Hanukkah vs. Chanukah: The Transliteration Challenge Is Real

By: Cheryl

By: Cheryl Lu, Social Media Coordinator

Every year, as the holiday season approaches, so arises the question of whether people should use the word Hanukkah or Chanukah. The genuine curiosity and confusion, as reflected in the number of searches on the internet, demanded an answer to the questions of which one of the two names is appropriate to use, and why there are two different names for the same observance being used at the same time.

The answer to the first question is both are correct, though there is a tendency to use the first spelling more in the English-speaking world. If we run a quick search on the website of CBC, Canada’s most authoritative news platform, you’ll find both names have been used consistently throughout the past few years. Although the frequency of “Hanukkah” is over 10 times more than that of “Chanukah.” For instance, on Google, “Hanukkah” generates about 17,200 results in English-language news, whereas “Chanukah” generates 1,310. According to the media coverage, “Hanukkah” seems to be the more popular option of the two.

The transliteration challenge

The confusion of the two spellings, however, comes from transliteration. Transliteration is the process of converting words from one language to another, with the intention of preserving their pronunciation in the original language as much as possible. In transliteration, it’s the sounds that are being captured, rather than spelling or definition. When it comes to converting proper nouns such as festivals, people’s names or brands, transliteration is often adopted. This creates a challenge for language professionals, since more often than not, the vowels and consonants in different languages don’t perfectly match each other. Take the unique English sound “th (/θ/ in International Phonetic Alphabet)” as an example: in other languages, it’s often transliterated to /t/, /d/ or even /s/, because the sound of “th” doesn’t exist in those languages and have to be replaced by the closest sound to it in the target language.

Things get even muddier when the two different languages don’t use the same alphabet. Hanukkah, as a Jewish observance, was historically recorded in Hebrew. To make transliteration possible, each sound in Hebrew would have to be matched with an English sound, as well as a set of letters in the Latin alphabet. Because “ח /χ/,” a guttural sound in Hebrew, doesn’t have an exact equivalence in English, the first batch of Hebrew-English translators in history took the liberty to make their own rules. Some transliterated it to “ch,” the spelling of the exact same sound in some other European languages, in hopes that readers would manage to draw the connection between the spelling and pronunciation. Some choose to abandoned it to restore the guttural sound and swapped it to “h,” the spelling of the sound’s closest relative in English. (Interestingly, when it comes to Middle and Far East languages, the very same sound is often transliterated to “kh.”)

Examples

While most proper nouns in today’s world have their own standard transliteration (thanks to globalization and the internet), there are still many words facing this type of confusion caused by a historical lack of regulation on how words should be transliterated. Here are some other examples:

  • दिवाली: Diwali / Divali / Deepawali / Dipawali
  • عيد الفطر: Eid al-Fitr/ Eid-ul-Fitr
  • 太极: Taiji / Tai Chi
  • عُثمَانُ: Othman / Osman / Uthman

Transliteration today

Transliteration of proper nouns plays an important role in the language industry because it’s often directly associated with one’s image and identity. Using transliteration over translation for cultural terms can help to prevent pulling words out of their cultural context and to avoid cultural appropriation (think of the word kimono, which translates as “things to wear”). Transliteration, translation and localization for brand names, when combined well, have created legendary successes in international advertising. Consistent transliteration can save newcomers, immigrants, and refugees from not just cultural or literary misunderstandings, but also major legal difficulties. In today’s language industry, professional translators are obligated to follow their guidelines, principles and standards of transliteration; to ensure services are being provided at their highest quality and accuracy of all times in history. From details that might be as small as a name, we are witnessing the industry’s evolutionary change.

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