erónica Albin: During our conversations, Ilan, we have seen time and again the importance of translation for the advent of culture. Not only have translators invented alphabets, they have compiled dictionaries, contributed to the emergence of national languages and literatures, and, specifically to this piece, they have played a crucial role in the spread of religions.
Ilan Stavans: And a few truly brilliant ones were great project managers as well. The two saintly brothers, Cyril and Methodius, are among the best known. The so-called "Apostles to the Slavs" were children of privilege born in Salonika in the ninth century that did not waste a single opportunity to turn language into a vehicle of the holy. Of the two, Cyril is perhaps the most impressive intellect. Although a polymath, he particularly excelled in linguistics. The brothers not only translated Christian texts, they also created a linguistic abacusthe Glagolitic alphabetthat gave rise to what millions of people in Eastern Europe currently use to communicate: the Cyrillic alphabet. It was their work, started in 863, that allowed Christianity, with a localized Slavic liturgy, to spread throughout Eastern Europe.
The followers of the the Qu'ran dislike the fact that their sacred book is translated to other languages.
VA: In that fashion, I am interested in discussing the role translators have played in our understanding of the divine in the three major Western religions and in reflecting on the way translators and commentators performed their duties in translating sacred texts, particularly as these strategies relate to the terms used to describe God. For instance, I'm puzzled by the word God itself.
IS: It might be proper to start with an anecdote I read in a book called Eastern Religions and Western Thought (1939), by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, who once was president of India, and was repeated by the Swiss theologian Hans Küng in Does God Exist? (1980). "Once upon a time, Buddha relates, a certain king of Benares, desiring to divert himself, gathered together a number of beggars blind from birth and offered a prize to one who should give him the best account of an elephant. The first beggar who examined the elephant chanced to lay hold on the leg and reported that the elephant was a tree-trunk; the second, laying hold of the tail, declared that the elephant was a rope; another, who seized an ear, insisted that the elephant was like a palm-leaf; and so on. The beggars fell to quarreling with one another, and the king was greatly amused." The meaning of the anecdote is that our perception of reality is partial and defined by the limited scope of view each of us has. Radhakrishnan says that ordinary teachers who have grasped this or that aspect of the truth quarrel with each other, while only the Buddha knows the whole. Translators are not unlike the teachers Radhakrishnan mentions. Their attempt at translating sacred texts is defined by their own context, i.e., their own biased understanding of the world. And their disposition toward the word God is likewise tainted.
VA: Where does the word God come from?
IS: The etymology of God is rather vague. There might be a connection between the words God and good. Samuel Johnson plays with it in A Dictionary of the English Language. He writes: "God, n.s. [god, Saxon, which likewise signifies good. The same word passes in both senses with only accidental variations through all the Teutonick dialects.] God and good appeared to have had interchangeable pronunciations in Early and Middle English. Johnson goes on to write: "1. The Supreme Being. 2. The false god; an idol. 3. Any person or thing deified or too much honored." He quotes Hortensio at a crucial unmasking moment in Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew:
Mistake no more: I am not Licio,
Nor a musician, as I seem to be;
But one that scorn to live in this disguise,
For such a one as leaves a gentleman,
And makes a god of such a cullion.
VA: Yet Noah Webster did not believe there was a shared etymology.
IS: In fact, Webster seldom agreed with Johnson. In his American Dictionary of the English Language (ADEL) of 1828, he shoots down the etymology but comes up with an equally fanciful one: "As this word [God] and good are written exactly alike in Saxon, it has been inferred that God was named for his goodness. But the corresponding words in most of the other languages, are not the same, and I believe no instance can be found of a name given to the Supreme Being from the attribute of goodness. It is probably an idea too remote from the rude conceptions of men in the early ages. Except the word Jehovah, I have found the name of the Supreme Being to be usually taken from his supremacy or power, and to be equivalent to lord or ruler, from some root signifying to press or exert force." The emphasis is mine.
VA: How does the Oxford English Dictionary define God?
IS: For me, the OED, as you know, is the Bible. Its definition follows along Doctor Johnson's lines. The lexicon reads, in part: "1. A superhuman person (regarded as masculine) who is worshiped as having power over nature and the fortunes of mankind." And "2. An image or other artificial or natural object (as a pillar, a tree, a brute animal) which is worshiped, either as the symbol of an unseen divinity, as supposed to be animated by his indwelling presence, or as itself possessing some kind of divine consciousness and supernatural powers."
VA: Noah Webster uses a different approach to define the word God in his ADEL of 1828.
IS: The ADEL is an interesting dictionary. Just like the OED is a decoding dictionary for reading and understanding the great works of English literature, the ADEL is a Bible decoding dictionary: the Bible according to Noah Webster, that is. Like all dictionaries, the ADEL is very much the product of the lexicographer and his times.
VA: You have said in an earlier conversation with me, included in the book Knowledge and Censorship (2008), that dictionaries can be fashion stores. They either renew their inventory or go out of date, yet the facsimile edition of the 1828 ADEL, on both our shelves, is selling like hotcakes.
IS: It is very much back in vogue. It is printed by a Christian enterprise that caters to home-schooled children, and to a new breed of Christian schools called "Principle Schools," and it is part of a set of textbooks that make up "The Noah Plan," a curriculum based on biblical principles as interpreted by Noah Webster in the ADEL and in his Advice for the Young and his Moral Catechism.
VA: Are they translating contemporary history into an 1828 world view?
IS: Not just history. It is a complete K-12 curriculum; it is translating all knowledge, from algebra to zoology, through the mind of a brilliant early-nineteenth-century white, Christian man.
VA: Would Webster have approved of "The Noah Plan" and the use of the ADEL as the only dictionary to be allowed in a Christian home?
IS: Not if he was the man of firm convictions that I think he was. Reread his etymology of God quoted earlier. Just look at what he thinks of the great minds that came before him. He believes them incapable of anything but "rude conceptions," and he uses that expression specifically to refer to men of letters like himself, men who occupied their minds with the origin of words. Webster clearly would consider his own work, now almost two centuries old, as lacking in sophistication.
VA: Do we know if the lexicographers behind the Oxford English Dictionary were religious?
IS: You mean God-fearing? Simon Winchester, in The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary (2003), doesn't make much of the matter in his biographical inquiry of its chief editor, James Augustus Henry Murray, his amanuenses and other collaborators of the OED. For the most part, they were enlightened lexicographers, non-superstitious, for whom religion was more the realm of human knowledge.
In any event, the point I want to stress is that dictionaries, like translators, in their attempt to define a word like God with such religious connotations, end up concealing its meaning. They attempt the impossible: to achieve an understanding of that which is beyond words.
VA: Translation as concealment.
IS: Translation is not only the act of conveying in one language what is delivered in another. It is also an essential component of language in general. In the Saussurian view, there are two categoriesor four, depending on how one looks at it: the referent, which is the real object we're referring to. An apple, for instance. Then there is the sign: the idea and word humans use to refer to an apple. The sign is divided into two: the signified: the mental image of the apple that appears in our mind when we're about to talk about it; and the signifier, the shape of the word a-p-p-l-e: its phonemes.
The transition between the referent and the sign is, inevitably, an act of translation. From an actual object to the phoneme itself, there is a journey, a conversion from the actual to the symbolic. It's agreed that all human language is symbolic. Less accepted is the fact that all communication is an act of translation. This is because translation, by definition, is the transposition, the accommodation, the fitting of one system into another, be the first real and the second symbol, or be the two of them symbolic.
VA: Do you mean to say that all language involves translation?
IS: Exactly, although only in metaphorical terms. In Genesis 1:2:19-20, it reads (in the King James version): "19. And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof. 20. And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him." One the creation of the universe has been completed, God brings the cattle and the fowl to Adam to see what he would call them. In English, the sentence is, to employ an editorial expression today, a non sequitur. One does not see a name, unless the name is written down; instead, one hears it. And the name of objects in the world, the referents, doesn't come from God himself. It isn't the divine language which is active in this part of the narrative. It's the human language: Adam's words, which God will accept as the signs of the items He's created.
But when analyzed closely, the line to see what he would call them is perfectly consistent with the narrative. In Genesis 1 and 2, God's language is indeed active. It is He who says: Let there be light. And, in response to His utterance, there is light. Likewise with the rest of His creation, which comes in sequential order. After each component is added, God sees that it is good. The divine seeing is an imprimatur of approval. It isn't verbal but visual. The divine sees and is pleased.
In any case, it is Adam who names the creatures in the universe: And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field. Naming is a form of appropriation: the world is made with humans at its center. Humans name it and, in so doing, possess it. The naming isn't only a linguistic conquest. It is also a translation: from the visual to the verbal. This translation represents the cognitive advance that takes place in a child: while looking at the objects that surrounding adults point at them and pronounce a word: music, tree, blue... the child connects each object to a phoneme and that to others in a rapidly expanding network. A translating mechanism has occurred that takes the concrete to the symbolic.
VA: Wait! At some point in our dialogues you and I will no doubt get into a head-on about how children acquire language; for now, let's talk about the first part of your response to my question. I want us to look at how translators and commentators have dealt with chronology in the Bible. In particular, I want us to look into the Pentateuch or Five Books of Moses, the Torah, that is at the core of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible.
IS: I'm ready...
VA: I want to compare approaches to the translation of the Hebrew Bible and then, a bit later in this conversation, talk about Eugene Nida. But first things first. I want to start with the man who is generally acknowledged to be the greatest Jewish biblical commentator of all time. I'm referring to Rabbi Shlomo ben Itzhak.
IS: Better known by the acronym, Rashi. Born in Troyes in 1040, he was formed in Mainz in the school of thought of the renowned Gershom of Mainz. Rashi minded each word as a standalone and then looked at how it "lived" with other words. He did not elucidate passages but rather worked phrase by phrase, often providing punctuation in unpunctuated text. His commentaries are full of reading aids such as "This is a question." That is how he approached Bible study. Rashi was a precursor to syntax theory and collocations.
VA: Let's look at Rashi's concern with syntaxin regards to the chronology of Creationspecifically when it comes to the wording of the timeline of Creation, and also to modern approaches to the same problem.
IS: Rabbi Richard Elliot Friedman is among those who push for the so-called Documentary Theory of the Bible. The originator of this approach was the German Orientalist Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918).
VA: Exactly. We'll talk more about other approaches for translating the Bible when we talk about Eugene Nida, but les discuss Friedman's approach here.
IS: Yes. The Torah begins, mysteriously, with two accounts of the Creation. You will notice that to some extent Genesis 1 and 2 cover the same ground. In Genesis 1 God creates the heaven and the earth and much of what the world is made of, including humans. In Genesis 2 some of the narrative is repeated, except with a degree of nuance, in particular as it concerns the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. There are also more geographical references (the four heads of the river of the Garden of Eden: Pison, Gihon, Hiddekel, and Euphrates). And the detail with which Eve was created from one of Adam's ribs in order to keep Adam company and to allow humans to multiply. Rashi believed that there is a pattern in the Torah whereby when a story is repeated a second time, the repetition serves a specific purpose: to go deeper into the narrative's thread.
VA: I find Rashi fascinating. He was thoroughly French. After all, how more French can you be than to be a vintner's son, and from Troyes, to boot, a city that has one of the most beautiful museums on winemaking.
IS: His commentaries are peppered with translations into French of difficult Hebrew or Aramaic words in the Tanakh. There are so many of them, in fact, that Rashi's translation has provided an invaluable window into Old French.
VA: How many different ways are there in the Bible of calling God?
IS: Let me begin by saying that the Bible as a whole only has 8,654 different Hebrew words and 5,624 different Greek words.
VA: A small amount.
IS: Minuscule. There are the grand totals of 2,278,100 letters and 602,585 words. It is said that the Bible can be read aloud in seventy hours. Do you know how many different words Shakespeare used in his work?
VA: Yes, according to Steven Pinker, author of The Language Instinct, it is 15,000. This is a unit of measurement he has called a "Bard." Pinker claims that the average high school graduate in the U.S. has a tetrabardian vocabulary (i.e., 60,000 words)
IS: He's being too generous. I would endorse a lower number for that age and education-level group. In any case, as far as the Documentary Theory goes, over the last century biblical scholars have settled on the study of the Bible as defined by different periods of composition. Each of these periods is more or less recognizable by the use of another word to describe God: The letter J is used to describe the Jahwist (or Yahweist) one, written approximately circa 950 BCE in the southern kingdom of Judeah (Yahwe is a phonetic approximation of the Tetragrammaton: YHWH); the letter E describes the Elohist, written circa 850 BCE in the northern kingdom of Israel; D for Deuteronomist, written around 621 BCE; and P for Priestly, written approximately in 450 BCE. In other words, words like Yahwe, Elohim, Adonai, etc. are in no way used at random. On the contrary, they pinpoint the time and source of composition of the different biblical sections. In some sources the singular is used whereas in others it's the plural. James L. Kugel, who for years taught at Harvard and now lives in Jerusalem, eloquently explains these sources chapter by chapter in How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now (2007). Harold Bloom, in The Book of J (1991), a translation of the Jahwist portion by David Rosenberg, used this Documentary Theory to elaborate a fanciful argument that parts of the Hebrew Bible were written by a female author. (The idea was used by the Brazilian novelist Moacyr Scliar to write a charming historical novel.) All in all, the various cultures that produced the individual narratives looked at God through a different prism. Accordingly, a translation of the Bible that attempts to reproduce the textual variants must emphasize these nuances.
As you know, the Bible is the world's runaway bestseller. More copies of it are sold on an annual basis than copies of any other book. Visit amazon.com and what do you find? Versions in infinite formats. The Bible for Dummies is just the most absurd, of course. There is the Bible for mechanics, the Bible for housewives, the Bible for businessmen... And the Hebrew Bible, meaning the Tanakh: the Torah, Prophets, and Writings, in Hebrew Nevi'im and Ketuvim. In some way, this is what the Christians describe as the Old Testament because for Jews the Hebrew Bible is different than the perception that Christians have of it: the number of books differ, as well as its organization. It starts with Genesis and ends with Chronicles. For instance, Christians talk of the book I and II of Samuel. The same with Kings and Chronicles. Jews don't divide these narratives in two. Then there's the New Testament, i.e., the four gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, plus an array of other material like the epistles of James, Peter, and John, book I and II of Corinthians, and Revelation. These books are described as holy. Holy means sacred. That is, they are the word of God.
VA: Even though they have human names...
IS: They are attributed to human authors. The Five Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) encompass, in terms of plot, from the beginning of the world up to the three sermons given by Moses, which are about the forty years of wandering in the desert but most of all describe the code of law by which Israel must live in the Promised Land. Still, in the eyes of believers these books were given by God to Moses in Mount Sinai. The divine offered them, in His own language, to his charismatic envoy, Moses, and through him to the descendants of Jacob, also known as Israel. The original Hebrew Bible (the Five Books of Moses plus the added material) is in Hebrew. But with the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, Jews started their exile. They were exposed to other tongues while they lived in Babylonia (modern southern Iraq), as they had since pre-biblical times. That exile concluded and the Temple was rebuilt. It was destroyed again by the Romans in the year 70 CE. Jews were speaking other languages before that moment.
VA: In your book Resurrecting Hebrew (2008), about the effort by the Zionist leader Eliezer Ben-Yehuda to make Hebrew a modern language, to take it away from the domains of rabbinical exegesis and insert it in the street, the playground, the classroom, and the café, you reflect on the Bible not only as an open book but as the carrier of a transhistorical code of survival for the Jewish people. You also talk about the language of Jesus: Aramaic.
IS: As an anthology, the Hebrew Bible might have been compiled as an anthology in the age of Ezra, the Jewish priestly scribe who led the Jews back to Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile. For more than two millennia, that Bible has served as a portable homeland for the Jews. After the first and second expulsion, the text became a foundation narrative against which Jews understood their diasporic dilemma. Subsequent exegetical texts, such as the Talmud, interpreted its narrative and expanded legalistic reach. But they never came close to replacing the centrality of the Hebrew Bible, which, as you know, is still read worldwide by Jews, in oral form, every morning on Saturday, the day God rested after creating the universe. That reading is done in the original.
VA: Yet most Jews access it in translation.
IS: It is important to keep in mind that the Hebrew Bible has been translated by a plethora of people, each with a different agenda. Some have done literal translations, others have given figurative renditions, yet others have paraphrased and interpreted. The famous Septuagint was the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible. It was done in Alexandria around the year 240 CE. Greek was the lingua franca of the eastern Mediterranean region, ruled by the Greek Empire. In Latin it is called Septuaginta, or LXX, because, according to the legend, seventy (actually, seventy-two) Jewish scholars rendered the Torah into Greek by commission for Ptolemy II Philadelphus. In spite of the fact that they were each in a different location, their respective versions came out identical.
VA: I love the idea.
IS: Obviously, it was proof of the divinity of the translation. Imagine for a second that Hamlet was rendered into Spanish by three different translators: one in Madrid, another in Buenos Aires, and the third in Mexico; and the three versions were one and the same. What would we call that coincidence today?
IS: You got it! In any case, the Septuaginta was quite influential. The philosopher Philo of Alexandria and the historian Josephus who chronicles in his book The Jewish War the destruction of Jerusalemand, thus, the Second Temple, used it. It also became the source for Christian translations of the Old Testament, like Slavonic and Coptic. In fact, in Eastern Orthodox churches, it is still regarded as the official ecclesiastical rendering of the Old Testament.
VA: How about a Latin version?
IS: In the first three centuries of their existence, the followers of Jesus Christ were a marginalized bunch. Their message spread throughout the Roman Empire where they were seen as rebellious. It wasn't until the conversion of Constantine I in the year 312 that Christianity became the official religion. From then on Christianity acquired a legitimacy and Church and State worked together.
Latin was the language of the Roman Empire and after Constantine's conversion it became clear that the Old and New Testaments needed to be accessible. There were several Latin versions already in existence. But the most important one came out in the fourth century. It was called the Vulgate and was mostly done by St. Jerome under the commission of Pope Damasus I in 382. As long as Latin was the language of communication of elite circles, religious and political, in Europe, its influence was enormous. The St. Jerome Bible was the first book ever printed. It is the so-called Gutenberg Bible, produced by Johannes Gutenberg in Mainz in 1454-56.
VA: It is somewhat of a paradox, I think, that when a translation is done at a time of a shift in culture, the translation starts destroying the original.
IS: Yes, the Septuagint acquired the status of an original and left no trace of the source texts that gave it life.
VA: Matriphagy, like the Amaurobius ferox, where the baby spiders eat their mom. I want to focus on the King James Bible.
IS: The story of the Authorized King James version is extraordinary. It was published by the Church of England in 1611. Its principal objective was to solve the inaccuracies of previous translations. The conception of it came about in early 1604, when King James VI of Scotland (1566-1625), son of Mary, Queen of Scots, took the crown of England and Ireland after the death of the last Tudor monarch, Queen Elizabeth I, who died without issue. It was during Elizabeth's reign that the golden age of English literature was established, a splendor that continued under King James I. In these glorious times for literature that the translation of the Bible was undertaken by forty-seven different scholars. Can you imagine it?
VA: A collective effort without the ability of swapping CAT memories at the end of the day.
IS: If writing in two hands is difficult (I'm thinking, for instance, of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, and of W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood; or else, of a series of collaborations in detective fiction between Jorge Luis Borges and his friend Adolfo Bioy Casares), doing a translation of the Bible in a group of almost fifty seems to me a titanic effort. It is, to be sure, a project "by committee," as the saying goes.
VA: Six committees, actually, if I remember correctly.
IS: Yes, two each at Oxford and Cambridge, and two more at Westminster. All the translators were priests, by the way, except for one.
VA: You and I have sat in plenty of committees at our respective institutions. And we are familiar with the joke that the camel is a horse designed by a committee.
IS: Exactly. If someone had asked avant la lettre if a marvelous rendition of the Bible by committee could be possible, I would have said absolutely not. Spending my years, as I do, in academia, I'm intimately acquainted with the mediocrity committees consistently endorse or produce. In order not to offend anyone, the easiest, most cautious optionthe path of least resistanceis embraced. Originality and individual freedom are curtailed. Yet, miracle of miracles, the King James version is nothing short of outstanding.
VA: How did these particular committees work?
IS: First, it is important to say that those involved in the job, people like Lancelot Andrews, Edward Lively, Hadrian à Saravia, John Duport, and Thomas Ravis, are all but forgotten today. I find this fact crucial. The enormous influence of the King James version is due to the fabulous work done by a cluster of brilliant scholars whose names almost nobody is able to recall anymore. So much for immortality! Or better, the type of immortality allowed to them is of the purest kind: anonymous. It reminds me of the poet John Keats, who dreamed of immortality throughout his life but in 1821, at the age of twenty-five, died of tuberculosis. By then he had received terrible reviews of his work. Knowing he was fated to oblivion, Keats wrote his own epitaph: "Here lies one whose name was writ in water." Except that, in his case, posthumous fame turned things around.
VA: Personally, are you interested in anonymous fame?
IS: All fame is anonymous.
VA: How so?
IS: Fame is the embrace of a legacy in disembodied fashion. What do we know of Shakespeare, for instance? Next to nothing. And yet, he is arguably the most famous writer of all time. To billions of people, the details of his life are inconsequential. In fact, for years I myself didn't know much about Shakespeare. I considered his oeuvre God-made: it had suddenly appeared on the scene, without any preconditions. Does that reading of his plays differ from the one I have now, based on copious reading of biographies and other historical resources? To be honest, not really.
VA: You often mock the lemma of the Spanish Royal Academy that reads "Limpia, fija y da esplendor" by which the Academy attempts to cleanse, fix and make shine the Spanish language.
IS: I take my inspiration from Mario Moreno, aka Cantinflas, the iconoclastic Mexican comedian, who in his movie Allí está el detalle ridiculed the lemma.
VA: What do you make of the fact that the King James translation of the Bible is still marketed in the United Kingdom, if not in the U.S., as "the authorized version"?
IS: It was never authorized by anybody, let alone King James. Unless one interprets the term "authorized" as having the royal imprimatur, which enabled a text to reach the printer. But then that was the standard pattern at the time. The synecdoche of Crown and Altar is suitable. However, since it replaced the preeminence of the so-called Bishop's Bible, which had been published in 1568, then revised in 1572, and during the eighteenth and part of the nineteenth century was the sole established text throughout the English-speaking word. It still is the most widely used translation in the world. Needless to say, the King James version is part of a long tradition of translating the Bible into English. Some of the important renditions that were close in time to it include those by William Tyndale (1525), Thomas Matthew (1537), Edward Whitchurch (1539), and the so-called Geneva Bible (1560).
VA: Let's go back to the committees' work.
IS: That's precisely what I hear time and again at the college where I teach. Yes, each of the six committees was assigned a different part of the Bible. By the way, the committees were called companies, which in my view is a sign of the early capitalist thinking behind the England of the time and behind the King James version itself. For instance, the First Westminster Company, under the directorship of Lancelot Andrews, was assigned Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, I Samuel, II Samuel, I Kings, and II Kings. Once the company's job was done, it was circulated among the other companies. Strict editorial rules were established. One of those rules established that the Bishop's Bible needed to be followedi.e., plagiarizedas much as possible. And indeed this was the case. They also copied Tyndale's work. But plagiarism wasn't a crime at the time. The view of authorships the translators had was diametrically opposed to ours. The belief was that if there was something useful in the past, why not use it? Likewise, there were clear guidelines for the use of names, words, etc. No marginalia was allowed (by express desire of King James himself, who hated the way the Geneva Bible was overwhelmed with explanatory notes.) The division of chapters needed to be respected. Particularly difficult references needed to checked with "any learned man in the land, for his judgment of such a place." The overall project ended up superseding anyone's expectations. As a result of the struggles for independence of the Church of England, it was once said that the King James version "dethroned the Pope and enthroned the Bible."
VA: How many different English words does the King James version contain?
IS: 12,143. As I mentioned earlier on, the Hebrew Bible has 8,674; this means that the King James version uses roughly a third more. The fact is extraordinary. One might assume, and rightly so, that the translators indulged in the sport of synonym-hunting. But it is essential to recognize that English was a far richer and more developed language in the seventeenth century than Hebrew was in the span in which the various biblical narratives were composed. (Keep me mind that as the King James version has asserted its status in the world, editors have tampered with the text, updating it in a number of ways: modernizing its syntax, vocabulary, and punctuation.) In a preface seldom reprinted called "The Translators to the Reader," a statement of purposes argues: "Another thing we think good to admonish thee of, gentle Reader, that we have not tied ourselves to an uniformity of phrasing, or to an identity of words, as some peradventure would wish that we had done, because they observe, that some learned men somewhere have been as exact as they could that way. Truly, that we might not vary from the sense of that which we have translated before, if the word signified the same thing in both places, (for there be some words that be not of the same sense every where,) we were especially careful, and made a conscience, according to our duty. But that we should express the same notion in the same particular word; as for example, if we translated the Hebrew of Greek once by purpose, never call it intent; if one where journeying, never travelling; if one where think, never suppose; if one where pain, never ache; if one were joy, never gladness, &c.thus to mince the matter, we thought to savour more of curiosity than wisdom, and that rather it would breed scorn in the atheist, than bring profit to the godly reader. For is the kingdom of God become words or syllables? Why should we be in bondage to them, if we may be free? Use one precisely, when we may use another no less fit as commodiously?"
VA: I like the question: "For is the kingdom of God become words or syllables?"
IS: It encapsulates the message of our entire conversation. Is the expansiveness of God's creation conveyable in language? Better still, is the universe anything else but language?
VA: Which brings us to a counter approach, that known as dynamic equivalence, pioneered by Eugene Nida, with echoes of the earlier discussions of Rashi, Wellhausen, and Rabbi Friedman's diverse translation stategies.
IS: Yes, Nida was instrumental in working with the Baptist churches and with the Vatican in translating a Bible into dozens of languages that could be used ecumenically by all Christian denominations across the globe. The project began in the late sixties, I believe, and the translation was carried out based on Nida's approach, which was to forgo literalness and strive for a more natural rendering in the target language. This approach can certainly be compared to Rabbi Richard Elliott Friedman's attempts of connecting ancient texts to contemporary life. The King James version, on the other hand, is an example of the formal equivalence approach, although the fidelity in the King James version is to seventeenth century English. Whatever stand one may take, I think that we would all agree in that the result of this formal approach to translating the Bible gave us, in the King James Bible, a work of astonishing beauty.
VA: For me, one of the most beautiful verses comes from Ecclesiastes: "I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all." When I read it, I feel Shakespeare's with me.
IS: It's the same English. Remember that Shakespeare died in 1616. While the translation was being done, Othello, King Lear, and The Tempest were written. Translating the Jewish and Christian Bible is a recurrent activity, a way to call attention to a different approach to religion. Martin Luther, a central figure in the Reformation and the father of Protestantism, translated the Old and New Testaments into the German vernacular in 1534. The publisher printed 1,000 copies of his version of the New Testament. One German printer estimated that some forty years later it had sold at least 100,000, an astronomical number in those days. There had been other German translations prior to his but Martin Luther's effort was extraordinarily radical: it announced that the sacred biblical text was legitimately accessible in the various European languages, and thus, appropriate for the masses, a fact opposed by the Vatican until the twentieth century That is, it invited a further fragmentation in the act of reading. Moses Mendelssohn, the Jewish philosopher of the Enlightenment and a friend of Immanuel Kant, translated part of the Torah into German. And then there is the inspired rendition done by Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig at the end of the nineteenth century.
VA: You wrote about it in your memoir On Borrowed Words (2001).
IS: Their quest was to reproduce in German the cadence of the Hebrew, not an easy task, let us say, since the roots of the two languages couldn't be more different. Buber and Rosenzweig are known as existentialists. Even though they were believers, their translation was geared toward the assimilated segment of the German Jewish population.
VA: In Resurrecting Hebrew, you discuss the way Hebrew, the language itself, was kept in a state of hibernation until the so-called age of nationalism in the nineteenth century, when the Zionist movement started to organize as such, leading to the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.
IS: That hibernation could also be seen as keeping the soup on the stove at a low heat. After the second expulsion, Hebrew never disappeared altogether from Jewish life. It was seen as the sacred language, the language with which the divine communicates with humans. Yiddish; Ladino (aka Djudeo espanyol); Lusitanic; Tetuani and Hakitía; Judeo-Shirazi, Bukhori and the literary Dzhidi; Ghettaiolo and Giudeesco, and all other Jewish languages and dialects were palliatives in exile, but they were never sacred. God's names, if they exist all, are in Hebrew and only in Hebrew. In Resurrecting Hebrew there's a disquisition about sacred (i.e., divine) and human languages, between lashon ha-kodesh and lashon bnei-adam.
VA: Inside that fascinating disquisition you incorporate a conversation you had with an Israeli scholar about the raison d'étre of Jewish languages.
IS: Jewish logomania is a survival tool. It showcases the talent Jews have for renamingi.e., reinterpretingthe universe through words.
VA: Elsewhere you've talked about the various appellations of God in the Hebrew Bible. How many names does God have in Judaism?
IS: In Jewish tradition, there are ninety-nine names for the divine. The quest to compiling all these names is the stuff of folklore. In the film Pi, some of the characters seek to find the true name of God, made of a total of 216 letters. Yet the Tetragrammaton is, arguably, the closest we might get to the divine name. Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine writer, has a detective story, written in 1942 (it is compiled in Artifices, a collection that in turn was incorporated into Ficciones ), with the Tetragrammaton at its core: "Death and the Compass." It is one of my own favorites in the Borgesian cannon, told as an installment in the rivalry between Erik Lönnrot and Red Scharlach, a sleuth and his nemesis. It takes place in Amsterdam but the metropolitan map is really a Platonic version of Buenos Aires. A series of three murders take place on the exact same day of the month and in three different cardinal points: north, south, and west. After each of the crimes a letter of the Tetragrammaton is spelled on a mirror, a letter, or something visible. Each of the victims is Jewish. Lönnrot then concludes that a fourth crime will take place in a specific location on the eastern part of the city. When he arrives, not only does he realize he is right. He discovers he himself is the fourth and final victim. And, thus, he dies.
VA: You coined the word logotheist in your book Dictionary Days (2005).
IS: The first sentence of the Gospel According to John reads: "In the beginning was the word." The logotheism injected into it is astounding. Before the world was made by God, according to the biblical narrative, there was already the word. This is a savvy reading of Genesis 1 and 2, don't you think? Soon after God creates anythingheaven and earth, the flora and fauna, and manhe says: "It was good." What I mean is that language antecedes creation. It's an idea that other religious groups, especially the mystics, would also embrace. For instance, the Kabbalists. It's a genuinely Neo-Platonic idea. Plato, as you know, envisioned the creation of the universe through a demiurge. One of his followers, Plotinus, is a key figure in the transition from Greek thought to medieval philosophy. It is impossible to understand Jewish, Christian, and Muslim mysticism without him.
VA: Our conversation makes me think of the way humans look for ways to explain the divine because we feel we're part of a large cosmic plan whose meaning eludes us.
IS: A beautiful thought. There is an interesting story by Isaac Asimov called "The Last Answer," published in January 1980 in the magazine Analog. The protagonist is Murray Templeton, a forty-five year old atheist physicist who suddenly dies while in his laboratory. In the last moment of life, he has a mystical experience in which he sees his dead body as others in the lab are seeing it, but he is also inside that body. From there Asimov moved the reader to a dialogue between Templeton and the divine, represented in the story by "The Voice." He and the Voice engage in a dialogue in which the Voice announces that Templeton has been selected among his peers because of his intellectual talents, i.e., his capacity to think. He is also told that what he is about to do in the next stage of his existence is thinking: think forever. Templeton asks what the purpose of this thinking will be and the Voice responds that the sole purpose is to have at least one interesting thought. But what for? The Voice replied that that is Templeton's prerogative. The climax of the story comes when Templeton tells the Voice that he needs a purpose to go on thinking, and that the purpose will be to look for a way to stop the communication he is engaged in with the Voice, even if that represents his absolute death.
VA: Staying within the realm of "People of the Book," I want us to talk some more about that other monotheist religion: Islam.
IS: The paradigm of translation as it relates to Islam is fascinating. the Qu'ran, the sacred text of Muslims, is a dramatically different from the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Whereas these two have a narrative base (they tell a story, often in chronological fashion, but they are choppy and repetitive), the Qu'ran is a series of pronouncements, organized haphazardly into 114 suras or chapters, that Muhammad delivered over a period of twenty two years, starting with the ones he uttered in Mecca, which tend to be longer, and concluding with the pronouncements Muhammad gave in Medina, where he sought shelter in the year 622, after he had become a divisive political figure in Mecca.
VA: What historical role did Muhammad have in the shaping of the Muslim text?
IS: The role of Muhammad in the shaping of the Qu'ran is that of a secretary. The pronouncements were dictated to him by Allah through the Archangel Gabriel. He isn't the author per se; he simply transcribes what he heard. Historically, after he died Muhammad's pronouncements were passed to the next generation through oral tradition among his followers until Abu Bakr, a friend and confidant of Muhammad, and the first caliph, compiled the sayings. But it was the third Caliph, Uthman, who commissioned a committee to produce a standard copy of the text.
VA: So is Muhammad a translator?
IS: If every translation involves an agency whereby a translator reformulates certain content given in one language into another language, Muhammad is the supreme translator in that he received the divine word and handed it down to humans.
VA: Isn't that what happened with Moses?
IS: Not at all. Moses isn't a scribe. He simply received the Torah from God in Mount Sinai. He didn't transcribe it.
VA: But you said that the first five books of the Hebrew Bible were authored by him.
IS: Moses is known as the author but only as a surrogate. He is really the protagonist. In fact, the biblical narrative chronicles his death. This precludes him being the real author.
VA: Is Muhammad the author of the Qu'ran?
IS: No, Allah is. Muhammad is merely the conduit.
VA: Let's talk about the names of the divine in Islam.
IS: In Islam, Allāh is the Name of the Essence, the Name of the Absolute. It doesn't come from the Qu'ran, since, for example, the name of Muhammad's father is 'Abd Allāh, meaning the Servant of God, ranging from al-Awwal, The First (the Qu'ran 57:3) and al-Ākhir, The Last (57:3), to al-Wahhāb, the Bestower (3:8).
VA: What about the translations of the Qu'ran into other languages?
IS: Unlike the rich and varied history of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles in translation, the followers of the the Qu'ran dislike the fact that their sacred book is translated to other languages. They argue that the Qu'ran itself is the word of God and that it is in Arabic, the language chosen by Allah. To bring Muhammad's pronouncements into other tongues is to pervert the original meaning. Furthermore, Arabic words, they argue, change their meaning depending on context more than in other languages, a fact that makes translation an exegetical exercise.
VA: But the Qu'ran has been translated numerous times, right?
IS: It certainly has. This negligence hasn't stopped translators from conveying it into other tongues. It is available, to the best of my knowledge, in a hundred and twenty five languages. The first rendering was into Persian.
VA: How about English?
IS: I have a translation by Ahmed Ali originally published in India in 1984 and revised and republished by Princeton University Press. Ali, who also rendered classical Urdu poetry into English, follows the rhythms of the original.
VA: What are the Five Divine Presences?
IS: As in Jewish mysticism, which I mentioned before, specifically in the Ten Sephirot, there is a doctrine of the Five Divine Presences in Islam. The doctrine establishes a pattern of ascendance through the recognition of those Five Presences. The First Presence is Hāhūt, which refers to that which cannot be divided or have anything be outside it. Nothing can be taken away and nothing can be added. From there come four other Divine Presences.
VA: How is the divine called in the Qu'ran?
IS: In numerous ways. In Islam in general, the names of God are divided, primarily, into two categories: the Names of the Essence and the Names of the Qualities. According to a tradition, there are ninety-nine names of God
VA: It's as if each of the names of God was another veil.
IS: That's the message of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan's story about the Buddha I mentioned earlier. And it is also the message of an excellent story by Arthur Clarke, the author of 2001: Space Odyssey, called "The Nine Billion Names of God." Clarke's piece explored the tension between religion and science. The two look to explain the meaning of the universe, albeit by different means. The story was written in May 1952 "during a rainy weekend at the Roosevelt Hospital" in New York. It is about the so-called "Project Shangri-La," where Tibetan monks ask two scientists to program an "Automatic Sequence Computer." The objective is to come up with all the names of Goda billion, in totalwhich the monks have been trying to list for centuries. In an earlier scene that takes place in Manhattan, the Lama tells Dr. Wagner about his desire to get the scientists (identified as Chuck and George) in Tibet: "This is a project on which we have been working for the last three centuriessince the lamasery was founded, in fact." He adds: "Call it ritual, if you like, but it's a fundamental part of our belief. All the many names of the Supreme BeingGod, Jehovah, Allah, and so onthey are only man-made labels, which I do not propose to discuss, but somewhere among all the possible combinations of letters than can occur are what one my call the real names of God. By systematic permutation of letters, we have been trying to list them all."
VA: The scientific urge to catalog everything.
IS: In the Tibetan monks' view, the world will come to an end when all the real names are listed. At the end of Clarke's story, the computer is about to complete its task, but what will happen when the lamas realize the world is still functioning? The plotline results from the clash of science and religion. The last section of the story is emblematic. The two scientists leave the place. One turns around and says: "'Look,' whispered Chuck, and George lifted his eyes to heaven. (There is always a last time for everything.) Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out." Clearly, the author wants the reader to be uncertain. Who was right, the computer technicians or the monks?
VA: Going back to a point your made earlier about Saussurian theory, from a strictly linguistic point of view, the word God, though, belongs to a special class of words.
IS: The word itself is a sign, like apple in the example I used. The differences between these two words is that everyone has seen an apple and no one has seen God or experienced the divine directly. What this means is that the word God is a sign that lacks a referent. This happens also with fictional and mythological characters: they all have an empty referent. Where are Emma Bovary and Colonel Aureliano Buendía? Where are Erato and Terpsichore, Santa Claus, and Memín Pinguín? But if we think of the work on logic done by the philosopher and logician Friedrich Gottlob Frege, there is always a need for intuition in logic. Certain signsi.e., wordsmight not have a referent, but we intuit what they mean. Isn't that what translators often do?
As always, todah and mil gracias to Eliezer Nowodworski for his friendship, knowledge, and critical eye.