Translation: A Living Conversation
Tell us about your own Jewish education.
I grew up speaking Hebrew at home. My mother is Israeli, and my parents made a commitment to speak only Hebrew; this was a huge gift and the foundation of my education. I attended Bais Ya’akov in Monsey, New York, then ASHAR through the eighth grade, and Ramaz for high school. I later worked as a reporter in Jerusalem, which was its own education!
I’ve been writing about Jewish literature for more than a decade, and I learned a lot from the writers and translators I interviewed, and from the many books on Jewish history, literature, and culture that I reviewed. Currently, I translate Hebrew poetry and prose, and so my education is continuing.
One of the striking things about the Bible-Tanakh is that Jews and Christians read essentially the same book but get very different things out of it. What did your study of Bible translations teach you about differences or similarities between Jews and Christians?
One thing Jews and Christians share is a fascination with the Bible. For the most part, Jews and Christians agree on the plot of the Bible—the exodus from Egypt, for example, appeared in every Bible I looked at.
But English translations of the Bible tend to sound more definite than the Hebrew, which is sometimes ambiguous and wild, and often multiple in meaning. Many difficult passages are flattened in English, so what is problematic in Hebrew becomes neat and easy in English.
Then there’s the commentary factor. Many Christian translations do not include commentary; by contrast, a Hebrew reader using the Mikraot Gedolot can easily access many views of the same text.
Some Christian translations have headings and layout that frame thinking, like the heading “The Ten Commandments.” Meanwhile, Jewish scholars are busy arguing over what the ten are, or what a dibrah even is!
And of course, there are plenty of individual translation choices that deeply influence the reader’s worldview. It’s definitely a rich topic for discussion.
Talk about why knowing the Hebrew is so important. What gets lost in translation?
For starters, in Biblical Hebrew, nouns, verbs, and adjectives are related through common three-letter roots that create echoes and connections across the entire Tanakh. These connections are practically impossible to hear without knowing Hebrew. The English reader simply misses out.
Then there are specific losses, such as names. In English, names are transliterated, not translated, and the English reader has no idea that people’s names and place names have such rich meanings. It’s a loss to read the Bible without understanding the tie between adam and adamah, or man and earth, and without knowing what Ya’akov and Yitzchak mean.
I could go on, but I’ll summarize by saying that the biggest loss is grammar. Hebrew and English have different sentence structures and word structures, and these do not translate well. What is at stake is an entire way of thinking, a system of structuring thought, and perhaps a way of understanding the world.
Your book has the word “grammar” in the title, and you spend much of the book focusing on ways that grammar shapes our understanding of the Bible’s meaning. Give day school teachers an argument why, and how, they should teach biblical Hebrew grammar.
Mastering grammar is the difference between a vague or general understanding of what’s going on and a close and intimate understanding. Grammar allows a student to pinpoint the exact meaning of particular Hebrew words.
Ideally, teaching grammar will include instruction in both word structure and sentence structure. Students should understand how Hebrew words are formed and how they interact in a sentence or pasuk.
Commentators can also be helpful in the battle to explain why grammar matters. Avraham Ibn Ezra, for example, often turns to grammar to make his points, and his arguments are fascinating.
When students read Jewish texts in translation, what should they look for?
When reading in translation, I recommend reading in the plural. Read more than one translation, and if possible, translations from different centuries and traditions.
When you read multiple translations, you can feel what the problematic passages are, and you can also see how attitudes changed over time, which will give you a better sense of the different potential readings. It’s fascinating to see the differences between the 1917 Jewish Publication Society translation and the 1985 JPS edition.
One thing to look for is a translator’s introduction. The Jewish Publication Society has a book called Notes on the Translation of the Torah, which can offer students a window into the translation problems the committee had. I also learned a lot from Everett Fox’s introductions to his translations. Robert Alter’s notes on his translation of the Psalms are terrific, too.
Are there ways that translations can enhance our understanding of the source text?
Absolutely. In Jewish history, we are fortunate—many of our translators, like Sa’adiah Gaon and Martin Buber, were also major scholars. Every translation is an interpretation, and certainly the interpretation of giants enhances our understanding.
A translator is first and foremost a reader. Just as reading with a brilliant teacher is valuable, so reading an outstanding translation can be incredibly enriching.
A good translation can make an ancient text come alive for a contemporary reader, and it can also highlight the richness of a text. For example, I enjoyed seeing how recent translators have grappled with the word adam in the Tanakh. Some say “man” and some say “human.” The translation of adam as “human” tries to capture that adam in Hebrew is both an individual man, Adam, and mankind, or perhaps, humankind.
Do you have a favorite Bible translation?
I think there are beautiful moments in many biblical translations.
I was especially moved by Everett Fox’s Schocken Bible, because he makes such a tremendous effort to capture the sound of the Hebrew.
What advice do you have for Jewish day schools, especially for Jewish studies teachers?
My advice is to emphasize Hebrew, and to give it more time in the class day. I may be biased, but I think Jewish writers can really help make traditional Jewish texts come alive.
I recommend including Hebrew literature in Jewish education, because many of our best writers—like Agnon and Amichai—weave in all kinds of Jewish texts and make them contemporary. The idea is to make Hebrew and Jewish text and history exciting, immediate and relevant, and great writers specialize in that.
Perhaps a class on Tanakh could also include an example of how Amichai borrows a line, and a Mishnah or Gemara teacher could show how Agnon threads some of that language through his stories. It’s important for students to see that Jewish text is a centuries-long, living conversation that connects all of us to the past and continues to define our present. It’s a beautiful conversation, and I hope that with the help of Jewish day schools, it will live on.