25 October, 2011

Translating creation

Filed under: Divrei Torah,Hebrew,Siddur,Tanakh by Joel @ 11:18 pm, 25 October 2011.

A dvar torah, given at Or Chadash, Parashat Bereshit, 22/10/2011.

In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep.

This line is so familiar and iconic, that you probably didn’t even notice when your own chumash said something else entirely. If you’re using the Hertz chumash, you’re excused; that’s precisely how it begins. Whereas:-

Artscroll says:

In the beginning of God’s creating the heavens and the earth – when the earth was astonishingly empty, with darkness upon the surface of the deep…

NJPS says:

When God began to create heaven and earth – the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep…

They both understand the opening verse in agreement with Rashi and Ibn Ezra, who both contend that here the word בראשית means “the beginning of”, not just “the beginning”. Still, these medieval commentators were potentially influenced by the science of their day, and certainly by the vowels on the Torah text, which were first written down only a few centuries before them. (Had the Masoretic scribes written בָראשית, the reading “In the beginning, God created…” would be clear. Instead, the Masoretic vowels seem to indicate “in the beginning of” or “in a beginning”, as the LXX translates.) Yet, it makes sense that the translation בראשית ברא אלהים is introducing the Bible’s whole first chapter, which concludes with ויכולו השמים והארץ (“the heaven and the earth were finished”).

We already see from this that a good translation takes account of fiddly grammar, textual context, and cultural context. Seeing as none of us are native speakers of Biblical Hebrew, translations are a very important part of how we understand the bible, among other essential Jewish texts.

Never mind tricky words like תהו and בהו and תהום (which are tricky because they are rare nouns from rare roots, with abstract meanings). Instead, take the common, simpler words שמים “heaven” and ארץ “earth”.
If we instead say “God created the sky and the land”, it means something subtly different. Through the word heaven, the reader views the action from a distance, either a transcendent heaven, an abode of gods; or what Jenny described as “a sort of cosmological David Attenborough, sunrise breaking over the globe viewed from a spaceship”. But with “sky and land”, the reader is firmly planted in the middle of the action of creation.

Not only is “sky” a plausible translation; Ibn Ezra – mediaeval grammarian par excellence – states “השמים: בה”א הידיעה להורות כי על אלה הנראים ידבר” (i.e. the definite article “the” indicates the visible shamayim); but also, the word sky didn’t mean “sky” when it first arrived in English. It came from Old Norse round-about the 13th century and meant “cloud”, and slowly took the place of the native word heofon. The word “heaven” and its ancestors have been used in all English translations of the first verse that I could put my hands on; but even as late as the famous King James Version in the first decade of the 17th century, the word didn’t necessarily imply the transcendence we now associate with “heaven”.

At least as problematic is the word “firmament” still used by the Artscroll Chumash. Who here has used the word “firmament” in conversation? In legal proceedings? In academic papers (excluding those about cosmology)? Who here knows what it means? The Hebrew word רקיע, which it translates, comes from a root meaning to beat metal, or to tread, or to spread out. The (not-so-new) New JPS translation gives the word “expanse”, but it was probably once understood as an arched physical surface, a curved metal sheet bearing the upper waters, on which stars would appear.

In reality, translators try to write translations that are accurate and readable. (Translation theory describes a readable translation as transparent, in that there should be no clue that a text was written in a foreign language.) While it is certainly possible to create translations that are neither faithful to the original nor pleasant to read – and some have placed Artscroll’s earlier works in that bucket – the two are usually in a trade-off.

Seeking to translate a text very literally will often produce something barely readable. However, when it comes to bible translations, some popular literal translations have instead just introduced new terms and turns of phrase into English, like passover and scapegoat from William Tyndale’s 16th century translation.

On the other hand, I thank Wikipedia for the following rather poncey quote from John Dryden (1631-1700):

When [words] appear … literally graceful, it were an injury to the author that they should be changed. But since… what is beautiful in one [language] is often barbarous, nay sometimes nonsense, in another, it would be unreasonable to limit a translator to the narrow compass of his author’s words: (’tis enough if he choose out some expression which does not vitiate [devalue] the sense).

When I think of translations that sacrifice accuracy for – in this case – singability, I think of the Barry Sisters.
For those unaware of two of the most celebrated klezmer singers of the 20th century, Merna and Claire Bagelman became Minnie and Clara Barry on the stages of New York, singing Kosher classics like:

tzeina tzeina tzeina tzeina
habenaut ureina chayaleem bemowshava1

But they liked to add another verse for their audience without a working knowledge of Hebrew. However, instead of a literal translation like:

Go out, go out, go out, go out
Go out all the girls
and see the soldiers in the town.
Do not, do not, do not, do not,
do not hide away from a son of valour,
an army man!

No; instead they offer the following reinterpretation of the song:

tzena tzena tzena tzena
sing a happy song and celebrate this happy day
tzena tzena tzena tzena
come and join us; sing a hora
dance- the night away (whoop up)2

Perhaps already by their rendition’s release in 1961, the original lyric wasn’t so politically correct. Or perhaps they deemed it unpoetic.

To that extent, when considering the art of translation, we should also factor in its purpose. For example, bible translations benefit from familiarity; after all, the congregation needs to know what’s being referred to in a sermon. This may result in large slabs of King James Version’s fossilised translations being pulled into new editions of the bible text, despite the fact that the language used in that version no longer means the same thing.

We have already mentioned “firmament”. Another important case is Kohelet’s “vanity of vanities! all is vanity!”. The word “vanity” only recently lost its primary meaning of worthlessness and futility, and now it is mostly used for self-regard. The Hebrew word הבל means “vapour”, which is not the same as the “futility” Artscroll uses. Rather, vapour carries the sense of something insubstantial and fleeting, impossible to grasp. Perhaps for ease and perhaps for familiarity, the 1917 Jewish Publication Society translation simply adopted “vanity” and other fossilised King James translations.

Another concern is acceptability: a certain bible translation might need to be socially acceptable, and theologically acceptable. The Aramaic targum of Onqelos, for instance, is famous for trying to lessen the anthropomorphism of God found in the Hebrew text. If you’re watching closely next week you will notice that in investigating the Tower of Babel the Hebrew states וַיֵּרֶד ה (Gn 11:5), literally “God descended”; but Onqelos renders it ואתגלי ה (“God was revealed” or “God appeared”).

Social acceptability might mean euphemism is used instead of literal translation. It is hard to know whether bible texts still use the phrase “Lord of Hosts” because it is the familiar fossilised translation of King James, or because it is now more socially acceptable than “Lord of Armies”.

In other cases, the bible text and its masoretic notes already provide the euphemism,
so much so that when in chapter 4 in this week’s parasha, the text states, האדם ידע את חוה אשתו, most English editions copy it literally: “Adam [or the man] knew his wife” [or, perhaps, “his woman”]… In the words of Monty Python, nudge, nudge, know what I mean?

Nowadays, some bibles are getting with the times and the changing ideas of social acceptability, and offer less prudish alternatives: now, Adam alternately “had relations” (NASB), “had sexual relations” (NLT), “lay” (NIV), or “made love to” (GOD’S WORD) his wife Eve. I can’t help but mention the so-called Bible in Basic English, which says “And the man had connection with Eve his wife” [wtf?] which is arguably far from being either readable or accurate, but is certainly not basic English! It certainly seems to be an example of going too far in making the translation socially acceptable.

The idea of accuracy or faithfulness to the original is also complicated because a single expression might have multiple meanings. The translator might choose to convey one meaning clearly, or they might try to retain the range of ambiguities in the original word.

If you reopen your Artscroll siddurim to page 12, you’ll find a prominent word that is difficult to translate. In Biblical Hebrew, עולם apparently always indicates “remote time” or “ages” or perhaps “eternity”. This allows for allows for expressions like לעולם (“forever”, or “for an age”, or “until a remote time”), מן העולם ועד העולם (“from the remote past to the remote future”), לעולמים (perhaps “for many ages” or “for past and future ages”). [Other biblical expressions like עם עולם and חרבות עולם suggest that it is not strictly a reference to “eternal”.]

In later Hebrew, perhaps under the influence of Aramaic, עולם takes on the meaning “world” or “universe”; and the word תבל which once meant the same fades out of common usage. The poets who authored bits of our siddur could then play with the two shades of meaning, hovering between time and space. Is עולם הבא a “world to come”, or a “time to come”?

We should get back to page 12. Take a look at the first couple of lines: אדון עולם אשר מלך בטרם כל יציר נברא. If you had the choice to translate the first two words either as “Master of the world” or “Master of time”, which would you choose? The context seems to favour “time” in my opinion. Is there a translation that could get across both the sense of space and time? Perhaps that is why both the new siddurim we are considering (Koren/Sacks and Expanded Artscroll) use the same translation, “Master of the Universe”. So unfortunately, we can’t use that case to distinguish between them.

In short: Although some translations are certainly more accurate and more readable than others, ultimately, translations will change the way you understand a text. They are, effectively, interpretations, and one interpretation is never enough.

Going back to where we started, with בריאת עולם (whatever that might mean), if we refuse the common interpretation of “In the beginning God created heaven and earth”, we can understand that this description of creation is not necessarily the materialisation of everything that is and will come to be.

Once again I refer to Ibn Ezra, who says the root ברא, translated as “created”, need not mean להוציא יש מאין (creating something out of nothing). Each morning we cite Isaiah in calling God יוצר אור ובורא חושך (“fashioner of light and creator of darkness”), but if darkness is an absence of light, it cannot be created ex nihilo. Instead, Ibn Ezra suggests, the word ברא means to decree and to delineate.

The real creation is in what comes afterwards, the chain of events, מעולם ועד עתה, from ancient past to now. In our parasha, ברא is used in the past tense, but elsewhere, such as in this week’s haftara3 or in Psalm 146, God’s actions in creating the heaven/sky are described using what Biblical Hebrew grammarians call participles, but Modern Hebrew speakers think of as present tense. (This is in fact an interesting passage to compare between Artstroll (p. 71) and Sacks’ (p. 75) translations, but it is difficult to do so in a speech.) The tense of these words does not translate easily into English; it is not the same as present or progressive tense that we understand from modern Hebrew. Yet it could possibly be understood that God is maker of sky and land and sea, and continues to make them, as with guarding truth, doing justice for the oppressed, or feeding the hungry in Psalm 146.

Perhaps this chain of creation is also why the book of Genesis so frequently says “begat”, listing generation after generation, each person individuated by name (except, admittedly, for the women…). This idea of cycles and perpetual regeneration is borne out in the word תולדות (often translated as “generations”) used to introduce sections of Genesis, but also perhaps in the Hebrew conception of עולם, in contrast to the far-off, smooth and continuous sense of English eternity.

The Mishna in Sanhedrin (4:5) midrashically learns the value of an individual life from the story of Cain and Abel:

אינו אומר קול דם אחיך אלא “דמי אחיך” (בראשית ד:י), דמו ודם זרעייותיו… לפיכך נברא אדם יחידי בעולם, ללמד שכל המאבד נפש אחת, מעלים עליו כאילו איבד עולם מלא; וכל המקיים נפש אחת, מעלים עליו כאילו קיים עולם מלא.

It does not say “the voice of the blood of your brother”, rather “the voice of the bloods of your brother”4, referring to his blood and the blood of his descendents… Therefore Adam was created alone in the world, to teach that each person that destroys one life, we consider it as if he destroyed a full world; and each person that sustains one life, we consider it as if he sustained a whole world.

It is interesting that in listing the children Cain, the torah specifies “Yaval was ancestor to those with tents and herds”, and “Yuval was ancestor to players of lyre and pipe” and “Tuval-cain forged instruments of iron and copper”. So despite the Rabbinic understanding that this entire family line was wiped out by the flood, still they may each leave a heritage. And as Nachmanides says many times when commenting on the stories of Genesis, מעשה אבות סימן לבנים, “the deeds of the fathers are a sign to the sons”; so the ages of the past are like the ages of the future.

So while we rest on delineations set out from the beginning of creation, we needn’t be restrained by them; we each have the opportunity to act in the image of God, and to create a world, an age, an eternity.

Shabbat shalom.


  1. Yes, it’s a funny transcription, meant to reflect their — to my ears — funny pronunciation. On my original speech, it was in SAMPA. []
  2. Another Joel at shul informed me that indeed it was The Weavers that first brought Tzena to English, with another “translation” far from the original text. []
  3. from Isa. 42 []
  4. Gen. 4:1 []

1 Comment »

  1. Thanks!

    I look forward to spending more time reading this in greater depth when I have a chance, and also to seeing more of your divrei torah, regardless of their state of edited-ness :-)

    Comment by Jordan — 31 October, 2011 @ 9:14 pm

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