The latest installment of “Translator’s Cut” brings us to the Hebrew language. I recently read translator Aviya Kushner’s excellent book on translating the Bible and was absolutely mesmerized. One gets a whole new appreciation for biblical studies and for the art (and significance) of translation while reading it—not to mention the Bible itself.
Aviya Kushner’s first book, The Grammar of God: Journey Into the Words and Worlds of the Bible (Spiegel & Grau/Random House), is about the intense experience of reading the Bible in English after an entire life of reading it in Hebrew. She has worked as a travel columnist for The International Jerusalem Post and as a poetry columnist for BarnesandNoble.com, and her writing has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Gulf Coast, Partisan Review, Poets & Writers, A Public Space, The Wilson Quarterly, and Zoetrope: All-Story. She is currently an associate professor of Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago, a contributing editor at A Public Space, and a mentor for The National Yiddish Book Center. You can find her online at aviyakushner.com.
K.E. Semmel: You grew up speaking Hebrew at home, reading the Bible in Hebrew and discussing its meaning with your family. In what ways can you trace the child Aviya directly to the adult Aviya through this intellectual activity?
Aviya Kushner: As a child, I was deeply familiar with ancient texts—with contradiction and argument and with passages that were multiple in meaning. I had no idea how rare that comfort with the ancient actually was.
The many hours my family spent talking about the language of the Bible definitely helped me as I tried to learn to write, and those conversations continue to shape me now. The Bible is beautifully written, and it has complex and intimate portraits of human beings; it is certainly an outstanding model for any writer.
There is something else that I am thinking about more and more; what is magnificent about the Bible is that it is many different kinds of books at once. It is simultaneously a book of poetry and a book of law, the story of a people, and a form of history. I think I was intrigued by that as a child, by the multiple worlds contained in one book, and I still am.
KES: You worked on The Grammar of God for ten years. What was the most challenging aspect of writing the book? Did you ever come close to throwing your hands up and quitting?
AK: The Grammar of God started in a Bible class at The University of Iowa, taught by Marilynne Robinson. I was stunned by the translation, and started taking notes on everything that surprised me. These notes became letters, then essays, then a graduate-school thesis. Eventually, after ten years, it became a book.
But that’s the short version of the story! There were definitely many frustrating moments, mostly related to the challenge of structuring the book. The Bible has many, many layers, and the material is very complicated. At many points, I wondered if it was humanly possible to convey the depths of ancient Hebrew to an English reader in a clear, beautiful, and lively way—and yes, I certainly considered giving up. Eventually, I realized that many of the differences came down to grammar, and I used grammar as an organizing principle, and that helped me finish the book.
KES: Can you describe the shock you felt when you entered Marilynne Robinson’s class and discovered the translated version of the Bible was so vastly different from what you remembered from your readings in Hebrew?
AK: My first big surprise was the opening section of Genesis; the King James definitively frames creation as something in the past tense. Jewish scholars have been discussing how to read this verse for centuries—whether it should be read as “created” or “the creation of”; what is at stake is whether creation is over or whether it is still going on.
Then there was the punctuation shock. There is a period at the end of the first verse, Genesis 1:1. whereas in Hebrew there is only a sof-pasuk, or a line ending. There is no punctuation in the Hebrew Bible.
As I read more and more translations, I noticed that a translation could transform a declarative sentence into a question, and vice versa; clearly, punctuation has a major effect, and interestingly, it often differs from translation to translation. And these surprises were just the beginning—there were many more to come.
KES: How much of the Bible do you feel is lost for those readers who can’t read Hebrew?
This is an interesting question, and I’ll begin with what remains in translation. In every Bible I read, there was an account of the creation of the world, and there was a story of exodus from Egypt. So readers looking at translations will generally get the major plot points of the Bible, the broad outlines of the story.
But the beauty of the Hebrew Bible is that it is a magnificently multilayered text. What is often lost is the subtext, the secondary meanings, and the connection of one passage to another. For example, names are generally transliterated, not translated, and they are an important layer of the Bible. The English reader may never realize that Adam comes from the Hebrew word adama, or earth—so that beautiful connection between man and earth, or mankind and the land, does not come across.
Translation is a judgment call, and the translator is always making decisions. When a word has double or triple meanings, the translator has to pick just one. What the reader is hearing is the translator’s judgment—and the English reader may never realize that there are other potential meanings to consider.
KES: Which mistranslation in the Bible do you find particularly egregious?
There were many moments that saddened me, and others that struck me as beautiful. I think the famous mistranslation of a horned Moses, rather than a Moses whose skin is beaming—as the Hebrew relates—has been especially damaging. That image has been linked to hatred and massacre for centuries.
This is one reason why I think Biblical translation should interest secular people as well as religious people, because what happened to the Bible in translation has transformed history.
K.E. Semmel is a writer and translator and the host of “Translator’s Cut.” His fiction has appeared in Ontario Review, MonkeyBicycle, and Aethlon. His translations include Naja Marie Aidt’s Rock, Paper, Scissors, Jesper Bugge Kold’s Winter Men, and Thomas Rydahl’s The Hermit (forthcoming). Find him online at kesemmel.com.