“The Grammar of God”, or why translation is so complex.

Imagine growing up with a book that was written in a certain language; hearing it recited and sung at special events, constantly discussing it in school and at dinner with your family, going over every minute grammatical detail, being exposed to commentaries from throughout history, and learning to become accustomed to its contradictions and ambiguities. Imagine that, one day, you come across that text’s English translation one day. You know that this book is popular throughout the world, and its translations are much more widely circulated than the original. You open up the English translation, and to your shock, from the very first verse it is almost unrecognizable.

Now, imagine if this book was the Bible.

Aviya Kushner, a writer from a small Jewish town near New York City, grew up reading the Bible in its original Hebrew. It wasn’t until graduate school that she came face-to-face with the Bible’s English translations, and to her surprise, some parts seemed like completely different texts when compared to the Hebrew. Her book The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible is more than just an engaging look into the way Jews have understood the Old Testament throughout history; it provides some incredible insights into the complex phenomenon that is translation.

Kushner’s book is part memoir, part scholarly analysis. I really appreciated her informal tone, which kept me interested even during long-winded descriptions of Hebrew grammar or the biography of a certain Jewish translator of the Bible. She describes her childhood and the way she grew up with the Bible in humorous, touching recollections, and then transitions effortlessly into a discussion of how the lack of punctuation in Hebrew compared to the explicit and varied punctuation of English dramatically affects one’s understanding of the first few verses of Genesis.

Without giving too much away, I want to highlight a couple of my favorite parts of this book. Firstly, Kushner’s recollection of the way in which she grew up reading the Bible:

“While it is possible to read the Hebrew Bible with just the text–what is called the pshat, literally “the simple or the plain”–that is not how I usually read it, and that is not how it is generally taught in yeshiva classrooms. In school, as a child, I read the Torah from books called mikraot gedolot–“great scriptures,” also called the Rabbinic Bible in English–volumes in which each page is crammed with commentary surrounding the text of the Bible in different languages, scripts, and fonts. To the side sat the words of Onkelos, a Roman convert to Judaism, whose great first-century translation into Aramaic can be read as a commentary. Beneath the text of the Bible lay Rashi’s commentary, expressing his thoughts in his special medieval script…

Around Rashi lay other commentators, rabbis chiming in from their perches in Spain, France, Germany, the Arab world, and Israel, spanning at least twelve centuries. Everything was up for discussion, and from my earliest memory I was taught to demand a second opinion, and a third, and a fourth, to cross borders of time and language in order to hear those multiple voices. The Hebrew text I grew up with is beautifully unruly, often ambiguous, multiple in meaning, and hard to pin down; many of the English translations are, above all, certain.”

Growing up encountering a sacred text surrounded by differing commentaries is really appealing to me–I’m kind of jealous of Kushner! In my personal view, when it comes to religion and religious scriptures in particular, everything really should be “up for discussion”, and the whole structure of mikraot gedolot is a concrete realization of this idea. I’ve come across a couple websites and books that displayed the verses of the Bhagavad Gita and Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras in a similar fashion, but I wish this convention could become more popular for all religious texts.

Kushner devotes plenty of pages to talking about the concrete implications that translation has for the meaning of the Bible, and the ways in which translation can be used to aid larger causes. One of the most chilling examples is that of slavery. During the period of slavery in America, Biblical passages were often cited in defense of slavery, presenting it as a fulfillment of God’s curse towards the descendants of Cain or, at the very least, as tolerated by God. However, the verses in the Bible that describe the slavery endured by the Jews in Egypt present a very different view of slavery, one that is not necessarily present in some English translations:

“In Hebrew, the beginning of slavery involves animalistic imagery that sears the soul; in English, this is toned way down, made much less disturbing, less cruel and visceral. Slavery in Egypt starts nice and easy in the King James translation, with a pleasant-sounding baby boom: “and the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them,” Exodus 1:7 reads. But in Hebrew, the passage is more ominous. The verb vayishretzu, which the King James Bible translates as “multiplied,” is actually the far more unsettling “they multiplied like little animals.” Even-Shoshan explains that the word sheretz refers to all small creatures who reproduce quickly and have numerous descendants, such as scorpions, frogs, and mice.”

For someone who has never read the Bible and knows even less about Judaism, I felt like The Grammar of God got me a little more up to speed–as much as any single book could. It really was a fascinating look at a text that is constantly relevant in today’s society, and I have gained a new appreciation towards the act of translation. Of course, we can’t read every work of world literature in its original language, and translation serves a valuable purpose in exposing us to perspectives we may never encounter otherwise. However, there is always another side to translation; one that makes me a little apprehensive. I think Kushner says it best:

“There is no perfect translation, because there is no way to bring a text fully from one culture to another, one language to another, one person to another–but every translation attempts to keep a book alive… We should read translations to know how those living next door understand the books we read in the privacy of our own home. And we should also always acknowledge that we are reading a translation–not the original text–and that there is another voice in the room, another mind at work, as we read.”

(image source 1, 2)