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:

Aviya Kush­n­er grew up in a Hebrew-speak­ing home in New York. Once an Inter­na­tion­al Jerusalem Post trav­el colum­nist, she now teach­es in the non­fic­tion writ­ing pro­gram at Colum­bia Col­lege Chica­go. She is also a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at A Pub­lic Space and a men­tor for the Nation­al Yid­dish Book Center.