The Task of the Translator: Aviya Kushner to read from ‘The Grammar of God’ at Prairie Lights

Aviya Kushner

Prairie Lights Bookstore — Thursday, Sep. 10 at 7 p.m.

It’s hard to care about a single vowel. If I changed an “ah” to an “eh,” it’s a typo, a slip of the tongue that only two people would care to notice: a copy editor, who must care, and Aviya Kushner, who’s always been deeply attuned to the power of sound.

As a child, she took piano lessons from Ms. Berkwic, a virtuoso who had played for the Nazis at gunpoint. The old woman would yell at Aviya while she struggled her way through Chopin: “No! It is a symphony of wrong notes!” Despite, or perhaps, because of the fierce critiques, Kushner would come to love Chopin, blasting it across her tiny dorm room in Paris while she studied French and later, while she completed for her masters in poetry at Boston University. It was there she learned that each part of a poem should have its own rhythm. “I watched my professor opening and then closing his intelligent eyes as I read my poem aloud,” she wrote in The Gettysburg Review, “When nothing fluttered at the start of the third section, I knew.”

In her new book, The Grammar of God, which came out yesterday, Kushner opens with a fateful decision she made here, while at the Nonfiction Writing Program: to take Marilynne Robinson’s course on the Bible. Kushner grew up speaking Hebrew, the language she still thinks in when she’s tired. She spent most nights at the dinner table debating rabbinical thought, but she’d never read the Bible in English and couldn’t understand the conversation in Robinson’s class. Was no one curious why four key commandments from the Hebrew text were no longer crammed into one verse? What that might mean about the implicit relationship between murder, adultery and theft? Were these students reading the same book she’d spent a year reciting in order to mourn her grandfather?

Grammar of God is Kushner's first book --image via Prairie Lights Bookstore
Grammar of God is Kushner’s first book —image via Prairie Lights Bookstore

They were not. The English edition was, in the words of another translator, “like kissing through a handkerchief.” Instead of focusing on that kiss, which she’d studied her entire life, Kushner became obsessed with the handkerchief. The difference between the two texts became the subject of her MFA thesis, but even after graduating, the obsession remained. She spent one summer analyzing just two verses, Genesis 1 and 2, and accumulated closets full of drafts, notebooks, and flashcards — all written with a hand that became so overworked her doctor told her, “This is an injury from fifty, a hundred years ago, from old men who used their hands nonstop.” A decade later, Kushner finished.

In some ways, The Grammar of God is a book-length translator’s note, a poetic exploration of how language shapes belief. But it’s also a memoir in which Adam and Eve share the stage with Kushner’s father and mother, the former a theoretical mathematician, the latter, a grammarphile who spends most evenings reading dead languages and eating ice cream. We sit down at the dinner table with the Kushners, eating, laughing and debating. And then, suddenly, it’s Saturday evening, three stars have appeared, and Shabbat is over. We stand up from the table and ask ourselves, “Do we read the first verb of the Bible in the past tense, as bara, or do we read it as the infinitive, bro?”

Q&A with Aviya Kushner:

What are some of the difficulties in translating the Hebrew Bible into English?

The difficulties start with the major differences between the languages and how they work. Biblical Hebrew is an ancient language, and English is not. Beyond that, English and Hebrew have different rules of sentence structure and divergent means of word structure, which is not that surprising, since Biblical Hebrew is a Semitic language and English is Indo-European.

Most of the translation problems come down to grammar. The challenge of translating grammar, which often evaporates in translation, means that the Hebrew Bible and English translations often diverge in verse length, punctuation and sound. Names — of men, women, and God — differ in how they are conveyed and what they mean. Ancient idioms are often flattened when they are translated into English. And the Hebrew Bible has a lot of repeated words and phrases that are very resonant; these repetitions and variations on a theme do not always make it into English. The English reader may never know that say, a verse in Isaiah is playing with a line in Genesis, because the same word, or a manifestation of that word, is not translated in the same way.

What do English translations get absolutely wrong, and what do they get right?

For the most part, many English translations catch the overall plot — the creation of the world, the enslavement in Egypt, and the great exodus from slavery. But the specifics, and the tone, sometimes do not come across in translation, and those differences can have a major effect on meaning.

For example, in many English translations, Genesis 1:1-2, the beginning of creation, sounds very definite, as if God were absolutely finished creating. But in the Hebrew, the grammar of the verses causes many commentators to discuss whether creation is over or whether it is still going on. The commentators are looking at one particular verb in Genesis 1:1 and what it is doing. It can be difficult for an English reader to hear this ambiguity, and even be aware of these centuries of discussion on the beginning of Genesis, because grammar often evaporates in translation.


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Another example is slavery. Yes, the English translations catch that the the Jews in Egypt were enslaved. But just how awful slavery was is something the translations don’t always catch. There is a lot of variety in how slavery is translated, and in how much a translation does or does not depart from the Hebrew. The King James, for instance, says that the slaves worked with rigour. In Hebrew, it’s a labor that breaks the body. That’s different. To my ear, it’s much worse. And I think it affects how a reader understands slavery, and perhaps, how slavery is viewed in society.

The Bible has been used throughout history to justify incredibly reprehensible actions as well as a source for social good, does our misunderstanding of the text through incorrect translations enable injustice?

Unfortunately, it does seem that some mistranslations have been a source of bias and injustice through the centuries. For example, the mistranslation of Moses as a creature with horns, as opposed to the Hebrew, which portrays Moses as beaming with light, has been used as a negative portrayal of Jews. It is amazing and sad that this misreading can be seen in so much Western art. I was baffled when I first saw stained-glass windows in European churches featuring a horned Moses. But as I read more and more translations, I understood where that image came from.

This article is an adaptation of Spenser Mestel’s introduction to Ms.Kushner’s work, to be delivered at Prairie Lights Bookstore this evening.

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