Q&A: What Can We Learn from Studying Translations of the Bible?

Credit: Gur Salomon

Credit: Gur Salomon

Aviya Kushner’s book The Grammar of God: A Journey Into the Words and Worlds of the Bible is profoundly personal. Kushner grew up in a Hebrew-speaking, scholarly household in which the Bible—read in the original Hebrew—was often the center of conversation and debate.

She didn’t read the Bible in translation until her second year at the Iowa Writers Workshop, when she took a yearlong class with Marilynne Robinson that required reading the Old Testament in English.

Kushner was surprised at the differences between the Hebrew original she knew almost by heart and the nearly unfamiliar English translation she encountered.

From this experience grew an obsession. Kushner embarked on a ten-year project of reading and collecting different versions of the Hebrew Bible in English and traveling the world retracing the steps of the great biblical translators, searching for their motivations.  It was a dangerous undertaking, considered heretical by some.

When Robinson read Kushner’s MFA thesis, which had grown out of notes taken in the Old Testament class, she told her: “this will be a book.” And so it is.

The Grammar of God is part memoir, part treatise. Kushner’s careful attention to historical, linguistic, and personal detail paints a story of universal importance, one realized through the sum of countless small, significant parts.

                                                                                          -- By Leah Barber


Q: Can you start by describing your first experiences reading the Bible in an Orthodox Jewish, Hebrew-speaking household?

My first experience with the Bible was hearing it. My mother used to recite the Psalms as she bathed my sister, and I remember listening in and wondering about the “king of glory” and the “gates of the world,” trying to understand what it all meant, and trying to figure out who the king was.

I am pretty sure my mother bathed me to the Psalms, too, when I was a baby. Individual lines from the Bible were always part of my family’s conversation, but before I learned to read, I didn’t realize these were Biblical verses. I thought they were just speech, or songs.

Q: How do the technical and the personal coexist in The Grammar of God? How did you strike a balance between the two—and how did you manage to make grammar a personal issue? 

I’m so glad you asked this question. I wanted to show English readers why ancient Hebrew grammar matters, and this meant I had to include some of the nitty-gritty; incredibly detailed passages about sentence structure, word structure, or grammatical structures like the cohortative mode—which exists in Hebrew but not in English.

But at the same time, I thought it was essential to show how ancient Hebrew is alive, how it’s talked about and argued about and laughed about, and how it is as deeply personal for me and for my family as the English is for so many others.

It wasn’t easy to balance the grammatical and the personal, but I felt both were essential, so I wove grammar and memoir together, sentence by sentence.

Q: In what ways does biblical translation differ from the translation of secular texts?

Translation is always a matter of interpretation, and it’s always controversial. But when a book is viewed by so many as holy, and when millions of people consider it the word of God, the stakes are much higher.

Acknowledging that there is a translation issue, and that an alternative reading is possible, or that you may be reading a mistranslation, means the reader has to think deeply about what he or she actually believes.

Q: What do we lose with constant re-translation of the Bible? What do we gain?

I think one major thing we lose is the idea that this is a Hebrew text. I was amazed at how many people asked me what language the Bible was written in. People asked me if it was in Aramaic or Latin fairly often. Educated people are so used to reading the Hebrew Bible in translation that the “Hebrew” isn’t thought about. This strikes me as a shame.

One interesting thing to consider is that there are direct translations of the Bible, from the Hebrew (for the Old Testament) and the Greek (New Testament), and then there is a long tradition of translations of translations. We should discuss what a translation of a translation—and sometimes a translation of a translation of a translation—actually means.

I became a lot more empathetic toward translators and a lot more appreciative of translations as time went on. What translations do is keep a book alive. Good or bad, scholarly or deeply flawed, all the translations of the Bible have helped bring it to us.

Last but not least, some towering scholars have worked on translations of the Bible, and these are great gifts to us. I don’t think anyone is sorry that Martin Buber, for instance, left us a translation—a record of how he read the Bible.

Q: You quote Derek Walcott’s What the Twilight Says in your epigraph: “Grammar is a form of history.” Why did you choose this quote to begin the book?

The quote is from a beautiful essay on Joseph Brodsky. I thought Derek Walcott’s line perfectly captured why grammar matters. Language is a way of structuring thought, of ordering the world. For all translation can do, we often lose this structure, the way a civilization sees itself and the wider world.

When grammar gives us ideas like gender, or the respected form, it is saying something about society; it is recording history. And when grammar evaporates in translation, as it often does, what we lose is this “form of history.”

Q: You’ve collected Bibles for years—what do you feel is the most interesting Bible in your collection and why?

I think the most interesting Bible I have is a set of the Five Books of Moses I bought at Tuvia’s, a Jewish bookstore in Monsey, N.Y. It includes introductory essays by the Hebrew commentators to the Bible; some of these essays are a thousand years old. This set has a far more extensive selection of introductions than any other Bible I have ever seen, and it gives some lesser-known writers an opportunity to explain how they read. One thing I found charming is that a medieval commentator began his essay with a poem—an acrostic of his name. He was trying hard to be remembered as an author.

Q: What can we gain from reading the Bible in a secular context?

I think of the Bible as a rare bridge between secular and religious people. It’s the only book I can think of that is widely read among both groups, and that’s an opportunity.

Even if you have no interest in religion at all, the Bible is still fascinating and important because it has had such a deep influence on literature and history. It’s an ancient text that is still very much alive in contemporary society, and that’s an intriguing thing.

So many writers are rooted in the Bible, and this includes extremely secular authors. Similarly, the history of art is steeped in the Bible, and we can better understand Michelangelo or Raphael if we have read the Bible.

The advantage of reading it in a secular context is that the idea of the Bible as literature is accepted. The Bible can be appreciated as a magnificent piece of writing. No matter how you feel about God, or if you have no feelings whatsoever, the Bible’s intimate portrayals of parents, children, and siblings are rich and moving, and above all deeply human.

Q: Can you give an example of an untranslatable word/phrase in the Hebrew Bible—or a specific example of a translation problem that exemplifies divergent understandings of the Bible across religions, languages and cultures?

There are some words in the Hebrew that simply have no English equivalent, such as et, which introduces a definite direct object. I was giving a reading in Texas when I was asked about et, which is a two-letter word containing the first letter of the alphabet, aleph, and the last letter, taf. An audience member asked about this word and Jesus; it seems that because the word et does not translate, and because there is the line in Revelation 1:8 of “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end,” there had been an interpretation of this simple common Hebrew word et as in fact being a word for God. Clearly, this kind of reading solution for an untranslatable word can create a divergent understanding!

While this is a dramatic example, what I noticed more often was translators reading a noun as a verb, or vice versa. An infamous example is the depiction of Moses. In the Hebrew, Moses is beaming with light, and the verb is karan; some English translations seem to have understood the verb as a noun, in this case, keren, which is spelled the same except for the vowels. In Hebrew, keren is both a ray of light and the horn of an animal. Some translators therefore rendered a “horned Moses” instead of a Moses with skin beaming. This disturbing depiction can be seen in the stained-glass windows of many European churches. Whenever I read something on “Jews with horns” or “Jews as the devil” I think of the major effect of the translation of that one word.

Q: How much of a role does the specific translator (or translators) play in the final translated text?

I think the translator has a huge role. What we are reading is the translator’s understanding; it is the translator, not the author, who is writing the exact words we are actually reading. The translator has great power, and many translations I read added or subtracted to the text. Amazingly, some even changed the versification. I spent an hour searching for a line in Job, thinking I was losing my mind, when I realized the translator had relocated the verse to another chapter.

Of course, some translators have helped us understand, and have enriched our reading experience. H.L. Ginsberg’s translation of Isaiah, for instance, is an education in itself.

It’s unfortunate that translation is not discussed often in our culture and in our universities. A translator is probably the most important reader we have. Reviewers and critics can shape our reactions to a book, but what a translator does is even more intimate—a translator shapes the actual book.

When we read a book in the original language, only the author and the reader are in the room. A translation is different; the author, the translator, and the reader are all there.

Q: How do the principles of translation apply to writing itself? In what way is translation writing, and in what way is writing translation?

All communication is translation; when we speak, we are translating feelings or thoughts into language. When we write, we are translating our thoughts—our own private language—into something the reader can understand, into public language.

So I think translation and writing are certainly close to each other, and many translators view themselves as writers. Certainly it’s almost impossible to be a good translator without being a strong writer in the target language.

I think translation is a special form of writing. It is really a state of the soul, a suspension between two tongues, and it requires a deep engagement with the text and thought process of another person. But writing also demands transcendence; the writer has to straddle an unnamed middle state between present and past or present and future. Writers and translators are both trying to transcend time, and to bring something important and beautiful to us.

Leah Barber studies literature and translation at Oberlin College.