Hebrew Grammar and Biblical Translations

September 5, 2018 by Joe Small

Ezekiel was surrounded by the ‘likeness’ of glory of the LORD, and he heard ‘someone’ speaking: “eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel” (Ezekiel 1:28, 3:1). Each week, pastors continue to eat what is offered to them, and continue to speak to the community of faith. From time to time, the Presbyterian Foundation will offer brief studies of Scripture that may be useful to pastors in teaching and preaching God’s word.

Bible Translations: Part 2

How many English translations of the Bible do we need? New translations appear at a dizzying pace, each one promising superior accuracy and readability. Few Bible readers have meaningful access to Hebrew and Greek, and so checking the original languages is only possible for scholars and the occasional pastor.

Two recent books provide insight into the problems caused by total reliance on English translations. In a previous post, I looked at David Bentley Hart’s The New Testament: A Translation (Yale University Press, 2017). This week, I am examining, The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Worlds of the Bible, by Aviya Kushner (Spiegel and Grau, 2015). You can read a review of her book in the Presbyterian Outlook. An Orthodox Jew, Kushner grew up in a Jewish enclave north of New York City.

She begins the introduction of her book, “When I was a child I assumed that all families discussed the grammar of the Bible in Hebrew at the dining room table. When I entered kindergarten, I heard to my shock, that most American-born children spoke English; I spoke only Hebrew then. On my first sleepover, I learned that many families did not discuss ancient grammar. Not over dinner, not at all.”

English translations were a shock

In her mid-20s, Aviya Kushner entered the renowned graduate writing program at the University of Iowa, where she encountered Marilynn Robinson. She studied Whitman, Dickinson, Emerson, Thoreau, and Melville with Robinson. Then, in Kushner’s second year in the program, she enrolled in a class on the Bible taught by Robinson. There, for the first time in her life, she read the Bible in English. She was surprised, and often shocked, by the English translations of the Hebrew she had read and discussed all her life.

“But perhaps the biggest surprise,” Kushner writes, “was the lone voice of the Bible I encountered in English. While it is possible to read the Hebrew Bible with just the text, 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 mikraot gedolot – ‘great scriptures’ – volumes in which each page is crammed with commentary surrounding the text of the Bible.” The commentary spanned centuries of insights, varying views, and arguments about the meaning of the text. The Bible was always read together with rabbis from different times and places. During all of the dinner table discussions when she was young, she and the Kushner family joined the conversation.

Aviya Kushner came to understand that English translations were also the product of centuries-long conversations, but the rich wisdom of the ages was invisible to readers. “Translation,” she writes, “often collapses all this conversation – the conversation of my entire life – into a one-word summary. Translation means that a translator has picked one word above all others: one winner, with all the finalists gone from the page forever. Translation always calls upon the translator to make a judgment call, and what the reader hears, then, is a judgment.” (Not only words, of course, but also grammar, syntax, pace, and flow.)

Most of the wonderful book explores specific texts, drawing readers into the Kushner family conversation with all the other past readers of the texts. The book is a delight to read, full of insights. It is also a cautionary tale for all who must rely on the translation judgements of others.

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