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The Continuous Conversation

A Review of The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible, by Aviya Kushner (Spiegel & Grau, 2015).

After two years in Jerusalem as a financial journalist and travel columnist during the second Intifada, Aviya Kushner returned to the United States in 2002 to enroll in the MFA program at the University of Iowa, seeking the safety and luxury of reading as a student. Before the long drive from her New York hometown to Iowa City, the only directions she had received was written on a small sheet of paper: the name of someone that two poet friends had told her to look up—Marilynne Robinson. Professor Robinson’s class on the Bible in English would forever change the course of Kushner’s life and career.

Growing up in a Hebrew-speaking family, Kusher was accustomed to reading the Bible in the original language and discussing its hidden meanings over dinner; she found herself, from an early age, participating in debates over the correct interpretation of the Hebrew text. Her Bible course in Iowa, however, meant reading the Good Book in English for the first time.  Stunned by the mistranslations and alterations to the Hebrew Bible’s worldview, Kushner soon discovered numerous disparities between the English and Hebrew versions. Although the English version is undoubtedly sacred to many, Kushner found that textual nuances of the Hebrew remained inaccessible to its readers.

While the rabbinic Bible—text-plus-marginalia/commentary—of her youth underscored how “beautifully unruly, often ambiguous, multiple in meaning, and hard to pin down” the Hebrew Bible can be (xxi), the English translations were “certain”, “definite” and “confident” (26); they lacked traces of the continuous conversation to which the Hebrew text invites the reader. Instead, the English offered the translators’ own understanding of the text in single-word equivalents that often imparted inaccurate readings.

In one of the book's memorable passages, the author examines an egregious example of what she calls “the intersection of translation and morality—or immorality” (86): the depiction of slavery in English rendition of Exodus in the King James Bible (1611). Speaking of the bondage of the Hebrew people in Egypt, the translator selects “rigor” in place of “back-breaking labor”, “sigh” instead of the Israelites’ “moaning and groaning”, and “cry” rather than “piercing shrieks”.  God’s “divine sight and understanding” of their plight becomes God's “respect” for their struggles in the translation—an understatement, to say the least (86-89). These mistranslations, Kushner concludes, not only flatten the nuances of the Hebrew words and blur the embodied resonances of the language, it also downplays the significance of slavery in the experience of the Hebrew people.

Yet it is not to discredit the English Bible that Kushner has written The Grammar of God. Indeed, her study offers a new appreciation to the difficulty of the translation enterprise and pays homage to the Bible's translators whose sacrifices and harrowing deaths she painstakingly chronicles. The Grammar of God is rather an account of the writer’s fascinating, decade-long “Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible”, as its subtitle neatly summarizes; the author meticulously scrutinizes the original version and multiple English translations to launch a conversation that foregrounds ways in which readers of the respective versions interpret and experience the Biblical text.

To accomplish this task, Kushner interweaves her own and her family’s lived experience of the Hebrew Bible with a rigorous linguistic and textual analysis of some of its significant sections—on creation, love, laughter, man, God, song, and memory—both in the original language and in translation, in order to record and explain her personal responses, as a Hebrew speaker, to the English Bible and to account for her surprise at the differences between the two versions.

To Kushner, all these differences—in verse length, pace, tone, punctuation, and sound—amount to one word that often eludes translation: grammar. In her view, grammar is not a set of rules about verb conjugation or word order. It is rather “a window into how a group speaks to itself, structures its own thoughts, and defines its world” (xxviii). This statement goes a long way toward explaining why, following in the footsteps of her favorite Bible commentator, the twelfth-century rabbi Ibn Ezra, she finds grammar responsible for “how morality, history, and time are conveyed in each language” (ibid).

Locating herself along the continuum of thousands of years of Biblical exegesis and tracing the journey of the Bible through its multilingual translations from the Greek Septuagint in the third century BCE to the present, Kushner brings to light not only what is lost in translation, but also the ways in which readers of different languages and ages, including her own family, make sense of and live out “the most read and talked-about book in human history” (195). But one does not have to be an avid Bible-reader to find The Grammar of God captivating, for it is as much about language, translation, and meaning as it is about religion, and as much spirited personal narrative as scrupulous scholarship. The writer’s brilliance and passion ensure that this book will delight a wide audience in years to come.

Maryam Zehtabi Sabeti Moqaddam is a Ph.D candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

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