Aviya Kushner is the author of The Grammar of God, a memoir of her Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible. She will be blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.
This summer, a strange thing happened: I saw My Fair Lady in Hebrew. The performance was at Israel’s famous theater, Habima, and all the acting was top-notch. I was moved, as I always am, at the very existence of a Hebrew theater; how unimaginable this must have been to my grandfather as a child, growing up in Bremen, Germany, in the thirties, as Hitler rose to power, to think that one day his granddaughter would sit in her high-heeled sandals, in perfect safety, listening to a British play translated into a Hebrew musical.
I marveled at the audience — Russian Jews, Israeli sabras, and a group of employees who worked for the prison system, all of whom were able to experience the modern miracle of attending a play in Hebrew in a Hebrew-speaking theater in a Hebrew-speaking state. And I thought of the Israeli theater’s early history; many of the first actors and actresses had trained in the Yiddish theater, and had switched languages in order to continue as artists and to help build what is now a major Israeli theater.
But of course, it was bizarre to hear those songs in translation. The translator, Dan Almagor, whose version was first performed in 1964, probably struggled to create a connection between class and accent, and so the plot focused on how Eliza Doolittle pronounced the letter hey. The famous line about the rain in Spain became “Barad yarad bidrom Sfarad ha’erev,” or literally “hail fell this evening in southern Spain.”
In Israel, there is some tie between education and speech, and it is certainly possible to guess where someone was born from his or her Hebrew accent, but it is not the dead giveaway it is in England. It was a little bit of a stretch to believe that pronunciation of hey could determine a person’s entire economic and social destiny.
For the entire first act, I could not connect to the performance. But then, as time went on, I got used to it: I knew the story, and I got into the plot. I recognized the melodies. The experience was not unlike the years I spent on The Grammar of God. At first, the Bible in translation felt so strange to me that I could not stop chronicling the differences between the original Hebrew and the English. But as time went on, I got used to translation, and even to the errors in it. I accepted the awkwardness I encountered.
I suspect this is what happens to scholars, and to lay readers who know Hebrew but who spend years reading English. It gets less shocking.
I’m glad I took the time, on that first long read in Iowa, to note every moment I found surprising. I was so stunned by that first read that I had no idea that I would get used to translators’ choices, and that I would move from feeling horrified to feeling empathy as I began to understand the difficulty of the task. And I certainly did not know, at the beginning, that there was a beauty in surprise and a danger in familiarity.
As the years of reading translations rolled on, I got used to phrases like “the Lord of Hosts.” I no longer jumped when I came across “all the furniture of heaven” for the Hebrew v’chol tz’vaam, which is familiar not only from Genesis 1 but from the weekly Kiddush for Shabbat. I was no longer astonished when body parts in the Hebrew were erased or altered in English, or when ancient idioms were flattened or removed altogether. I did not feel a strange creepiness in my bones when I could not find a Hebrew verse in English, because the versification had been changed, a situation which even occurred in crucial locations like the Ten Commandments. I expected discrepancies.
But listening to the actors in the Hebrew My Fair Lady make a big deal of how the letter hey is pronounced, as they tried valiantly to cast it as a major marker of class, I remembered how odd some of the translations I encountered seemed to me at first — perhaps as disturbing as a bad accent might seem to an English gentleman like Henry Higgins.
Some translations bolded or highlighted passages they deemed important, taking that decision out of the reader’s hands; in the Hebrew scroll, by contrast, all the verses are in the same color, handwritten by a scribe. Other famous translations, like The King James, feature headings that tell the reader what’s coming — even though those headings don’t appear in the Hebrew. For example, the heading “The Tenne Commandments” appears before the Ten Commandments, effectively effacing the centuries of argument on what should count as one of the Ten Commandments, and where they even begin. Many translations of the Psalms feature two to four-line explanations, at the top, of what the psalm is ostensibly about; having this kind of introduction creates a different reading experience than simply experiencing the Psalms on their own.
In time, I became a different kind of reader. I became a reader of Biblical translations, just as I became a theatergoer who could appreciate the huge effort to make My Fair Lady accessible to Hebrew speakers who could not follow a musical based on George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion if it were performed in English. And now I appreciate both halves of my reading self — the original-language reader and the translation reader. I believe both types of reading should be part of a reading life.
Whether translations are clunking or accomplished, they have affected all our reading lives — and they often influence political views, not to mention college educations. We owe it to ourselves to check out everything from how My Fair Lady comes across to how the Bible seems in a Catholic translation or an evangelical translation.
What Biblical translation reveals is how language shapes belief. It is essential to consider how what we consider holy and precious seems to other readers; translation allows us to understand what other people are reading in the privacy of their homes. It is a mistake to ignore the opportunity to lift the curtain on the windows and look in.
Aviya Kushner is the author of The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible, which will be published by Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House, on September 8th.
- Reading List on Jews and the Theater
- Barbara Isenberg: The Comings and Goings of Songs in Fiddler on the Roof
- Josh Lambert: Obscene Recommendations
Aviya Kushner is the author of The Grammar of God, which was a National Jewish Book Award Finalist, Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature Finalist, and one of Publishers’ Weekly’s Top 10 Religion Stories of the Year. An associate professor at Columbia College Chicago, she is The Forward’s language columnist and has a lifelong love of the Book of Isaiah.