Many students of the biblical languages are shocked to find that the names of biblical characters with which they are most familiar are not the characters' names at all. English readers of the Bible, in particular, are surprised to find that names they have cherished and after which they have named their children have been translated through a number of languages, including Latin, German, and occasionally Arabic, sometimes randomly, and are frequently only slightly recognizable.
Here are a few examples. The prophet Isaiah is originally "Yeshayahu" in Hebrew, "Isaiae" in Latin, and "Jesaja" in German. The prophet Jeremiah is originally "Yirmeyahu" in Hebrew, "Hieremiae" in Latin, and "Jeremias" in German. Note that the English "Isaiah" is derived from Latin, while the English "Jeremiah" is derived from German, yet both begin with a "Y" [sound] in Hebrew. The English "Solomon" is more closely related to the Arabic "Suleiman" than to the Hebrew "Shlomo." When biblical translators translate [by transliteration] the names of biblical characters into their own languages, they are subjugating and colonizing the scriptures, their language, and their culture. The translator substitutes his [or less frequently her] language and culture and re-creates the identity of the biblical characters in his [or her] own image. In the African Diaspora, the work of biblical translation has largely been done by white men who not only translate the text in their own image but also then impose their Anglo-Germanic name-calling on subject African peoples.
The original Hebrew idiom of the text is regularly suppressed in gentilic translations of the scriptures of Israel and in their Christian trajectory. It has long been the anti-Semitic and anti-Judaistic practice of translators to Europeanize the names of New Testament characters, eradicating the Semitic forms preserved in the Greek and Aramaic texts of the New Testament. This is particularly striking when the names of those characters are preserved in Semitic form in the Hebrew scriptures. For example, the Hebrew "Yaakov" and the Greek "Iakob" are translated "Jacob" in the Torah and "James" in the Epistles[;] in the same way "Miryam" becomes "Mary." Nor are place names immune to anti-Semitic and anti-Judaistic linguistic colonization. For example, "K'far Nachum," the "Town of Nahum," is nearly unrecognizable as "Capernaum." What's in a name? Liberation or oppression. Responsible exegesis of the scriptures of Israel requires respect for and fidelity toward the Semitic languages, peoples, and cultures of the scriptures of Israel. This means putting an end to the mediation of the scriptures through gentilic languages, especially German, in this post-Holocaust world.
above, the section in the chapter "Reading the Hebrew Bible Responsibly," by Wil Gafney, in The Africana Bible: Reading Israel's Scriptures from Africa and the African Diaspora.
HT David Ker