The ProsenPeople

7 Surprises in the English Translation of the Torah

Thursday, September 10, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Aviya Kushner wrote about the “smashing, positively dashing spectacle” of modern theater performed in Hebrew. She is the author of The Grammar of God and is blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

In Monsey, New York, the religious Jewish community where I grew up, no one was reading The King James Bible. And I certainly wasn’t either.

My mother is Israeli, and so my first language was Hebrew; naturally, I read the Torah in Hebrew. At home, we often discussed the Torah around the dining-room table—its language, its humor, its grammar, and its tendency to contradict itself. At yeshiva day school, which I attended six days a week, the Torah and its commentaries were taught for hours each day. I memorized many passages, and was quizzed on others. I didn’t think I could be surprised by anything Biblical.

Then I drove a thousand miles, across the Mississippi River and through miles and miles of corn, and enrolled at the University of Iowa’s MFA program in creative writing. There, I took a Bible course with the novelist Marilynne Robinson. In that graduate course and in the community church class I attended, I encountered the Bible in English translation for the first time. And the translations I was reading obsessively weren’t just in English; they were also Christian.

It was an entirely new world, and I was often lost in it. On many occasions, I did not recognize passages I knew by heart in Hebrew. I found seven recurring surprises:

1. Verses in the Wrong Place. The verses, or psukim, are not always the same as they are in Hebrew. I first realized this when reading Job; a verse I was looking for was literally in a different chapter in English. But this really hit home with the Ten Commandments. One verse in Hebrew becomes four in The King James. The change in versification affects tone, but it also makes it hard to understand a lot of the commentators’ writing on the importance of adjacent words and ideas—because the location has been changed.

2. Headings, Titles, and Other Unexpected Explanatory Info. Reading the King James Bible, a Jewish reader might be surprised to encounter the heading “The Tenne Commandments.” Similar headings occur in other older influential translations, like The Geneva Bible and Tyndale’s Bible. For Jewish readers who may have spent hours poring over rabbinic commentary on which commandments count in the Ten Commandments, or what is commandment one, this heading can be jarring. Similarly, it’s strange to be told in a heading what a psalm is about.

3. Names Often Mean Nothing in Translation. In Hebrew, names are a big thing—laughter is part of the name Yitzchak (Isaac), and holding on to a heel is the source of the name Yaakov (Jacob). One strangeness of reading the Bible in English is realizing that names mean nothing in translation, because they are generally transliterated, not translated. So an English reader can’t hear a tie between Eve and life, or Adam and earth.

4. Body parts are sometimes erased or flattened. Looking for Moses saying that he is arel sfatayim, or literally uncircumcised of lips, and figuratively not up to the speaking aspect of leadership, in English translation? Good luck. The lips are sometimes edited out. So too is yerech Ya’akov, literally the thigh of Jacob, and other evocative bodily moments.

5. Punctuation can be jarring. There are no question marks in the Hebrew scroll, but there are plenty of them in English translation. Ditto for exclamation marks, periods, and colons. Sometimes punctuation can change the entire meaning of a passage, since there is a big difference between a declarative sentence and a question.

6. Grammar often evaporates in translation. Sometimes a verb becomes a noun, as in the infamous case of Moses with horns as opposed to his skin beaming with light. And sometimes, when there has been centuries of discussion on what is happening grammatically in a particular phrase, the translation picks one option—and the English reader has no idea how much of a challenge that phrase is.

7. Complexity doesn’t always come across. Difficult sections in Hebrew are often simpler and clearer in English. It’s interesting to think about whether it’s a good idea to translate ambiguity, or whether the translator’s job is to pick one meaning and go with it. Whatever the reasons, many of the passages that have stumped rabbinic commentators for centuries, and have created pages and pages of commentary, become easy-to-understand declarative sentences in English.

It is this definite, clear tone that I found most surprising of all. This tone gives the misleading impression that there is only one way to understand a text. Many English translations only translate the pshat, the simplest understanding of the Torah text itself, and do not translate commentary. The reader of English may not realize that there is a rich tradition of Hebrew commentary that is thousands of years old, and that there is a long lineage of argument and discussion. Instead, the English reader often encounters one single authoritative Biblical text, presented alone.

The final surprise for me was how I felt during this reading project. Reading translations of the Hebrew Bible into English was sometimes a sad experience; I was overwhelmed by all that had been lost. But I still recommend that Hebrew-speaking readers spend time with translations of the Bible, especially translations from different faiths and centuries.

Why is it worth it?

The Bible in translation is the most important text in Western culture, and it can be dangerous to ignore it. Reading translations should be seen as a window into what millions of readers throughout the world think and feel; at the very least, whether we are Jewish or Christian, religious or secular, we should all be talking about how the particular Bible we read affects what we believe, and how language and translation have shaped us all.

Aviya Kushner is the author of The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible, to be published September 8th by Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House.

Related Content:

Translations and Translators

Thursday, November 08, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

If you're looking for a theme for your book club, this is a great one! See below for a few of our translated recommendations as well as a few articles on the process itself. Find the complete list here.

The Hebrew Translator on Translation by Jessica Cohen

The Tower of Babel and Crisis of Translation by Ellen Frankel

The Act of Self-Translation by Michael Idov

How to Succeed in Academics Without Doing Any Research by Haim Watzman


The Hebrew Translator on Translation

Thursday, April 19, 2012 | Permalink

In our April JBC Bookshelf, we featured a pdf version of an article that first appeared in the summer 2007 issue of Jewish Book World. We thought it would be a good idea to breathe new life into it by adding the text here, as well. This article was written by Jessica Cohen, the translator of two of the 2007 Sami Rohr Prize awardees: Choice Award winner Amir Gutfreund's Our Holocaust and Finalist Yael Hedaya's Accidents. In each summer issue we feature words from the current year's Sami Rohr Prize honorees, and in 2007, in lieu of Jessica Cohen having translated two of the honored titles, we asked her to contribute to the section:

When I think of all the translators I have met since entering this fascinating profession, I cannot call to mind any who knew they wanted to be translators when they grew up. Most of us seem to have past lives—and often parallel ones—in other fields or entirely different professions, and many came to translation in roundabout ways. The common denominator among translators is, of course, an intimate knowledge of at least two languages. (Many translators are purely bilingual, although this is by no means requisite, and conversely, being bilingual does not necessarily make one a good translator.) Translators also possess an ability, and a drive, to constantly travel back and forth between their two languages and the cultural worlds they represent, and to build bridges so that others can follow.

My own case is no exception. I was born in England and moved to Jerusalem with my family at the age of seven. In Israel, I spoke Hebrew in school and almost everywhere else, but continued to speak English at home and often spent time in English-speaking countries. I also got into the habit of reading almost exclusively in English, much to the chagrin of my Hebrew literature teachers, which contributed significantly to my English-language writing facility. I studied English literature at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and after moving to the U.S., I studied Middle Eastern literature and languages at Indiana University. This seeming contradiction—the constant peering into one culture while being immersed in another—is part of my identity, and now a central element of my chosen career. Like many immigrants and cultural transplants, I feel compelled to keep one foot in each culture, and to pursue the frustrating goal of bringing them closer to one another. And since literature is, to my mind, the greatest and most telling reflection of a culture and the repository of its language, what better way to achieve this reconciliation than to introduce the literature of one culture into another?

One of the paradoxes of being a literary translator is that the less attention we draw to ourselves, the better our work probably is. When I translate a book, my job is to find a way to convey the author’s style and voice. Ideally, the readers of my English translation will have the same experience as the readers of the Hebrew original. Geri Gindea, Director of the Sami Rohr Prize, recently commented on how surprised she was upon realizing that I had translated two of the finalists for the Sami Rohr Prize (Amir Gutfreund, winner of the Choice Award for Our Holocaust, and Yael Hedaya, Honorable Mention for Accidents), because the two books employ such very different styles. I took this as a compliment: if Yael Hedaya and Amir Gutfreund sound nothing like each other in English, then I did my job well, because they have very distinctive voices and disparate narrative styles in Hebrew.

Alongside these two young and exciting authors, I have also had the honor of translating a literary giant like David Grossman (Her Body Knows). Since Mr. Grossman has had many previous works translated into English and his reputation is well established, the challenge of retaining his unique voice was all the more daunting. I have also translated non-fiction works, such as the forthcoming book by Tom Segev (1967: Israel, the War, and the Year that Transformed the Middle East), which presented a challenge of a different sort: it is important to convey the fluid narrative style that is the mark of a good non-fiction writer, yet the primary objective in translating nonfiction must be to retain the clarity of the information and the author’s arguments.

Whatever I happen to be translating on a given day—a love story, a family saga, childhood recollections, or historical analysis—I strive to carry across into my translation not only the literal meaning of the words, but their cultural weight, their allusions, the imagery and emotions they evoke. This is rarely an easy task, and not always attainable, and every so often I have to accept that some things must be lost in translation. I am also aware that, much as no two writers will ever tell a story the same way, there are often infinitely varied ways of translating a line or even a single word. Finding the perfect turn of phrase brings a sense of satisfaction that all translators look forward to, and the search itself provides an opportunity to delve deeper into language and meaning, which is a part of my work that I relish. The first-rate writers I have been fortunate to work with, and the creative negotiation between different languages, cultures, and ways of looking at the world, make for an engaging and everchanging occupation.

Jessica Cohen has translated the following titles on the JBC website:

1967: Israel, the War, and the Year That Transformed the Middle East, Tom Segev
Accidents, Yael Hedaya
Eden, Yael Hedaya
Our Holocaust, Amir Gutfreund
The World a Moment Later, Amir Gutfreund
To the End of the Land, David Grossman

Find out more about Jessica by visiting her website: The Hebrew Translator.