Commentary Magazine


The Hebrew Bible in Other Tongues:
Changing Letter, Changing Spirit

Does the Hebrew Bible, when translated into another language, lose much of its essential character, become a different book? Bible translation, we know, is inevitably not only a kind of commentary, but in a sense a recasting of the spirit as well as the letter. David Daiches here examines some notable translations of the Bible including several recent ones, indicates the differing interpretations that they represent, suggests what it is that may be lost, and speculates on whether we can hope, in English, to approach the original more closely than we have to date, while not renouncing literary flavor. 

_____________

 

The Hebrew Bible has been “the Book” to innumerable generations of Jews, and, translated into some other language, to generations of Puritan Christians. English-speaking Puritans in particular have made it a repository of maxims and a book of rules, to be taken literally and applied directly without the interposition of any tradition of interpretation. “Let them chant while they will of prerogatives, we shall tell them of Scripture; of custom, we of Scripture; of Acts and Statutes, still of Scripture . . .” wrote Milton, defending Presbyterianism against Episcopalianism.

This confidence in the divine truth of a much translated text, this lack of any fear that there may be some doubt as to what the Scriptures mean, was a conspicuous element in the Puritan tradition. Matthew Arnold, attacking the narrowness and complacency of 19th-century English Nonconformists, remarked scornfully that the Puritan Nonconformist resisted culture on the grounds that “he knew his Bible,” and added: “. . . whenever we hear this said, we may, without any elaborate defense of culture, content ourselves with answering simply: ‘No man, who knows nothing else, knows even his Bible.’“ Arnold’s point was that you can’t understand or appreciate the Bible unless you have some notion of what it really is—not a collection of magical texts, but the record, often in poetic and mythological terms, of the spiritual progress of a people. The same is true of its translations.

Today Jews are in the same boat with the Christians with regard to the Hebrew Bible. Both depend on translations, both are innocent of any traditional exegesis or interpretation. Yet translation itself involves implicit exegesis, and the translation we use will inevitably provide its own aura of meaning around a given text which may be quite different in another rendering. The aura is of two kinds, that provided by linguistic and stylistic aspects of a translation, and second, that provided by the conscious or unconscious embodiment into the translation of a particular religious point of view or atmosphere. The modern reader has many Bibles available to him, each professing to give the true meaning of the original, and unless he has some sophistication about the relation of a rendering to both a literary and a religious tradition, Arnold’s charge may well be relevant. Knowing nothing else, he will not know his Bible. Let us, therefore, take a look at some of the problems involved in each of these two categories, beginning with the literary.

_____________

 

I

Perhaps the best-known passage from the Bible, to English-speaking people, is the King James rendering of the Twenty-third Psalm:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

This is an English poem, grave and pellucid in style, and it has left a permanent influence on the imagery of English poetry and the rhythms of English prose. Its tone, one might say, is Anglican, the same tone that we find in that great Church of England poet, George Herbert. A Hebrew psalm has in this version become an Anglican poem; it is a rendering of the original Hebrew, true enough, but the rendering is stamped with the temper of those who made it. Phrases such as “green pastures” and “still waters,” which are so important in setting the tone of the whole poem, are not, in fact, literal renderings of the Hebrew “bin’ot deshe“ and “al mei m’nuchot“ which mean, respectively, “by pastures of tender grass” and “by waters of quietness.” The Douay version, translating from the Latin Vulgate (the translation from the Hebrew made by Jerome in the 4th century C.E., and given final form in 1592), renders the second verse: “in place of pasture there he hath placed me. Upon the water of refection he hath brought me up”—and though the literal meaning is similar, the lyric flow has disappeared.

But the difference is not doctrinal. The Anglican calm of the King James rendering (1611) does not arise from the fact that the King James translators were drawing on the special features of their version of Protestant Christianity, for much of the distinctive phrasing of their translation of this psalm came originally from the Geneva translation of 1560, which was the work of Puritans who translated before the Anglican compromise and who would not have accepted it if they had known of it. The Geneva version begins: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shal not want. He maketh me to rest in grene pasture, and leadeth me by the stil waters. He restoreth my soule. . . .” The English Psalter of 1530 begins the psalm: “The lorde is my pastore and feader: wherfore I shal not wante. He made me to feade on a full plenteous batle grownde: and did dryve and retche me at layser by the swete ryvers.”

The personality of the psalm, as it were, differs in each rendering. In the Latin Vulgate, the notion of “shepherd” disappears completely, and instead of the psalm opening “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want,” it begins: “Dominus regit me, et ni-hil mihi deerit”—”The Lord rules me, and nothing will be lacking to me.” The “green pastures” of the Geneva and King James versions are in the Vulgate the much more factual, even technical, “in loco pascuae,“ while “super aquam refectionis“ (“upon the water of refection,” as we have seen Douay translate it) stresses the reviving nature of the waters and says nothing about their stillness. The whole tone of the psalm is more businesslike and practical in the Vulgate.

Luther’s German version (about 1521-34) has the greenness, but makes the water fresh rather than still: “Er weidet mich auf einer grünen Aue, und führet mich zum frischen Wasser.” This is not too far removed from the King James version, though the first verse in Luther—“Der Herr ist mein Hirte; mir wird nichts mangeln”—has not the flow of the English, owing largely to the accumulation of consonants. “Mir wird nichts mangeln” is much more of a mouthful than the liquid “I shall not want.” And no European version has the perfect simplicity of the Hebrew “Adonai ro-i, lo echsor.“

If you cannot achieve the simplicity of the Hebrew original, you can try for a quite different effect. Here are the first two verses of the psalm in the French Bible of Lemaistre de Saci:

C’est le Seigneur qui me conduit: rien ne pourra me manquer.

Il m’a éstabli dans un lieu abondant en pâturages: il m’a élevé près d’une eau fortifiante.

This is translated from the Latin Vulgate, not the Hebrew, but it is equally removed in tone from both. Nor does it bear any resemblance to the efficient German or the limpid English. The first verse reads like a line from a neo-classic tragedy. One can almost imagine someone inquiring of the heroine—Phèdre, say—“Ah Phèdre, who leads you yonder through the dark?” and Phèdre answering: “C’est le Seigneur qui me conduit: rien ne pourra me manquer”—“ Tis the noble Lord himself who leads me. . . .” And the “lieu abondant en páturages” suggests Marie Antoinette playing at being a milkmaid rather than the realities of pastoral life in Palestine. The “eau fortifiante” has overtones of both brandy and smelling salts.

_____________

 

Thus every language, and sometimes every age, produces its own Bible. The King James Bible, with which English-speaking readers are most familiar, represented the final successful attempt, after nearly a hundred years of continuous effort, to put the Bible into an English which does no violence to the natural genius of the language: the Hebrew Bible is in this version a work of English literature and has all the assurance of an original English work. One can see this assurance developing through the earlier versions. Here is the King James rendering of Joshua 24:26: “And Joshua wrote these words in the book of the law of God, and took a great stone, and set it up there under an oak, that was by the sanctuary of the Lord.” This is a simple enough sentence, done in workmanlike prose, flowing naturally, with nothing forced or artificial about it. (Compare it with the version in Matthew’s Bible of 1557: “And Josua wrote these wordes in the boke of the law of God, and toke a great stonne and pitched it on ends in the sayde place euen vnder an ocke that stode in the sanctuary of the Lords.” There is a verbosity here, arising from the translator’s anxiety to get in all of his original, and as a result the tone is somewhat forced, the passage is not yet properly acclimated in English.) The Hebrew Bible, thus properly domiciled in 17th-century English (and 17th-century English, which Dr. Johnson in his Dictionary drew on as the great standard of English vocabulary, has become the norm of English religious speech), has a quality, a tone, a meaning as different from the original as from any other translation.

Luther’s Bible, which is the German equivalent of the English King James, gives a very different feel to the passage from Joshua quoted above: “Und Josua schrieb dies alles ins Gesetzbuch Gottes; und nahm einen grossen Stein und richtete ihn auf deselbst einer Eiche, die bey dem Heiligthum des Herrn war.” How different in essential meaning is “ins Gesetzbuch Gottes” from “in the book of the law of God,” and again how different both these renderings are from the three stark Hebrew words, “be’ sefer torat Elohim.“ The German is stark in its own way, but with the starkness of a report written by an efficient civil servant. The English, with its long run of monosyllables, each a word of elemental significance—“book,” “law,” “God”—has certain overtones of familiarity, or at least of simple customariness, for all its dignity. Yet Hebrew, King James, and Luther are more like each other than any of the three is to the English version of Monsignor Knox, who renders the phrase “in the book which contained the divine law,” adding a verb and changing a noun phrase into an adjective, and giving a sophisticated abstractness to the whole notion.

_____________

 

A good test of the intention of any translator, or group of translators, is their rendering of the very first verse of the Hebrew Bible. The King James translators render: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth,” and you might think that this was the only possible way to translate a very straightforward original (unless, perhaps, like the translators of the Revised Standard Version, you decided to make “heaven” plural, because of the form of shamayim). Monsignor Knox, however, renders the sentence: “God, at the beginning of time, created heaven and earth,” which is a very different idiom indeed, an idiom of didactic elegance rather than of primitive simplicity. The French has something of Monsignor Knox’s tone: “Au commencement Dieu aréa le ciel et la terre,” which becomes even more pronounced in the following verse: “La terre itait informe et toute nue; les ténèbres couvraient la face de l’abîme; et l’Esprit de Dieu était porté sur les eaux.“ The difference between this and the King James—”And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the earth. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters”—is the difference between Virgil and Homer, between the artificial epic and the natural epic. Indeed, such a phrase as “les ténèbres couvraient la face de l’abîme” might have come out of Victor Hugo. Luther is much more like King James: “Am Anfang schuf Gott Himmel und Erie . Und die Erde war wüste und leer, und es war finster auf der Tiefe; und der Geist Gottes schwebete auf dem Wasser.”

The interesting word in the German is “schwebete”—“hung in suspense,” “hovered,”—as a rendering of the Hebrew merachefet. Both the King James and the Douay versions render simply “moved,” while the Vulgate has “ferebatur” (“was borne”) translated in the French version as “était porté.” There is a long exegetical tradition, both Jewish and Christian, attached to this word. Rashi explains that the Throne of Glory was suspended in the air and hovered over the face of the waters, sustained by the breath (the Hebrew ruach means both “breath” and “spirit”) of God and God’s command, like a dove hovering over the nest. Basil and other Patristic commentators render “incubabat,” which again has the notion of brooding and hatching. And in Paradise Lost Milton (who knew Hebrew well) wrote of the Holy Spirit:

            Thou from the first
Wast present, and with mighty wings out-
    spread
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad’st it pregnant.

Sir Thomas Browne, in his Religio Medici, has the sentence: “That is that gentle heat that brooded on the waters, and in six days hatched the world.” And Andrew Marvell, in his poem “The Waterfall,” has the following lines:

Unless that Spirit lead his mind
Which first upon thy face did move,
And hatch’d all with his quickning love.

In the face of this strong tradition in favor of the notion of brooding and hatching implied in merachefet, the King James translators stuck to the simple word “moved.” The case is interesting, for as a rule the use of Biblical ideas of this kind in English literature after 1611 came through the King James version. But here there was no word which would express in English the varied suggestions attached to the original and, rather than do violence to the language, the translators kept the simple and general word “moved.” It is testimony to the importance they attached to simple idiomatic English.

_____________

 

Consider another example. Most of us know the openings of the 40th chapter of Isaiah from Handel’s magnificent setting of “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people,” in the Messiah. The whole of that passage in English has a fine cadence to it, rising to a climax on “her iniquity is pardoned,” and dying away immediately afterwards to a perfect close. (Handel, who wanted to end on the climax, left out the closing phrase, which was probably awkward for him doctrinally as well.)

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.

Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she has received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

The meaning of the grand opening phrase is not clear. It seems to mean “Comfort yourselves, my people,” but in fact the “ye” is not reflexive and the true sense is accurately rendered by the Geneva translators in their “Comfort my people (o ye prophetes).” The King James translators risked ambiguity, not this time in order to keep the individual words simple, but for the sake of the cadence. (There is even some reason for believing that they deliberately tried to imitate the rhythm of the original Hebrew, and put in the ambiguous “ye” so that the phrase would correspond in its cadence with the Hebrew “nachamu, nachamu, ami.”) The Vulgate does have the reflexive sense; there God is calling on the people to comfort themselves: “Consolamini, consolamini popule /?/ , dicit Dews vester,” which the French renders: “Consolez-vous, mon peuple, con-solez vous, dit votre Dieu.” (The Latin version of Sebastian Münster has, correctly, “Consolamini [O Prophetae] consolamini populum meum.”) The ceremonial note of the English disappears in the more utilitarian Vulgate (though Vulgate Latin has a sonority of its own) and, even more completely, in the elegant French. The French, indeed, sounds to English ears rather like a ticket agent announcing politely to a crowd of customers that all his tickets are sold out and they must comfort themselves as best they can. Luther renders: “Tröstet, tröstet, mein Volk, spricht euer Gott,” which is forceful and effective. The German continues: “Redet mit Jerusalem freundlich und prediget ihr, dass ihre Ritterschaft ein Ende hat, denn ihre Missethat ist vergeben; denn sie hat zweyfältiges empfangen von der Hand des Herrn, um alle ihre Sünde.” This sounds a bit like a list of instructions issued in triplicate to subordinate officials, but it has good prose rhythm and a fine solidity. Solidity is perhaps the characteristic quality of Luther’s Bible. The King James English Bible has a flowing limpidity combined with occasional ritual overtones; the French Bible is elegant and polished and discreet; the German Bible has a solid middle-class ring about it—it is a book for substantial bürgerliche readers who stand no nonsense. A simple Bible, a polite Bible, a bourgeois Bible—and the Hebrew Bible is none of these.

_____________

 

There are some passages which bring out unsuspected qualities in any translation. One of these is the famous and difficult one from the last chapter of Ecclesiastes. The King James version reads:

In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremhle, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows be darkened,

And the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low, and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of music shall be brought low;

Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets:

Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern.

The Douay Bible, rendering literally from the Vulgate, reads:

When the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall stagger, and the grinders shall be idle in a small number, and they that look through the holes shall be darkened:

And they shall shut the doors in the street, when the grinder’s voice shall be low, and they shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of music shall grow deaf.

And they shall fear high things, and they shall be afraid in the way, the almond tree shall flourish, the locust shall be made fat, and the caper-tree shall be destroyed: because man shall go into the house of his eternity, and the mourners shall go round about in the street.

Before the silver cord be broken, and the golden fillet shrink back, and the pitcher be crushed at the fountain, and the wheel be broken upon the cistern.

The obscurity is equal in both versions. The King James version makes capital out of the obscurity by choosing words which, although simple in themselves, have overtones of echoing suggestion. “And all the daughters of music shall be brought low” is more suggestive than the matter-of-fact “shall grow deaf” of the Vulgate; and “Or ever the silver cord be loosed” more evocative than “before the silver cord be broken.” Douay tries to bully the true sense out of the words by rendering each one with literal correctness; King James, while as literal as it can be, chooses words which suggest meanings even when the precise significance is obscure. Thus the King James Ecclesiastes is an English prose poem, and the Douay Ecclestastes is a very competent rendering of a difficult Vulgate text.

Dr. Gordis, in his version, gives us the modern scholar’s view of what the Hebrew really means:

In the day when the watchmen of the house
    tremble,
And the strong men are bent.
The grinding maidens cease, for they are few,
And the ladies peering through the lattices
    grow dim.

When the doubled doors on the street are shut,
And the voice of the mill becomes low.
One wakes at the sound of a bird,
And all the daughters of song are laid low.
When one fears to climb a height,
And terrors lurk in a walk.

The hair grows white, like ripe almond-blossom,
The frame, bent like a grasshopper, becomes a
    burden,
And the caper-berry can no longer stimulate
    desire.
So man goes to his eternal home,
While the hired mourners walk about the
    street. . . .

This certainly clears up many obscurities. Much of the suggestiveness is gone, but we really do know what the passage is all about. To read this after reading the King James version is like looking at a distant mountain view after the mist has cleared and the sun has come out; in the mist it seemed wonderful and romantic, but we could not make out the individual features of the scene at all. Clear and simple though the King James Bible so often is, its readers respond more often than they think to the vague thrill of the mist-enwrapped view rather than to the detail of the landscape. (One could go through the Book of Job, for example, and point out scores of phrases which, in the King James rendering, have had an immense influence on the development of English religious thought—every one of them misunderstood. But this is partly due to mistranslation of a difficult text.)

Consider now Lemaistre de Saci’s French translation:

lorseque les gardes de la maison commenceront à trembler, que les hommes les plus forts s’ébranleront; que celles qui avaient accoutumé de moudre, seront réduites en petit nombre et deviendront oisives, et que ceux qui regardaient par les trous seront converts de ténèbres;

quand on fermera les portes de la rue, quand la voix de celle qui avait accoutumé de moudre sera faible, qu’on se levera aw chant de l’oiseau et que les piles de l’harmonie deviendront sourdes;

quand on aura même peur des lieux élevés, et qu’on craindra en chemin; quand l’amandier fleurira, que la sauterelle s’engraissera, et que les câpres se dissiperont; parce que l’homme s’en ira dans la maison de son éternité, et qu’on marchera en pleurant autour des rues;

avant que la chaine d’argent soit rompue, que la bandelette d’or se rétire, que la cruche se brise sur la fontaine, et que la roue se rompe sur la citerne.

The rhythms here are not dissimilar to those of the King James Bible—they derive from the grouping of the phrases in the original Hebrew, and carry over in some degree into all translations—but there is a tone of secular elegance about the French which derives from some profound quality of the French literary language. (What an extraordinary reduction in scale is effected, for example, when one sees the Twelve Minor Prophets referred to in a French commentary as “Les douze petits prophètes,”—like ten little Indians.) And while the German retains the note of romantic suggestion, it seems more solidly grounded in physical occurrences than the English:

. . . Und die Thüren auf der Gasse geschlossen werden, dass die Stimme der Müllrin leise wird, und erwachet, wenn der Vogel singet, und sich bücken alle Töchter des Gesangs. . . .

There is something about “Vogel” that is lacking in “bird,” and a phrase such as “und erwachet, wenn der Vogel singet” suggests a characteristic phase of German Romantic poetry, while “and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird” (every word a monosyllable) has an elemental folk feeling. The whole German rendering of this passage is to the English of the King James version rather what the heavy magic of Heine’s “Das ist der alte Märchenwald” is to the less sophisticated mystery of one of Wordsworth’s “Lucy” poems—

Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course
With rocks and stones and trees.

_____________

 

There are, of course, other translations of the Hebrew Bible besides English, French, and German, each of which has its special flavor. The Italian, for example, sounds curiously un-Scriptural to those—and they probably include most non-Italian readers of the language—who have got used to Dante as the standard Italian example of a serious, formal yet simple imagery and vocabulary, and it is always a shock to find the Italian Bible sounding more like the Decameron than the Divina Commedia.

There is no limit to the comparing of different translations of the Hebrew Bible, or to the different kinds of passages—narrative, prophetic, lyrical, gnomic—whose varying appearance in different languages can be discussed. The Hebrew Bible is the source of many different Bibles, each drawing out some quality in the original which would not at first sight strike the reader of the Hebrew text, each Biblical in its way, yet none that can claim to reflect wholly the Hebrew Bible. But then what “the Hebrew Bible” is can never be fully stated: it, too, has been a different book to different readers and to different generations.

_____________

 

II

The second question to be asked about the translation of the Bible is perhaps more profound than the literary one. Have different religions and different denominations managed to produce renderings which convey a significance peculiar to their own beliefs? This is certainly true of some key passages in, for example, the Prophets and the Book of Job. “For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth,” is the King James rendering of Job 19:25, and the reference is considered to be to the coming of Jesus. The Jewish Publication Society of America produced a notable translation in 1917 (to be referred to henceforth as the American Jewish translation) which renders the verse: “But as for me, I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He will witness at the last upon the dust.” Here the Redeemer is, of course, God. In fact, however, the Hebrew word goali in this context probably has a legal significance: much of the Book of Job is couched in legal terminology, with Job demanding to know what offense he is charged with and asking for a defending counsel to take up his cause. In this verse he seems to be expressing confidence that eventually a defending attorney will stand up for him (against the satan, who is not the Devil, but the Angel charged with public prosecutions, as it were, by God). Both Jewish and Christian interpreters have taken a more general, and indeed a more impressive meaning out of the text, but in doing so they have obscured the significance of much of its characteristic imagery.

A more obvious case is Isaiah 7:14, where the traditional Christian rendering was for centuries: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive. . . .” and the passage was taken as a prophesy of the virgin birth of Jesus. Modern Christian scholarship recognizes that “virgin” is a deliberate mistranslation of the Hebrew, and the recently published Revised Standard Version reads: “Behold, a young woman shall conceive,” in agreement with Jewish renderings. Then there is Isaiah 14:12, translated in the King James Bible as: “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning,” in accordance with the traditional Christian view that this is a reference to the fall of Satan. But the Hebrew word helel means “morning star” (rendered in Latin as “lucifer,”“ light-bearer”) and the prophet is using the term figuratively for Babylon, which had fallen from its position of power and radiance, and whose inhabitants worshipped Istar, the morning star. The American Jewish translation renders this: “How art thou fallen from heaven, O day-star son of the morning!” while Revised Standard Version renders similarly: “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn!” Modern scholars, whatever their religious beliefs, tend to put accuracy before doctrine; as a result there is much less difference between Jewish and Christian renderings of the Hebrew Bible today than there was three centuries ago.

More interesting, perhaps, than differences in the rendering of individual words and phrases are the doctrinal implications of a translation as a whole. So long as the Catholic church did not believe in vernacular translations, and held even the Vulgate to be what might almost be called a difficult technical book for the professional churchman, there was no attempt to give grace and polish to Biblical renderings. The medieval Catholic layman got his knowledge of the Bible indirectly through sermons and other intermediary presentations by priests. And when the climate of opinion eventually moved the Catholic church to bring out its own English translation, at the beginning of the 17th century, it produced a clumsy literal rendering from the Vulgate. In direct contrast, left-wing Protestantism believed in the Bible as the only true source of the Christian religion and strove to make vernacular versions available to all. But the belief in the literal verbal inspiration of the Bible which accompanied this attitude led to the Bible’s being regarded as a sort of divine reference book, to be quoted, regardless of the general context of any given passage, as a series of separable texts, each with its own precise, literal significance. This produced no more feeling for literary style than the Catholic belief in the nature of the Bible.

It was left for the Anglican Church, which believed in vernacular translation without going so far as the bibliolatry of the Puritans and considered the Bible as a monument of divine eloquence rather than as a divine reference book, to sponsor Bible translation as a work of literature as well as a work of theology. The King James Bible, more than any other Biblical translation in any European language, was a literary rendering; it was not a “crib” or “pony,” but a work of literature in its own right, written in a style which generations of translators had gradually developed as the appropriate English one for that kind of work. It is interesting that now that the Catholic church has long regarded vernacular translations as perfectly proper, the modern Catholic translator tries hard to be literary rather than technical in his rendering. Monsignor Knox’s translation of the Old Testament is the most “literary” ever produced; it is written in a deliberately artificial style, with carefully modulated rhythms, paragraphs rising and falling in studied cadence, and sentences flowing like those of the later George Moore.

Thus Noemi left her dwelling-place; and when she set foot on the road that led to the domain of Juda, she turned to her companions, and bade either go back to her mother’s house; May the Lord show kindness to you, she said, as you have shown kindness to the memory of the dead, and to me; may you live at ease with new husbands. And with that she gave them a parting kiss. But no, they wept aloud, and declared they would go on in her company, to the home of her own people. Come with me, my daughters? she answered. Nay, you must go back. I have no more sons in my womb to wed you; go back, daughters, and leave me; I am an old woman, past the age for marrying. . ..

This is a remarkable accomplishment, and not merely a stylistic one, for there is much scholarship distilled in each turn of phrase; yet one cannot help feeling that this is almost too literary, that the churchman converted to the view that the Bible, a basic technical document of his faith, is also a supreme work of literature is demonstrating rather too flamboyandy his new state of mind.

To most English-speaking readers, the literary style—or styles, rather, for the Bible has many—made popular by the King James Version seem to be most appropriate because they are the most familiar, and the problem is to make the Bible more accurate without losing that cherished traditional flavor. The Revised Standard Version, which is a revision of a revision of King James, retains some of its magic, but it has inevitably also lost much in its striving after greater accuracy. The American Jewish translation, though it called itself a “new translation,” kept the basic idiom of King James more than might have been expected. (For example, it preserved the misleading “ye” in “Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people,” where Revised Standard Version has: “Comfort, comfort my people says your God.”)

_____________

 

What do American Jews demand of an English translation of the Bible? Most of them have lost that loving yet often mechanical familiarity with the Hebrew text, best illustrated by the rapid pattering of tillim, that their grandfathers had; and in any case nobody today has the magical attitude to the Biblical word which lay behind such a familiarity. What is wanted now, surely, is a translation both accurate and graceful.

Such a translation would be bound to abandon even more of the King James tradition than either the Revised Standard Version or the American Jewish translation has done; yet to go to the other extreme and deliberately cut off the poetic overtones of the original (as Dr. Gordis sometimes did in his version of Ecclesiastes, rendering, for example, “Cast thy bread upon the waters” as “Send your goods overseas,” which is a dull paraphrase, not a translation) is useless self-denial. A scholarly literary translation deriving without prejudice or preconception from the best scholarship wherever it is found, and creating its own style as it moves according to the literary forms of the original, about which so much new knowledge is now available, is a desideratum for Jew and Gentile alike. But the problem is not as easy as this.

The Bible is not only what modern scholarship holds the text to mean; it is also what the text has meant to generations of devout readers. Modern scholarship, after all, is concerned to reconstruct the meaning originally intended by the first writers or compilers of the text; but the meaning cannot have been constant even for those early writers. The simplest lyric poem, as every modern critic knows, takes on new meanings with each sensitive reading, and how much more so must a work like the Bible! Can modern Jewish scholarship in the English-speaking world conceive of a translation which, while accurate and literary, manages at the same time to convey in its idiom something of what the Hebrew Bible has meant to generations of religious Jews from Ezra to Claude Montefiore? The triumph of the song of Moses, the lyric wail of Lamentations, the sonorous chanting of the Prophets, the festive recitals of megillat Esther, the declaratory avowal of the shema—to name only a few of the infinitely varied Jewish moods and tones in the Hebrew Bible—have emerged in a very special way in Jewish history. There is not much suggestion of any of this in the King James Bible, magnificent as it is, and though there is a little in the American Jewish version, it is only a little. “I will sing unto the Lord, for he hath triumphed gloriously,” is the King James rendering of “ashira l’Adonai ki gao ga-a,” and while the note of combined exaltation and exultation is suggested here, there is nothing of the fierce alliterative brevity of the Hebrew (where the verb is intensified by repeating the infinitive form before the perfect) or of the triumphal note in the voice of the chazan as he chanted the song in the traditional cantillation. The American Jewish rendering: “I will sing unto the Lord, for he is highly exalted,” is a little better, because more compact, and it gets something of the essence of gao ga-a with its suggestion of majesty, exaltation, and (in the wholly literal sense) uplift; but it is not good enough, for it loses completely the implication of triumph.

Revised Standard Version goes as far as modern scholarship can go in rendering the Bible from the original in an idiom which combines accuracy with the King James tradition. Is it Utopian to suggest that modern Jewish scholarship and literary skill might go further and produce a version of the Hebrew Bible which will succeed, in virtue of its style and tone, in recapturing something of the rich and vivid implications of Biblical story, song, and prophecy as sensed throughout their long history by those who first produced them?

_____________

 

About the Author




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.