Everett Fox's new translation of the Hebrew Bible
The New Yorker
Many translators have tried to make the Bible do in English what it does in Hebrew, but few have given top priority to the sound and feel of the original language. Everett Fox uses every poetic means at his disposal.
Tinkering With the Word of God
Everett Fox's new translation of the Hebrew Bible tries to retain "the direct, earthy vocabulary" of the original, as well as its musicality.
NYR.KR|由 AVI STEINBERG 上傳
MAY 18, 2015
Tinkering With the Word of God
BY AVI STEINBERG
David contemplating the head of Goliath, by Orazio Gentileschi.CREDITDE AGOSTINI/V. PIROZZI/GRANGER
For years, the framed portrait of Franz Kafka, set alone atop an office bookshelf, was an unintended source of angst in the home of Everett Fox, the Bible translator. When Fox’s son, as a child, saw this black-and-white image of a handsome but unsmiling stranger, well dressed and tubercular, he had assumed that the man was a relative—a frightening one. “It really scared him,” Fox told me. “I think it was those eyes. That piercing gaze.”
I stopped by Fox’s office recently, on the second floor of his suburban Boston home. It’s here that Fox tinkers with the word of God. On the day of my visit, though, he was busy grading student papers from the courses he teaches at Clark University, where he is a professor of Judaic and Biblical Studies. I was there to chat with him about his latest book, “The Early Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings,” the second volume in his growing translation of the Hebrew Bible. On the wall behind Fox’s desk, next to Kafka, was a painting of a rabbinic sage. Below that were portraits of Toscanini in a tux, the Marx Brothers, Mozart, and Rembrandt, a print by the artist Ivan Schwebel, a quotation from Beethoven (“Notes will help in a time of need”), and a photo of Groucho Marx’s tombstone. When he’s at work, Fox said, “all of these filter in.”
Fox’s unusual approach to Bible translation is rooted in close listening and was shaped by his early experiences. Like many tradition-minded Jews, he was raised to hear the Torah sung aloud in synagogue every Sabbath, but it wasn’t until he chanced upon a recording of Psalms and Ecclesiastes, as read by Abba Eban, the late Israeli diplomat, that Fox first grasped the aural power of ancient Hebrew. “It was as if I’d never really heard the words before,” he told me. “That in itself was a surprise. But what I heard in those words gave me even more of a jolt.”
Fox played me samples of Eban’s recitation, and of another important influence, the actor Shlomo Bertonov’s reading of the Hebrew Bible, which was recorded for the blind in the nineteen-sixties and seventies. Immediately, I heard it, too. Short vowels twinkled and long vowels streamed by with showy tails. Consonants held crisp and true. The overall effect was of a simultaneously dense and sprawling thing, layered and alive and capable of surprising you.
Fox has dedicated his life to giving the Anglophone ear a hint of that Hebrew drama. Many translators have tried, in one way or another, to make the Bible do in English what it does in Hebrew, but few have given top priority to the sound and feel of the original language. Fox uses every poetic means at his disposal: phrase length, line break, puns. He has paid particular attention to the word repetitions that the Biblical narrator uses to develop the story’s themes. He scrupulously preserves ancient Hebrew’s doubled verbs, which themselves sometimes double up (“you will overtake, yes, overtake, and will rescue, yes, rescue”). Orality is key to understanding the story, Fox believes, because the Bible, like many ancient texts, was designed to be sung and performed aloud. For Fox, the standard continues to be musical performance, with its openness to interpretation.
“Everything depends on the ear of the performer,” he said. “The score just sits there silently on the page and has no reality until the musicians start to play and give it some form.” In a sense, Fox uses the English language to perform the Hebrew. His version of the text is closer to a foreign film with subtitles than a seamlessly translated novel: the audience is meant to partake of the original performance, to experience the sounds and gestures of the primary language, while simultaneously grasping the meanings of the words.
This is almost never done—and for good reason. Contemporary English bears little relationship to classical Hebrew. Even so, many of today’s translations are zealous in their efforts to Anglicize the text and to make it friendly to the contemporary English reader. Fox’s translation, however, creates a wild reserve where Biblical narration roams free. It’s an approach that sometimes gives pause to readers—even to admirers. In a review of the first volume, “The Five Books of Moses,” Robert Alter, the literary critic and Bible translator, approved of the “Hebrewness” of the work but grumbled about Fox’s “monogamous attachment to the Hebrew, often at the cost of the English.” But Fox is willing to make some sacrifices for this form of fidelity.
“I understand the people who feel that this should read comfortably as an English work,” he told me. “But I’m trying to make a point. I was willing to bend English in a way that I wouldn’t if I were just writing my own essay or poem. I wanted to put the reader in touch with a greater variety of language.” Consider his rendering of the introduction of Goliath:
Now the Philistines were stationed on a hill, on this-side,
While Israel was stationed on a hill, on that-side,
With the ravine between them.
And the Man of the Space-Between came out . . .
Here, Fox gently plays with the line breaks, punctuation, and diction, gesturing toward the Hebrew with “this-side” and “that-side,” which in the original are the same single word (mi-zeh). Thus he sets the scene with a pregnant symmetry. But the bold moves come at the end: “And the Man of the Space-Between came out.” Following the King James, nearly every English version of the Bible for the past four hundred years has translated this last line as: “And there went out a champion.” But the phrase in Hebrew, ish ha-beinayim, or “the Man of the Space-Between,” echoes the word “between” (bein) in “the ravine between them (beineiyhem).” Fox preserves that resonance, and an ancient pun is reborn.
All of which is lovely, but just what is a “Man of the Space-Between?” Here, too, Fox’s translation is canny. The weirdness and ambiguity of that description exists in the Hebrew as well—Fox’s translation of the phrase tilts toward the literal—which is precisely why most translators take an interpretive leap and convert it into the more unobtrusive “champion.” But that translation smooths over a suggestive and potentially meaningful bump in the text. Our story has in it a mysterious pun, and Fox permits it to remain just that. It takes a gutsy translator—especially of the Holy Writ—to countenance mystery, much less messiness. But eloquence can be a form of blindness, and a seamless literary style, an evasion. Fox is faithful not only to the text but to his readers, and trusts our ability to manage ambiguity.
He also believes in his readers’ ability to cope with literalness, and makes a special effort to retain what he calls the “direct, earthy vocabulary” of the Biblical text. If a sword has a mouth, Fox will let you know. He renders the familiar “tells” in the Book of Samuel with the more literal “bares the ear of,” as when Saul, spear in hand, chastises his aides, “No one bares my ear when my son cuts [a covenant] with the son of Yishai.” Saul’s curse of Jonathan, in Fox’s hands, becomes “son of a twisted rebellion,” suggesting a tangible warping of the monarchy. And of Saul himself, Fox offers: “The rushing-spirit of God advanced upon him,/And he ranted-like-a-prophet in their midst.”
These enlivened verbs convey the whirling activity that is prophetic experience. A person is ambushed and overwhelmed by something external and other; prophecy is not a kind of knowledge you possess but a kind of thing that possesses you. And because English, unlike Hebrew, doesn’t have a single word that describes this phenomenon, Fox gives us “ranted-like-a-prophet.” (With Saul, who suffers mental collapses, this is a critical description. He is cursed to be a king who is also a prophet.)
At the other end of the register, Fox puts the “piss” back into the Bible, restoring the King James’s “one that pisseth by the wall.” Most modern translations render this phrase euphemistically, and somewhat comically, as “male.” But with Fox, the concreteness and physicality of imagery serve the story as a heavy drumroll, signalling what he calls a “literary onslaught of body parts” in the sagas of mad King Saul and nobly flawed King David, whose plots turn conspicuously on lame feet, punctured abdomens, failing eyes, ostentatious hair, severed heads. These stories are intensely visceral even by the intensely visceral standards of ancient Semitic literature. Fox believes that the narrator of the book was using this litany of body imagery to editorialize on Israel’s fledgling monarchy: the body politic was diseased and dysfunctional. Or, as the later prophet Isaiah would declare, “Every head is ailing/ And every heart is sick/ From head to foot/ No spot is sound.” In the end, of course, the poetic significance of these ailing body parts is up to the reader. Fox sees his job as simply to present them in full.
Fox has made thousands of changes in a forthcoming e–book edition of “The Five Books of Moses.” When I asked him about the new volume’s shortcomings, he rattled off a few examples; later, he sent me an e-mail with more instances. Like any author, he is grieved to consider a work’s flaws, but he also seems genuinely more interested in problems than in triumphs. His approach to translation is, after all, an experiment, and still very much a work in progress. In a field where divinely enabled delusion is an occupational hazard, Fox’s unwillingness to polish away jaggedness and doubt, his consciousness of the beautiful human mess involved in producing even a Bible, may be his boldest contribution.