A New Way of Translating
The goal of a good translation is to accurately render the meaning of a source language into the meaning of a receptor language. In the case of the Bible, a translator renders the meaning of the Hebrew and Greek into English or some other modern language. What a translator is actually translating is meaning, which is an abstraction.
The wonder of a good translation is that it makes the Bible appear contemporaneous, as a modern English document. But this is an illusion. In reality the Bible is an ancient foreign document. This transparent illusion of translations is the root cause of fundamentalism. It allows people to think of the Bible as “my Bible,” in my language, speaking to me.
Language is more than meaning. It also consists of sound which strongly affects meaning. Sound effects are lost when only meaning is translated. Translators of poetry have long recognized this problem. A small group of translators have tried to remedy this defect. Their purpose is to help a reader with no knowledge of the source language to understand how that language functions.
The emphasis shifts from producing a fluent contemporaneous translation to imparting an experience of the source language, a very difficult process and seldom attempted.
Everett Fox’s The Five Books of Moses (1995) is a great example of this translation method. In the preface he states: “The purpose of this work is to draw the reader into the world of the Hebrew Bible through the power of its language.” He notes that the Bible “is ancient, sometimes obscure, and speaks in a way quite different from ours. Accordingly, I have sought here primarily to echo the style of the original, believing the Bible is best approached, at least at the beginning, in its own terms. So I have presented the text in English but with a Hebraic voice” (ix).
Fox presents the Hebrew Bible as a foreign composition, not a contemporaneous American English book.
Because Hebrew compositions were meant to be heard aloud, not read silently, he pays special attention to its oral characteristics, items modern translators ignore. The text appears on the page in accordance with Hebraic rhythm and sound, not English sentence-paragraph structure. Fox finds ways to replicate in translation “repetition, allusion, alliteration, and wordplay,” all devices in which an oral audience would have delighted. As a result, his translation looks on the page and sounds to the ear strikingly different than other English translations. The physical layout is important because it allows you to see on the page a representation of what an ancient audience heard. This is a translation you will have to live with and get used to in order to have some appreciation of the power of the Hebrew Bible.
I have selected several well-known passages to illustrate Fox’s method.
At the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and earth,
when the earth was wild and waste,
darkness over the face of Ocean,
rushing spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters—
God said: Let there be light! And there was light.
God saw the light: that it was good.
God separated the light from the darkness.
God called the light: Day! and the darkness he called: Night!
There was setting, there was dawning: one day. (Genesis 1:1-5)
Even though the opening of Genesis is very familiar, compare it with your favorite translation. Read Fox’s translation through silently, and then read it aloud. And read it aloud again! It was meant to be heard, not read silently. By reading it aloud you will discover, even feel, its rhythm. This text demands performance.
“At the beginning” more accurately renders the Hebrew which begins with a connective, the equivalent of “and” in English. The traditional “In the beginning” is too Greek, not Hebrew. “In the beginning” implies a definite starting point; the Hebrew implies an ongoing process. Gone is the elegance and smoothness of the King James and its imitators. In its place is the roughness and earthiness of the Hebrew.
Fox catches the performative characteristic well. “God called the light: [pause] Day!” You can hear God shouting out “Day!” in the creating/naming moment. Fox also highlights the mythical dynamic of the verses. “The earth was wild and waste, darkness over the face of Ocean.” The capitalization of “Ocean” marks it out as almost a separate being. The more I examine and mull over this translation and compare it to the Hebrew, the more impressed I am with what Fox has achieved. It really begins to convey to an English reader something of the mystery, difference, and experience of the Hebrew original.
The creation of Adam is another well-known Bible story. But it comes out differently in Fox’s translation. The “Lord God” becomes “YHWH, God.”
At the time of YHWH, God’s making of earth and heaven,
no bush of the field was yet on earth,
no plant of the field had yet sprung up,
for YHWH, God, had not made it rain upon earth,
and there was no human/adam to till the soil/adama— (Genesis 2:4a-5)
The doublet of “no bush,” “no plant” replicates Hebraic parallelism. The earth’s fertility is understood as cooperation between YHWH, God and the human/adam. This translation leaves the Hebrew wordplay in place which allows a modern reader to see the adam is not the creature’s proper name. Fox lays out the actual formation of the human in three lines.
and YHWH, God, formed the human, of dust from the soil,
he blew into his nostrils the breath of life
and the human became a living being. (Genesis 2:7)
“Formed,” “blew,” and “became a living being” exhibit the dynamic rhythm of the Hebrew.
In Fox’s version of the Ten Commandments, they do not easily divide into ten because the Hebrew does not. The last ‘Commandment’ shows how it does not easily divide up.
You are not to desire
the house of your neighbor,
you are not to desire the wife of your neighbor,
or his servant, or his maid, or his ox, or his donkey,
or anything that is your neighbor’s. (Exodus 20:14)
Hebrew does not have a clear sentence structure, so Fox treats this as a run-on series of phrases, piling on item after item of what you are not to desire.
At the conclusion of Moshe (Moses) quoting YHWH’s lists of don’ts, the scene turns to the crowd.
Now all of the people were seeing
the shofar sound,
and the mountain smoking;
when the people saw,
and stood far off. (Exodus 20:15)
Again, Fox runs all the short oral sound bites together creating a cacophony of seeing and hearing. Run together, the phrases allow a hearer to experience the crowd’s terror.
Reading this translation of the Torah will require much more effort on your part than reading any standard translation of the Old Testament. The effort is well worth it because this translation does something no other translation does: it offers an English reader a way into the complexity of the Hebrew Bible. Standard English translations turn the Hebrew Bible into a contemporary English book. Its foreignness is concealed. Fox goes a long way towards restoring that foreignness and enabling a modern reader to experience the power of the oral recitation of a Hebrew composition.
If you dig into this translation, you will discover many surprises and revelations. Even if you read Hebrew, wrestling with Fox’s translation will help you better understand the Hebrew of the Hebrew Bible.
With the translation Fox supplies a simple commentary that deals mostly with how the composition is divided and arranged, as well as important technical issues. He also includes footnotes to the actual translation that aid the understanding of the Hebrew.
Is it a perfect translation? No. You can always argue with translations because the source language and receptor language are different in so many ways. But this is an excellent translation and deserves your serious consideration.
In 2014 Fox published a second volume, The Early Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. On that occasion, Avi Steinberg interviewed Fox for The New Yorker.
We can only wish God will grant Fox a long life to complete his translation of the Hebrew Bible.