A Month of Reflection | 2 | Translating the Bible

by Glenn on November 2, 2018

Two books I read this year dealt with the complexities of Bible translation. This summer, I read The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible by Aviya Kushner (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015) and this past week I finished Sarah Ruden’s The Face of Water: A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible (New York: Pantheon Books, 2017).

Both books are excellent and offer insight into the difficulty of translating Hebrew into English. It’s somewhat unsettling to learn how complicated this is and how much choice is involved.

The few years of Spanish I took in middle school made it seem like the only challenge in the translation process is that you need to know some grammar and vocabulary, but that otherwise it’s relatively uncomplicated and straight-forward, a matter of time more than anything else. “I want coffee with milk, please,” becomes “Yo quiero café con leche, por favor.” Word-for-word. Simple, really.

This is not how you translate the Bible.

The Hebrew of the Hebrew Scriptures is a different affair because the Hebrew language comes from a different world. For starters, we’re translating across and not within language groups and doing so across time. The language of the Hebrew Bible has been compared to lego building blocks, so that while the opening line of Psalm 23 in English is nine words (“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want” is how the King James presents it), in Hebrew it’s four building blocks, literally, “Yahweh | pasturing-me | not | I-will-go-without.” Further, these bricks of text are made up of only consonants, and so “vowels—dots and dashes located above, beneath, and inside letters—[which] frequently determine meaning” (Kushner), must be added as you read or translate.

These were both enjoyable books to read. Kushner and Ruden are both brilliant and understand well the challenges of bridging the gap between ancient Hebrew and modern English. I think both would agree that, as Kushner states it, “The Hebrew text . . . is beautifully unruly, often ambiguous, multiple in meaning, and hard to pin down; many of the English translations are, above all, certain.”

I believe Kushner would concur with Ruden’s conclusion that “as a reader of ancient literature, most of what I see in English Bibles is loss: the loss of sound, the loss of literary imagery, the loss of emotion, and . . . the loss of thought and experience.”

So what do you do about this challenge of bringing the Bible into the modern world? The mindsets of the two authors separates these books.

Kushner, who is Jewish (I want to state more clearly that she is a Jew, as I think she might say so, but that expression sounds almost racist or, at the very least, pejorative), grew up speaking Hebrew and I sort of see her shaking her head at the idea of people taking this text into other languages. (When she refers to the Bible, she is only speaking of the Hebrew Scriptures.)

Her book began at the suggestion of her writing teacher, Marilynne Robinson, who, as I take it, offered a kind of warning. According to Kushner, “she asked me to keep one thing in mind: even if the translation was inaccurate at times, and contained errors, she wanted me to remember that the Bible in English is holy to millions and millions of people.”

I’m not sure she’s made her peace with that tension and there is a tone of condescension when it comes to the English Bible. Still, Kushner’s observations about it are fascinating and her complaints about translations are compelling. For one thing, she notes the English Bible “has a lot of punctuation. It affects tense, sound, and sense, but it also makes everything read slower. Way slower.”

Another problem is names. Kushner writes, “From Adam onward, at nearly every turn in the Bible, the names of men, women, and children have clear meanings, and they often represent physical reality and emotional destiny. Yet the meanings of these Hebrew names are lost in translation because the names are usually simply transliterated—not translated (although Eve’s name is neither; it has no relation in sound or meaning to the Hebrew).”

The discussion that accompanies the text of the Hebrew Bible is forsaken in translation. This is to say that not only is there a Hebrew text, but there is Hebrew commentary on the text. This gets alluded to in the New Testament. In Luke 4:16–30, Jesus did what other Jews in synagogue did. He read a passage, in this case one from Isaiah. But at the time he was, as I understand it, supposed to comment on the passage by referring to what various rabbis said about it, Jesus upends the whole thing by saying that his life was all the commentary needed. He was the fulfillment of the text.

I think it comes down to this: Kushner believes the Hebrew Bible belongs to the Hebrew people and that when others try to experience the Bible in another language, English for example, they don’t get it right (and never will). The feeling I got from reading the book is, “Give it up—why are you even trying?”

One of her concerns is that translations encourage conversion. Here’s a story she tells:

“When I first bought the Oxford Annotated bible, the first English-language Bible I ever owned, I carried it around in a brown paper bag. I grew up with the concept of marit ayin, or how things look to the eye, meaning the naked eye; for example, a person who keeps kosher might not go into a burger joint to buy a coffee, even though black coffee is definitely kosher. Walking around with the Old and New Testament doesn’t look like a Jewish activity; it looks suspiciously unkosher. A person passing by might not understand. The first place I went in Iowa City with my brown paper bag happened to be Hillel, the Jewish student center, and an older man I met there, who saw the Oxford peeking out—we were both volunteering our time—commented that he was sure I had better things to do than to read the Torah in a Christian translation.

“‘It’s not a good book for you,” he said quietly.’

“The older man was echoing the Talmud’s warning about the very idea of the Torah in a language other than Hebrew. The concern is simple: The translation will be used to convert Jews to Christianity. It will be used against the Jewish people, as in fact it has been for hundreds of years.”

Near the end of the book, Kushner takes us into the dark history of the Holocaust. In discussing Psalm 42, she quotes the line that reads, “I have been young, I have been old, and never have seen a righteous man begging for bread.” Kushner writes,

“The word ‘bread’ is associated with what a just man can expect from a just God. I will never forget sitting at a Shabbat lunch in Jerusalem at which several Holocaust survivors refused to recite this line. They had seen just men, hands out for bread, utterly desperate. I think of the kind of desperation those survivors must have experienced, what scenes they must have witnessed, the longing they must have felt and known, as well as perhaps anger, but also longing for God—not only to be seen but to act—whenever I read Psalm 42.”

One chapter later, she refers to “the large hole of the Holocaust,” into which so many of her ancestors were pushed. Part of Kushner’s story is that she is lucky to exist, having a grandfather who survived the war but who lost “his four siblings and two parents to Hitler.”

*   *   *

Sarah Ruden’s story is a little different. While Kushner says, in effect, it’s impossible, so don’t even try, Ruden says it may be impossible, but it’s worth the try. Her goal is to “bring a fuller and more nuanced discussion of the Bible.” Where Kushner portrays Bible translation as walking through a minefield, Ruden seems to view it as playing in a garden. (There seem to be some temperamental differences between the two writers.)

Ruden is a translator of ancient languages who decided she wanted to learn to read and translate ancient Hebrew, a language where she had no expertise, because she came to a point where she learned that the Bible “was a book that profoundly mattered, more even than ancient pagan literature,” an area where she has some significant competences in translating.

She is self-deprecating about her ability to translate Hebrew even as the more she writes, you understand that she knows some things:

 “I can only read the Bible in Hebrew and Greek and give my impressions—all the while remembering that old stricture: ‘Using a language doesn’t make you an expert on it, any more than spending money makes you an economist.’”

For her, translating Hebrew to English is a problem to solve. She approaches it as an explorer, “Let me show you what I’ve found,” as opposed to Kushner’s stance as, perhaps, a guard: “You shouldn’t be in here.” And where Kushner bemoans the loss of the commentary aside the text of the Bible, Ruden demonstrates how a person, in English, might have a dialogue with and about the text. (Ruden does appreciate the way “Jews seem never to have lost the sense of interactivity that their most important texts invite, whereas Christians—don’t get me started.”)

The name of God is a subject in both books. But while Ruden routinely uses the name Yahweh to refer to the name of God, Kushner says, “No one I know from the Jewish community says Yahweh.” Interesting how point-of-view or, perhaps better, point of origin with its traditions, determines how you approach the task of translation.

One of her best chapters, I thought, dealt with the subject of Jonah, which she portrays as a comedy. This had never occurred to me. Ruden observes, “In the Book of Jonah, everybody seems more ready for a relationship with God than does the prophet himself . . .”

Ruden takes on both testaments. Her approach was effective. She took a passage from both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament and placed them together in a sort of juxtaposition, to see how one might inform the other. She also did something that Kushner avoids—she provides her own translation of the passages she is referencing. For example, here is how she renders Psalm 23:

“1. The Lord is the one pasturing me:
I will never go without.
2. He will always invite me to stretch out in pastures full of green shoots;
He will not fail to guide me to a lace of rest, where the water is at peace.
3. He will bring my life back to me.
He will lead me along wagon-tracks of fair dealing—he would not be who he is if he did otherwise.
4. I tell you, though I have cause to walk through the valley of deadly darkness, there is nothing fearsome there, nothing for me to fear,
Because of you, you there with me. Your weapon and your crook—I see them, and I know I am safe.
5. You arrange a feast on a table where I sit, though my enemies loom on the other side.
You refresh my head by bathing it in oil; you will my cup again.
6. Certainly goodness and unfailing mercy will chase after me everywhere I go, as long as I exist.”

It’s worth noting that Ruden’s translation of this psalm also includes three footnotes to explain choices she made.

Among the thing I really enjoyed about Ruden’s book is the way her personality came through. She is funny and quirky (in the best possible sense).

I am grateful for two brilliant women who have opened my eyes to the challenges of Bible translation. Some lessons:
1. Bringing the language of the ancient world into English is no easy task. (It was also dangerous one early on.)
2. The translator inevitably influences the translation.
3. There is often more than one way to express something in English.
4. There is great value living in the company of commentators.

What I take away from the experience of reading these two books is that I need to be a little less uptight about whatever particular translation I have in front of my eyes and recognize that while there are parts of the Bible that may be perfectly clear, there are others where reasonable people will come to different conclusions as to its meaning. Some care is called for before and when we say, “The Bible says.” Unless (or, I suppose even if) I learn Hebrew, there is value in reading many translations. Both writers stress the importance of dialogue. The Bible is a book we talk about. What we say about scripture is in no way as important as the scripture itself, but perhaps talking about scripture is the best way to understand it. The need for and value in preaching is the ability to bring insight and understanding to explain what an ancient text means today.