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.

49 Days of Definitions: Part V, Definition 1

This post is part of a series, “49 Days of Definitions”, discussing and explaining my thoughts and meditations on a set of aphorisms explaining crucial parts of Hermetic philosophy.  These aphorisms, collectively titled the “Definitions from Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius”, lay out the basics of Hermetic philosophy, the place of Man in the Cosmos, and all that stuff.  It’s one of the first texts I studied as a Hermetic magician, and definitely what I would consider to be a foundational text.  The Definitions consist of 49 short aphorisms broken down into ten sets, each of which is packed with knowledge both subtle and obvious, and each of which can be explained or expounded upon.  While I don’t propose to offer the be-all end-all word on these Words, these might afford some people interested in the Definitions some food for thought, one aphorism per day.

Today, let’s discuss the eighteenth definition, part V, number 1 of 3:

(Reasonable) speech is the servant of Nous.  For what Nous wants, speech in turn interprets.  Nous sees everything, and eyes all corporeal (things).  And yet Nous does not become an observer for the eyes, but the eyes for Nous.

The last set of definitions investigated the different types of living beings, and most significant among them is Man.  Man has a body, so Man is a living being.  Further, Man has soul and spirit, enabling Man to grow and move of its own accord.  Because it increases and decreases according to the element of earth within its body, Man can die, so it is mortal and not immortal.  We know that living beings with body, soul, and spirit also have voice, but Man has this in addition to Nous.  This distinction from IV.1 is important, and the clarification between living beings with voice with Nous and living beings with voice without Nous now becomes apparent.

For one, “reasonable speech is the servant of Nous”.  Thus, Nous as God or Nous as possessed by Man enables any living being or entity or non-entity to be reasonable; Man is, after all, a reasonable entity (I.1, IV.1).  Now we find that speech, which is made possible by voice that animals and Man possess, serves Nous, and above all reasonable speech.  This is made a little more clear in the Greek word logos, meaning many things, but among them speech, reason, discourse, order, logic, science, knowing, and many other things.  The concept of logos is pretty complex and has been used in many traditions and philosophies, but suffice to say that here it refers to the power of languge and utterance.

However, not all utterance is reasonable.  Animals, for instance, utter many different kinds of sounds and patterns of sounds in a way that modern biologists and zoologists would classify as language, but this is a pretty far cry from how humans communicate using their utterances.  We can get by using grunts and cries, it’s true, but that’s still a marked change from the language used to describe, say, Hermetic philosophy.  It’s by this sort of high-minded “reasonable” speech that Man makes use of when he uses Nous, since reasonable speech serves Nous and not Man.  This also implies that all reasonable speech, used everywhere and by any human, also serves Nous; after all, Nous is with each member and entity belong to Man, which connects all of us to the Nous itself that is God.

Continuing the definition, this makes sense: “what Nous wants, speech in turn interprets”.  Thus, whatever Nous desires to happen, this is made clear and reasonable (and, thus, intelligible in a way unique to humanity) by the power of reasonable speech, by the power of logos.  The idea of reasonable speech, or what we might call the Word, is what enables Nous to act.  Consider the first words of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”.  Word and Mind go together very tightly.  The relationship between Nous and Logos was clarified by Hermes in the Corpus Hermeticum (chapter 9, part 1):

Now sense and thought do seem to differ, in that the former has to do with matter, the latter has to do with substance. But unto me both seem to be at-one and not to differ—in men I mean. In other lives sense is at-oned with nature, but in men thought.

Now mind doth differ just as much from thought as God doth from divinity. For that divinity by God doth come to be, and by mind thought, the sister of the word (logos) and instruments of one another. For neither doth the word (logos) find utterance without thought, nor is thought manifested without word.

When “speech in turn interprets” what Nous desires, this allows Nous to make its intelligibility known to those who can reason.  Man reasons due to the presence of Nous within Man.  Thus, Nous can communicate with Man through Logos, and vice versa.  However, this is often done by means of Logos itself, since Nous contacting Nous doesn’t really work, since Nous is Nous.  Reasonable speech is what bridges the gap between intelligibility and sensibility; it’s what allows things from outside heaven without body to communicate and interact with things inside heaven with body.  All things are part of God, but it’s impossible to sense what is not sensible.  Speech allows such a thing to happen; speech is an important intrinsic mechanic that allows the different parts of God to work in harmony with each other.  Voice is a sensible thing; reason is an intelligible thing.  Combining both to obtain reasonable speech allows both to interact, and allows the intelligible to become sensible.

The next part of the definition essentially makes a comparison to drive this point home using sight and observation.  Consider that “Nous sees everything”; after all, “God is Nous” (I.4), “nothing is uninhabited by God” (III.1), and “every move of soul is perceived by Nous” (II.2).  Thus, all things both in heaven and out of heaven are seen by Nous, or God.  However, the eyes that living beings have can only see that which is “corporeal”, i.e. sensible since sensible things possess bodies of some sort.  The set of observable things is greater than and includes the set of visible things; for instance, Nous can perceive soul, which is invisible (I.3), but living beings cannot see soul.  This is made extra powerful by the fact that light is what reveals visible things (II.6), and the eyes react to light in order to witness or observe a visible thing; however, being visible requires something to be sensible, and that which is only intelligible cannot be seen, i.e. the bodiless and intelligible God.  Thus, in this sense, Nooic observation is to corporeal sight what reasonable speech is to utterance: that which involves Nous is broader and more transcendent, and that which serves to aid Nous.

However, the definition clarifies that “Nous does not become an observer for the eyes, but the eyes for Nous”.  What this means is that Nous does not exist to observe for the sake of the eyes; Nous and observation are not the result of seeing.  Intead, seeing is a means by which the Nous observes.  The eyes serve the Nous; the Nous does not serve the eyes.  In another sense, this also means that the eyes cannot see the Nous or by means of the Nous, but the Nous can see both eyes and by the means of the eyes.  Hermes said as much in the Corpus Hermeticum (chapter 7, part 2):

No ear can hear Him, nor can eye see Him, nor tongue speak of Him, but [only] mind and heart.

What this means for speech is that Nous uses speech to further the aims and desires of the Nous; Nous can use logos itself, the concept behind speech, as well speak as any word.  However, those who speak cannot do the same to Nous: those who speak cannot speak Nous for their own benefit, nor can they directly speak of the Nous, nor can they speak pure logos itself, though it manifests in reasonable speech.  Reasonable speech comes about as a result of Nous, but Nous does not come about as a result of reasonable speech, just as observation of the intelligible does not come around from sight of the visible alone.  Consider what Hermes taught Asclepius regarding his own words in the Corpus (chapter 9, part 10):

My word (logos) doth go before [thee] to the truth. But mighty is the mind, and when it hath been led by word up to a certain point, it hath the power to come before [thee] to the truth.  And having thought o’er all these things, and found them consonant with those which have already been translated by the reason, it hath [e’en now] believed, and found its rest in that Fair Faith.  To those, then, who by God[’s good aid] do understand the things that have been said [by us] above, they’re credible; but unto those who understand them not, incredible.

There, Hermes has used his reasonable speech of logos to serve the Nous in bringing Asclepius forward to it.  However, the mind (Nous) is more powerful than words, and words serve the mind only up until a certain point, when the mind is able to act and work directly instead of by servants or media such as words.  The Nous works in the world by means of Logos, just as a wealthy landowner uses his servants to work outside or even within his land; however, only when the servants bring something to his attention and presence directly does the landowner work directly.  This requires the servants to work for the landowner, and not vice versa; the landowner speaks, and things are done.  Thus, the Nous employs Logos, and things are accomplished.  Hermes was indeed employed by the Nous, through the guide of Poemander, to spread the word to guide others to Nous (chapter 1, part 27):

Why shouldst thou then delay? Must it not be, since thou hast all received, that thou shouldst to the worthy point the way, in order that through thee the race of mortal kind may by [thy] God be saved?

The comparison with sight and eyes in this definition brings up another interesting thought to my mind here.  With sight, we have two components: the act of seeing (sight) and the faculty of seeing (the eye).  The two are very tightly coupled; the eye sees, because that’s what the eye does.  In a sense, the eye is embodied sight.  Similarly, there’s Nous and Logos, the Mind and Word; the Mind makes Word because that’s what the Mind does.  Thus, the Mind is a kind of divine Word, since it is what it does.  This brings to mind the phrase “I am what I am” from Exodus, the reply of God given to Moses when asked for the divine name: “EHYEH ASHER EHYEH” (aleph-heh-yod-heh aleph-shin-resh aleph-heh-yod-heh).  However, if we change the “Y” in the second “EHYEH” from a yod to a vav, we get “EHYEH ASHER EHWEH”.  As it turns out, there’s a grammatical relationship between “EHWEH” (aleph-heh-vav-heh) and “YAHWEH” (yod-heh-vav-heh), the Tetragrammaton, the ineffable name of God in the Torah; this holy name has a meaning something similar to “I make to be” or “I create”.  Thus, the hypothetical name “EHYEH ASHER EHWEH” can be interpreted as “I am what I do” (using the obscure Hebraic root heh-vav-heh).  Thus, the One who is what it is is also what it does; this is both faculty and act at once.  The Mind spoke the Word in the beginning to create, and since the faculty and the act are one because God is what God does, the Mind is the Word.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”