get cited as a reasonable approximation to an A for someone who knows nothing at all.

    ….but the sign is definitely hilarious.

  • Nev

    That was totally what occurred to me, too (as someone who knows some Yiddish but no Hebrew). I don’t believe they were familiar with it (in fact, they probably don’t even know Yiddish is written with the Hebrew alphabet)—it looks more like Yiddish because Yiddish, unlike Hebrew, gives vowels characters of their own rather than diacritical marks.

    If they knew any Yiddish they wouldn’t put that double samekh in there, what were they THINKING.

  • Dawn

    Ohhh, that makes sense. Interesting.

    But you’d get the same effect by just treating Hebrew as a sort of English font, sticking one of the letters that -sometimes- serve to indicate a vowel sound (aleph, ayin, vav, yod) wherever you need a vowel

  • Anonymous

     After reading your post, I took another look at the sign and yeah, it’s there, and it is pretty amusing.  For those not in the know, `ayin represents a voiced pharyngeal, a sound that doesn’t exist in English (or most languages, for that matter).

  • Anonymous

     After reading your post, I took another look at the sign and yeah, it’s there, and it is pretty amusing.  For those not in the know, `ayin represents a voiced pharyngeal, a sound that doesn’t exist in English (or most languages, for that matter).

  • Anonymous

    When I was a younger evangelical, I first read Cur Deus homo and figured that it was basically just a recap of Romans.  It wasn’t until much later that I realized that the reason I thought that this was so is that what I had been taught was the plain sense of Romans was actually a combination of Spurgeon, Calvin, Luther, Anselm, and Augustine.  It’s a shocking sort of realization.  In a way, it’s like actually reading Isaiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation and realizing that they in no way say what “prophecy experts” say they do.  Or flipping around through the Bible and trying to find the part that it turns out is actually in Paradise Lost.

  • Münchner Kindl

    I didn’t notice the mapping, but I did wonder when I saw the sign in the movie, whether the director did the cheapest and easiest way of just googling the signs used in Israel in real life to read “No trespassing” – surely there are going to be some images on the web.

    And since the sign is generic enough – it doesn’t mention the UN, Carpathia or GNN – just grabbing the next dual-language sign from google would’ve been cheaper and more accurate.

    Since this movie was made in the age of internet – so no going down to the library – and made partially with normal, non-RTC people, this active not-doing-real-research is weird on a new level.

    Fred commented in the previous post on how the Western Wall doesn’t look at all like the real thing when you can easily find pics on Wikipedia, but that I could excuse with wanting to re-use the set from the first movie (they showed this there, didn’t they? I’m getting confused with the few almost-action scenes and the stupor-inducing non-action scenes in the books on when what happened).

    Transliterating a sign instead of taking a real sign is a different dimension though. Did nobody on the production team ever watch foreign news about Isreal and notice how the police have dual-language signs saying police in English and Hebrew, and the ambulances and everything else important? Have they never heard of Google?

  • http://timothy.green.name/ Timothy (TRiG)

    Actually, I think what happened is that someone just loaded one of those pre-Unicode “Hebrew fonts” that maps Hebrew letters to English ones, and just retyped the English message.

    That sounds the most likely explanation to me.

    TRiG.

  • friendly reader

    To read Luther’s experience back into Paul is to conveniently forget that was Luther was reacting against was a trend within Christianity to give you a list of things to do (sins to avoid, confessions to make) in order to get into heaven. Reading Romans, as much as Paul’s situation was different, let him get out of a specific style of Christian legalism.

    And then the Protestant tradition then quickly created its own versions (intellectual assent to doctrine, having the right conversion experience, etc.) to take the place of the early-16th century one.

  • friendly reader

    Oh, and I read the Hebrew on that sign to mean, “We tried to get someone
    Jewish to translate for us, but they all looked at the script and told
    us to go **** ourselves.”

  • http://twitter.com/shay_guy Shay Guy

    The only possible explanation for this is that they didn’t expect the movie to be seen by anyone with even a working knowledge of Hebrew.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sue-White/1605859612 Sue White

    Oh my god – now that I look at it, that sign really is ridiculous. I don’t know anything about Hebrew, but I do a lot of cryptogram and the letter pattern is so obvious.

    I just bet they assumed that no one would really look at the sign.  And that no one with any knowledge of Hebrew was ever going to watch the movie at all.

  • ako

    I totally didn’t notice it until you mentioned it (because I didn’t really look at the sign), but now that you said that, I can’t unsee it. 

  • Tricksterson

    Or maybe they did ask a Jew, he (because of course they wouldn’t ask a woman) looked at the script and decided to mess with them.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sue-White/1605859612 Sue White

    He should have had it spell out something rude in that case. :-D

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Kinda reminds me of the possible urban legend that the movie “Hackers” is as bad as it is because the dude they consulted decided to mess with the scriptwriters to see how much BS he could sling past them.

    As it turned out, quite a lot. The classic is the “Hey check it out guys it’s gotta 28.8 bps modem!” in 1995. When 2400, 9600 and 14.4k bps modems were in wide use. :P

    Wouldn’t be surprised if any “consultants” retained by Cloud Ten were less than 100% accurate in their assistance.

  • Ian needs a nickname

    It means that the popular view of pre-Christian Jews at the time of Christ is wrong. Be nice if we got more of what an accurate picture is, though.
    In the first century AD, Judea was possibly the most religiously intense place in human history, a simmering stew of religious beliefs with dozens of sects popping into and out of existence.  The Jerusalem Talmud tells us that there were twenty four sects, but that seems like either a figure of speech or an underestimate.  We know that we’ve only dug up a fraction of the outlandish religious texts floating around out there.  Who were they?  Out in the desert were the Essenes, living in isolated, vaguely cultlike religious communities.  In the shadows you’d find the Zealots, the Sicarii and the People’s Liberation Front of Judea.  They were basically the Taliban — “death to the occupiers, down with foreign ways!”  Other sects were highly tolerant of gentile adherents and comfortable operating in the diaspora; the Christians weren’t the only ones sending missionaries out to synagogues around the Mediterranean.  At the center of it all was Herod’s monstrous temple, the world’s largest slaughterhouse, providing an endless supply of blood for the blood god.  It was the center of the religious world, the thing that tied them all together.  Unsurprisingly there were several more sects fighting for control of it.  One odd one I remember: the Knockers, who apparently wanted to stun sacrificial animals before killing them.  Twenty four sects, all fast-evolving.

    That all ended with the Roman Holocaust (70 AD).  I don’t use the word lightly.  The Romans killed over a million people in Jerusalem alone, not to mention how many they killed in the rest of Judea, not to mention how many more were killed in pogroms around the Roman world.  Jerusalem burned and the temple with it.  No temple, no sacrifice, no worship.  Belief in Yahweh could have been as dead as belief in Marduk.

    Only four varieties of Yahweh worship survived the apocalypse.  The militant Zionists tried to retake the holy land in the second century (the Bar Kokhba revolt) and got smacked down by the Romans so hard that Zionism wasn’t heard of again for almost two millenia.  The followers of John the Baptist are still around (the Mandaeans) but they haven’t made much of an impact outside their own small community.  Modern Christianity and modern Judaism thrived because they were pre-adapted to a world without a temple.   The schools of Hillel and Shammai had already moved quite a lot of religious life into the context of home and family, and their successors became able to cope with the loss of the temple by keeping the temple alive in memory (starting with the Mishnah).  Christians had it even easier, being able to say that after Christ’s death no further sacrifice was required. 

  • Hawker40

    “That all ended with the Roman Holocaust (70 AD).  I don’t use the word lightly.  The Romans killed over a million people in Jerusalem alone,”

    I’m sorry, but no.  The population of Judea was about 400,000 by Roman census.  They didn’t kill everyone in Jerusalem (although they did kill a lot, by sword, execution, starvation, dehydration, slave labor…).

    The rest of your statement is spot on.

  • http://www.oliviareviews.com/ PepperjackCandy

    Can I engage in a little Hebrew fail of my own?

    I’ve always wondered if there is an explanation why the names of the letters in the Greek and Hebrew alphabets sound so similar, at least, they always have to me:

    aleph – alpha
    bet – beta
    dalet – delta
    lamed – lambda
    etc.

  • Anonymous

     This is because the Greeks got their alphabet from the Phoenicians, whose alphabet, along from Hebrew, evolved from the Proto-Sinaitic script.

  • Anonymous

     This is because the Greeks got their alphabet from the Phoenicians, whose alphabet, along from Hebrew, evolved from the Proto-Sinaitic script.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    It is a little surprising considering that Greek is Indo-European and Hebrew is Semitic, but there’s been more than a little interchange over the centuries, so it seems to me that after some time the alphabet naming would have begun converging.

    EDIT: Ninjad by Turcano XD

  • Anonymous

    Not that surprising. During the period that they adopted their alphabet, the Greeks were taking so much cultural stuff from the Phoenicians and other middle eastern peoples that it’s sometimes described by archaeologists as the”orientalising period” of Greek history. The Greeks of that age had lost their bronze age script (mostly, except in Cyprus), and were basically in awe of the superior civilisations to the east. It’s reflected in the mythology too, where a lot of heroes are describes as coming from Asia.

  • Ken

    As others have said, both Hebrew and Greek (and all their descendants including Latin, Cyrillic, Aramaic (which is the modern Hebrew alphabet as used in that sign), Arabic, Hindi, etc.) derived from the Phoenician script which traces back to Proto-Sinaitic.

    That alphabet set the original sequence of letter-names, glyphs, and sound-values.  The sound value was the first sound of the name, and the glyph was originally a picture; thus ‘aleph for the glottal stop /’/ was an ox-head, beth for the bilabial plosive /b/ a house, and so on.  Hebrew took it over wholesale since it’s a closely related language.

    When the Greeks borrowed it, they kept the glyphs in order and largely kept the names and sound values even though the names were meaningless. They changed a few unneeded sounds to vowels (essential in Greek and Indo-European more generally, not so necessary in Phoenician and Semitic more generally) and added some letters to the end for other sounds they needed*. The Romans followed the order but dumped the meaningless names for the A, BEE, CEE that we use in English and again added some new letters, and slightly rearranged the order.

    Throughout this process the glyphs were changing shape, but it’s possible to make a kind of family tree of the developments. It’s also possible once you know the original shapes to spot them in some of their descendants – the three strokes of ‘aleph/alpha/A, the wavy line of mem/mu/M, the cross of taw/tau/T.

    * The Greeks also seem to have swapped the names for sibilants.  For example the sixth Greek glyph still had the sound /z/ and the glyph-form was from the sixth Phoenician glyph, but its name “zeta” was from the nineteenth glyph “tsade”. Conversely the Greek “san” (later dropped) was the tsade glyph but the “zayin” name.  The names samek and shin were also swapped to become xi and sigma.

    And, repeat after me, “tl;dr”. Sorry, but I rather like this history.

  • http://www.oliviareviews.com/ PepperjackCandy

    Can I engage in a little Hebrew fail of my own?

    I’ve always wondered if there is an explanation why the names of the letters in the Greek and Hebrew alphabets sound so similar, at least, they always have to me:

    aleph – alpha
    bet – beta
    dalet – delta
    lamed – lambda
    etc.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Patrick-Ingram/100001718160306 Patrick Ingram

    This is weird. This is not exactly obscure knowledge only a few ivory tower intellectuals would have access to. Translating Hebrew – or remembering that Hebrew is written right-to-left – should have been difficult to accomplish. Every bookstore I went to has at least one Hebrew-English dictionary. They didn’t even Babelfish it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Patrick-Ingram/100001718160306 Patrick Ingram

    This is weird. This is not exactly obscure knowledge only a few ivory tower intellectuals would have access to. Translating Hebrew – or remembering that Hebrew is written right-to-left – should have been difficult to accomplish. Every bookstore I went to has at least one Hebrew-English dictionary. They didn’t even Babelfish it.

  • Ouri Maler

    This sign is like something out of Lovecraft. I feel like I’m losing my mind when I’m looking at it.

  • SilverSurfer1221

    This would be easy to do (making the sign as poorly as they did it). There are Hebrew fonts that are already mapped to the English equivalents on a keyboard (instead of being mapped to the Hebrew keyboard, which is different). So all they would have had to do was … type the phrase in English, but use the Hebrew font.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Eric-Oppen/594893122 Eric Oppen

    Considering that many pastors are trained in Hebrew (and Greek), why couldn’t they find a Hebrew-speaking Christian to do this sign up for them? 

  • arc

    I feel this is a little unfair to Ptolemy.  His was the ultimate in a long line of attempts to calculate the positions of the planets, and he did very well – and, so long as you’re one of those types that gives 9 marks for working and 1 mark for getting the answer in the back of the book, rather than 10 for getting the right answer, then Ptolemy’s model is about as good as Copernicus’s – they both predict the motions of the planets about as well as each other, they’re both about as complex as each other, and they both make arbitrary assumptions.

    (Actually, even if you’re not interested in the working, they both get the same for describing the motion of the planets, which is to say 0, because they both get the motions of the planets completely wrong)

    Moreover, it’s not like Ptolemy had a means at his disposal for confirming his theory beyond looking at the sky and seeing whether the planets ended up where he said they would.

    Whereas Calvin and Luther could have gone and asked a Jew if they were really interested in what their actual view on salvation was, rather than his dreamed-up notion of what it must be.

    (Understanding the cultural context of a 1st century Jew would be more difficult and probably way out of their Weltanschauung (or box, if you prefer) to consider…)

  • http://jamoche.dreamwidth.org/ Jamoche

    The props department probably had maybe one line describing the sign and threw something together, figuring nobody would pay attention and they didn’t have the time or budget to bother with it.

  • Ian needs a nickname

    “28.8 bps” 
    Wow.  That’s slower than I can talk.  (ASCII characters are 7 bits and I can say multiple words per second)

  • Base Delta Zero

    “28.8 bps”
    Wow. That’s slower than I can talk. (ASCII characters are 7 bits and I can say multiple words per second)Are we sure this was a deliberate error, and someone didn’t just accidentally forget the k?

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Even if it was an accident, it’s become one of the more hilarious fuck-ups in that movie. :P Of course, the increasing unrealism of the movie doesn’t help either. I’ve read the novelization, and they got basic facts wrong like how to spell the abbreviation for “megahertz” (so the movie script it was drawn on is equally error-laden).


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