Spelling Tsuris: Transliteration

Prayers with transliteration (Koren Siddur)
Prayers with transliteration (Koren Siddur)

OK, I couldn’t resist the title. Tsuris (TSOO-ris) is Yiddish for “trouble.” And it is a lot of trouble to make Hebrew or Yiddish available for non-Hebrew readers, because Hebrew has a funny alphabet (actually, aleph-bet) and runs right to left, backwards for English readers.

Solution: We transliterate the words, that is, put them into a familiar alphabet, running in the “right” direction.

For instance, consider these words:

יום כיפור

If you don’t read Hebrew, it’s squiggles. Not helpful.

If I transliterate:

Yom Kippur

Now, that is still a problem, because many Americans will pronounce that “Yahm KIP-per” which isn’t quite right. But that’s the accepted transliteration, so it’s what you will see in print and online.

That’s why I sometimes go a further step and give a sorta-kinda American pronunciation guide, avoiding specialized symbols:

Yohm Kee-POOR

Sometimes I get questions about spelling: Chanuka? Hanukkah? For that, all I can say is, pick your poison. There’s no “correct” spelling unless you are writing for a publication with a stylebook. Basically, they’re ALL wrong. If I were going to try to approximate the correct Hebrew spelling (חנוכה) I’d probably go for something like Khanookkah. If I were trying to tell you how to pronounce it, I’d write CHAH-noo-kah. Neither is a spelling that anyone is likely to recognize as “the holiday that falls on 15 Kislev, in the darkest part of winter.”

If you really want to know how to say Hebrew words, take a little Hebrew. You don’t have to study for years and years to learn how to pronounce words.

That said, for those of us who learned to read English phonetically, transliterations can be a big help in learning prayers, especially if we begin late in life. There’s no shame in using a transliteration if you need it. Just know that (1) it is an approximation and (2) spelling is anyone’s guess.



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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at https://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ and teaches at Hamaqom | The Place in Berkeley, CA.

3 thoughts on “Spelling Tsuris: Transliteration”

  1. “Yahm KIP-per” is closer to the Yiddish-inflected pronunciation of some Orthodox communities in my experience, though, which muddies the waters even further, shifting accents etc.


  2. Living in Israel, it was cool when street signs were multi-lingual (Hebrew, Arabic, English), but I was always amused by how randomly street signs were transliterated. There would be signs only feet apart, and basic stuff like how to spell *that town’s name* would vary wildly. It was like they just let the dude typesetting make up his own version (“close enough!”) instead of agreeing on one way and sticking with it.


    1. Yes! Transliterations of English into Hebrew have always been the hardest things for me to read!

      One of my first Hebrew teachers brought in a collection of ads from Israeli newspapers, and had us sound out the words. That was really, really difficult!

      When did you live in Israel? For how long?


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