I'm writing a middle-grade novel in English. I have time-traveling kids from 1995 America who go to Ancient Egypt to join the Exodus. None of the kids speak anything but English (aside from a few words). The people they visit mostly speak Canaanite, an ancient form of Hebrew. (There are other languages there but let's put that aside.)

My big it's a fantasy book for kids for crying out loud handwave is that there is a magical invisible Universal Translator (think Doctor Who, but without any tech). To the kids, everyone's speaking English (though they know this isn't the case). To the locals, the kids speak and understand them just fine (though they might not know all the vocabulary). In reality, everyone's speaking the local language(s), languages the kids retain when they go home.

The locals are folks that love to sing and dance and I plan to put snippets of songs into the book. For some or most of them, I'll just use English. But a few of the songs will come from Jewish liturgy or straight out of the Torah. Or both, like in the case of Mi Chamocha (aka The Song of the Sea), a song of praise that the Hebrews sang after successfully crossing the Red Sea. The lyrics are right in the book of Exodus and it's a song we sing every week in synagogue.

I'd like those songs to be in Hebrew. I may also put in a few non-English words or phrases here and there. There are also some English words the locals will learn as they're non-translatable ("dude!").

I'll write it so that the readers don't have to run for a dictionary. Plenty of translations, etc. But this is a song that every synagogue-attending Jew (and every kid in Hebrew school) will recognize. Some of the words (just the main stanza) need to be from the original. (Note: while all my kids are at least part Jewish, none of them have attended synagogue and they don't know the songs.)

I will use transliteration only and it will be in Biblical Hebrew, which is not the same as modern Hebrew (though they're more or less mutually intelligible) and also not the same as Canaanite (I have no idea how close that one is).

How do I work this? Not just the weaving in of a foreign language but the idea that the rest of the book is written in English, even though they're not speaking English when they're in Egypt and thereabouts.

  • Are the Canaanites singing the song in Hebrew, or do you just want the kids to perceive it as Hebrew? You could portray it as a foreign language for the Canaanites as well, so it doesn't translate from the sung Hebrew syllables.
    – David K
    Feb 26, 2019 at 18:48
  • Everyone will sing the song in the words given in the Torah, which is Biblical Hebrew. The Torah records those events as they take place and a religious belief is that it was written by Moses (as dictated by God). The more practical view is that it was written many centuries later and that the language the Jews spoke during the time attributed to the Exodus was Canaanite aka proto-Hebrew (and some other languages), like Old English is to us. The songs have to be in the exact same language they speak because I'm showing the actual crossing of the Red Sea. @DavidK
    – Cyn
    Feb 26, 2019 at 19:05
  • "And then everyone starting singing [name of song]." - If you insert actual lyrics or poetry in a book, I skip it every time. You wouldn't write out the lyrics for Hallelujah would you? That'd be kinda silly ;)
    – Mazura
    Feb 27, 2019 at 2:35
  • @Mazura of course I would. It's a gorgeous song. But that's me. I might only do a line or two in a book... zemirotdatabase.org/view_song.php?id=189
    – Cyn
    Feb 27, 2019 at 3:06
  • I thought it was just Hallelujah repeated like three or four times. Maybe that's just because I was raised Catholic.
    – Mazura
    Feb 27, 2019 at 3:16

7 Answers 7


These are songs, and we learn songs differently from spoken language. Have you ever found yourself singing along to a favorite song in a language you don't even speak, but you've listened to the recording enough to have memorized it? You were almost certainly helped by meter and perhaps rhyme, by the way.

All of this can be true for your kids. No, they don't know the songs from attending synagogue, but they might well have heard them anyway (especially Mi Chamocha). Maybe Grandma likes to sing or Dad has records (remember those?) he used to play a lot or they were around friends practicing for bar mitzvah. They can have been exposed without actually knowing the songs -- and that can be enough to "click" when they hear the ancient Hebrews singing them.

Consider a slight tweak to your universal translator: you hear your primary language until you start to gain some familiarity with the other, and then at that point you hear the other language while still knowing what it says in your head. Your universal translator can thus be something of a teaching tool, which could play a role in the kids retaining the other languages when they get home.

Your writing challenge, then, is to show that these songs are in fact different from other Canaanite songs they might hear in their adventures. Have your characters react to what they're hearing -- mention Grandma or Dad's records or Ben's bar mitzvah or that scene in Prince of Egypt at the theatre or whatever. Show the characters making a connection to the text in its original language, and you can justify them singing that song in that language even if 95% of what they hear is English.

  • I like the idea of the UT being a teaching tool. That will also help them differentiate, say, Canaanite from Egyptian from Hittite. My kids really know nothing about their Jewish heritage though. It's actually the premise of the book. Chapter 1 is a super awkward seder that the MC (age 12) puts together herself because she's never been exposed to anything Jewish before.
    – Cyn
    Feb 26, 2019 at 3:41
  • Never exposed, or never knowingly exposed? Grandma might not even know what that song she likes to sing is, if she only vaguely recalls learning it from her grandma. Ok, the bar mitzvah isn't going to work in your story, but people can pick up cultural or linguistic background and not even know what it is, sometimes. Maybe you can do something with that? Feb 26, 2019 at 3:44
  • Truly almost nothing. All the kids have 1,2, or 4 grandparents who were on the kindertransport to their small town. They are the only Jews there. There is a small synagogue in a town about half an hour away, but none of them go there (except two kids briefly to prep for their adventure). So all the grandparents were too young to remember or too traumatized to do anything. It's all part of the theme (generational change for the Hebrews "wandering in the desert" for 40 years. Lots of overlap. Quite intentional.
    – Cyn
    Feb 26, 2019 at 4:12
  • 2
    An example of an educational smart translator/tech that comes to mind is Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age has a "smart book" that was meant for a rich young kid (for etiquette mostly, I think) , and instead it ended up with a poor one, and it was able to first teach her to read, and then to do math and programming and everything. I haven't read it in ages, and it's not aimed at YA, but it may give you an example of how it can be used in a non-condescending, yet adaptive-to-user way? Feb 26, 2019 at 13:36
  • 1
    @Cyn it sounds like you have a follow-on question that would be different from this one, so go ahead and ask it. (Linking to this one for context would be good.) Short examples are fine, and probably necessary for us to understand the problem you're having. Mar 5, 2019 at 17:44

One of my favourite series of books, The Dark is Rising Sequence, has an example I feel might be helpful.

In the last book of the series, three of the main characters are transported from modern day Wales to Wales of a hundred or more years before. At that point in time, obviously, everyone would be speaking Welsh, but to the main characters (and the reader) everything is in English. The characters even go so far as to lampshade it, saying how it sounds like English to them but obviously they themselves must be speaking Welsh just like everyone else from that time period.

However, it's not all English to them for the entire time they're in the past. When it seems that the characters have gained all the knowledge they need from the current conversation with the locals, all of a sudden the switch is turned off and everyone returns to Welsh, leaving the main characters in the dark about what's being said. Then, when what the other people are saying is important to the story again, it's back to English.

Perhaps you could do something like this. Maybe the magic that's taken them to the past lets them understand what's important for them to understand, but trivial information sometimes remains untranslated. So while conversations and songs important to the story (and the narrative in general) is all in English, some songs are not necessary for the characters to understand and therefore are all unintelligible.


My communication rule is: They say what they mean as they intended it – as if all communication came right out of their brain. No phonetic accents or broken English between narrator and reader. That should be clean communication always. I feel like we all have an accent to somebody but not to ourselves, so every character deserves that dignity to communicate with the meaning they intend (not be biased because of an accent or limited vocabulary). It's a suspension of disbelief, but it allows all characters to co-exist on an equal footing.

Where accent or language barrier needs to be expressed, I try to just describe it, rather than imitate it. If it's a story issue it can be emphasized in the feelings and perceptions, so rather than have someone drawl it's about the listener hearing a drawl. Any "othering" is moved to the character's ears, not the reader's mind. If the point is someone being alienated because they can't understand, that is better done with the emotions.

Set some rules, and see if you can avoid explaining. Narrative voice is the hardest part of writing. The strongest thing you can do is have confidence and not draw attention to it.

If you want a worldbuild-y excuse, the kids can have language engrams mapped to their brains (no worse than getting an eye exam). Before the trip they go to the library-language-implant-clinic, and read a few stories and watch a few videos while a computer maps their language centers. It creates new engrams for the foreign words, mapped to their own vocabulary, maybe 8000 - 10,000 words, enough for a day at the marketplace.

A harmless and nearly painless handwavium treatment later, their brains know what the words sound and look like. They read some stories and watch a video in the old language, and yes, they can understand well enough to follow a conversation. In time, these engrams normally fade from lack of use, but it is common to get language engrams for tourism and business conferences.

Your kids will understand the old tongue, but not be able to speak, at first, or as convenient to the plot. Some might be better than others, so they pair up. It could be handwaved or used to generate some conflict or to show how they must adapt once they are stuck there.

I think every kid who ever had to chant or sing in a foreign language at temple would buy into this premise that vocabulary could just be zapped directly into their brain.

Then maybe you have the singing moment and it brings the communication complications to a climax (see Monica's answer) since it is not attached to any engrams it is words they already knew.

And again it is some suspension of disbelief because you are selling the emotions not the lyrics.

  • 1
    I completely agree about no accents or broken grammar (I might make some exceptions for local outsiders to the Hebrew community, but I haven't decided...so far it's just a multi-lingual community, which is exactly how it's done in most places in the world). My setting won't work with the high tech you mention (though I adore Connie Willis and her time travel prep). Plus only one of the kids actually believes they're going to time travel. She tells the rest but they think she's playing a game (the 2 closest to her think she's losing it).
    – Cyn
    Feb 26, 2019 at 15:47
  • Oh wow, I thought it was a field trip! No wonder that kids are so upset.
    – wetcircuit
    Feb 26, 2019 at 22:25
  • Exactly. The MC told them and even she thought it was a day trip. Everyone else thought it was a couple hours out on a boat on the local lake.
    – Cyn
    Feb 26, 2019 at 23:09

To the kids, everyone's speaking English (though they know this isn't the case).

I'm going to propose a slightly different solution. What if instead of perceiving everything as English, they can hear the actual words and syllables and recognize that they are hearing a different language, but they can still intuitively understand what is being said. This can result in a really fantastic scene where the kids discover that not only can they understand a strange language, but they can speak it as well!

"Hello, and welcome to our town!" said the local man. How strange, thought the children. Those words were not in English, yet they could still understand him. "Hey, you're not speaking English, how can I under- WAIT! I can speak this language too!"

Using this method you might want to start by mixing untranslated Canaanite with English before establishing that from this point forward, everything spoken is Canaanite, even if it is written as English on the page.

This solves your problem with regard to the Hebrew song, because when it is sung they can still hear and perceive that is being sung in Hebrew and not Canaanite, yet they can understand the words as well.


Anything like this should be handled as simply and directly as possible --that way it draws the least possible unwanted attention to the mechanics.

The young man began singing in a clear and beautiful voice:

Hine mah tov
uMah Na-im
shevet achim gam yachad

Behold how good
and how pleasing
if brothers could sit together in unity

The reader makes the minor mental shift without any problems. This is actually fairly common for songs and poems, even when everything else is presented only in translation.

  • Yep, that kind of seamless approach is what I'm aiming for. Honestly, a lot of the prayers we sing in synagogue in Hebrew just repeat the same 1-2 lines over and over. I mean, sure, we sing some long ones in Hebrew (Lekha Dodi for instance) but even Mi Chamocha (the song in my question) is usually just: "Mi Chamocha ba’elim Adonai, Mi Kamocha ne’edar bakodesh, nora tehilot oseh feleh."
    – Cyn
    Feb 26, 2019 at 15:41
  • It's one of of those things, the harder you work to explain it, the more it looks out of place. :) Whereas, if you toss it in with no extra work, everyone just accepts it without even thinking about it. Feb 26, 2019 at 15:43
  • That is an excellent point.
    – Cyn
    Feb 26, 2019 at 15:43

Here's an idea: for long periods of time, we spoke Hebrew alongside other languages: Aramaic, etc., and Hebrew was in fact spoken only be the educated elite. In particular, in the Haggadah, the passage "Ha lachma ania" (הא לחמא עניא) is in Aramaic so everyone would understand (because Aramaic was the lingua franca, whereas only the educated spoke Hebrew), and in, I think, the Book of Jeremiah, during the siege of Jerusalem, there's a scene with a foreign ambassador, and the King's representative asking him to speak Hebrew, so the commoners wouldn't understand.

Could a similar setup work for your story? Would it work if the children did not, in fact, have a good grasp of Hebrew, while "magically understanding" the common languages of the place and time they are transported to? It could even be symbolic of their detachment from their roots.

  • I hear you, but in this case, the Hebrew (Canaanite) is the mameloshn. Aramaic didn't come into being until 900-700 BCE. This story takes place around 1350 BCE (we don't know the exact date but that's where most commentators put it and it's certainly not in the 1st millennium BCE). Which is all a bummer because one of the songs I really want to include is Rachamana, which was written in Aramaic and therefore too new (I might cheat and stick it in anyway).
    – Cyn
    Feb 26, 2019 at 15:18
  • With a note that Aramaic is also a Canaanite language. So they weren't necessarily speaking Hebrew per say, but more proto-Hebrew. I have a line where one of the kids is talking to a local woman and she says the language is Canaanite. He says, do you mean Hebrew? She says, well we're Hebrews, so I guess you could call it that.
    – Cyn
    Feb 26, 2019 at 15:21

What are the handwaving rules for the learning of the ancient languages?

Let's say that...

  1. the process mimics a child's learning process, but at great speed

  2. Chomsky theorised that all languages have a set of common structures (universal grammar), so let's take that theory overboard and say that the children possess in their brains all the rules for all the possible human languages

  3. the learning of the ancient language depends on the contact with that language

  4. limits: if they cannot name something in English, they will not be able to name it in the new language

Keeping those rules in mind, here's how the process will work:

The children arrive and they are speaking English amidst them. Then they meet a local person who speaks to them in a foreign language... and they recognise the words!

If you learnt a foreign language at school to a good level, spent five years not using it and then were suddenly forced to use it, you'll know what the children feel with that first contact. The ability to explain the grammatical rules will have been mostly forgotten, but your brain still remembers how to apply them almost instinctively so you'll be able to say that 'red car' sounds right while 'car red' doesn't.

At first, there will be some hesitation and the sentences will be short (not to mention they'll be shocked with the sudden linguistic knowledge), but the more contact they have, the more natural it becomes. Again, there is a problem of lack of vocabulary for objects they don't know, but that doesn't mean lack of fluency.

This process, however, means the children can become linguistic powerhouses that would set them apart from those around them. To give them limits, there's the first rule. A child will learn a language very quickly until they're 3 or 4 years old, and then that uncanny speed starts decreasing, so here we will have something similar.

If they come in contact with a language in...

  1. the first 3-4 months: they become as fluent as natives

  2. between 4 and 12 months: they become competent but not fully fluent (may make some grammar mistakes or lack basic vocabulary)

  3. after 1 year: the grace period is over so now they have to learn it the hard way

Of course the time constrains will probably have to be adjusted to match your plot.

[Edit: forgot the add the second part of the answer]

Question 1

How do I work this? Not just the weaving in of a foreign language but the idea that the rest of the book is written in English, even though they're not speaking English when they're in Egypt and thereabouts.

The book is in English because that's the author's language. Any language that the protagonists understand will be presented in English with the appropriate indication. Naturally, some words are not possible to translate, so those words will be given as such (with an explanation nearby).

"Come inside," he said in Hebrew.

Question 2

I'd like those songs to be in Hebrew.

With the approach I lined up, the children would simply have to learn the lyrics. However, if the Jewish liturgy isn't usually translated into other languages (I'm afraid I have no idea), you will have to choose between presenting them in Hebrew (and everyone but synagogue-attending readers will scan over it, unable to understand it), maybe with a translation in an annex, or you'll simply follow the rule of transposing into English every language the children can understand.

While my strategy means the children won't need anyone to explain the words in themselves, they will likely still need someone to explain the religious and spiritual meanings.

  • Yeah I remembering learning about Universal Grammar in college and even then thinking it was baloney :-) Though I have great respect for Chomsky and appreciate his linguistic relativism. Within his theories, even the act of babbling starts the pruning process. By the time a child actually starts to speak, they've lost large numbers of phonemes & (if you believe Chomsky) lots of potential grammatical structures. Though, as you point out, you can easily get them back if young. I have a 2 year old & a 5 year old. Everyone else is 7-14. I really like Monica's idea where the diff is what you hear.
    – Cyn
    Feb 26, 2019 at 15:29
  • Whether or not the songs or prayers or other bits are translated into the vernacular depends on the synagogue. Orthodox generally don't, except for Chabad and other groups that cater to travelers, or a synagogue that gets tourists. I was handed an English siddur (prayerbook) in Budapest. My synagogue is Reconstructionist and we translate everything into English but most of the songs & prayers are in Hebrew (unless they are traditionally said in Aramaic), but we also use some Ladino and Yiddish and last week even a bit of Judeo...was it French? Plus lots of English.
    – Cyn
    Feb 26, 2019 at 15:36

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