Torah in Translation: Rendering the Story of Joseph in English
On October 18th 2018, the British translator Anthea Bell, who brought the German works of Freud, Zweig, Kafka and many others into English, died. Her obituary quoted her:
All my professional life, I have felt that translators are in the business of spinning an illusion: the illusion that the reader is reading not a translation, but the real thing.
This approach has had great resonance in the Christian translations of the Bible. If, after all, a major task of Christianity according to the climactic end of Matthew (28:19-20) is to spread the Word of God to far-flung lands and people, “teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (NRSV), the Bible must be rendered as clearly and directly as possible. Thus, capturing the flavor or style of the original was not the norm for Christian Bible translations for much of Western history, beginning with ancient translations into Latin, Coptic, Armenian and other languages, and continuing with renditions into both European and Asian tongues.
Jewish History of Bible Translation
The Jewish picture is more complex. From an early period, Jews came to pay close attention to the precise phraseology of biblical texts, making it tricky to try and reproduce them in another tongue.
The rabbis of the Roman era adopted a style of reading the text very closely, for both halakhic (legal) and homiletical purposes—in order to broaden the laws that would govern everyday Jewish life and to extract values and norms suggested by the text or by their own thinking. Many of these interpretations depend on the particular wording of the Hebrew as a springboard.
The first Jewish endeavor to translate the Bible was the 3rd-century B.C.E. Old Greek version of the Torah known as the Septuagint that was targeted at the Greek-speaking Jews of Egypt. This large Hellenized community desired access to their heritage; even such a distinguished Alexandrian Jew as the philosopher Philo was not well-versed in Hebrew.
In the process of translating from Hebrew to Greek, some concepts were necessarily transformed. The key word torah, for example, which means “teaching” or “instruction,” was rendered by the Greek nomos, “law,” which has unfortunately survived in English usage (including in Jewish writing) as “The Law.” But the Torah itself, of course, is much more than law.
Other ancient translations, such as the Targums in the everyday language of Aramaic, were not content to simply try and reproduce the meaning of the Hebrew text. Some, such as Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, added midrashic glosses, while even more literal translations, such as Onkelos, would occasionally adjust the text, such as using “the Word of the Lord,” either as a euphemism for God’s name or as an indication of the divine Logos, an extra-biblical concept that was not continued in the Rabbinic period. Such changes tell us more about the world of the translators than about the Bible itself.
As Jews came to be ruled by host civilizations such as Islam, there arose a need for translations into Arabic, such as Saadiah Gaon’s Tafsir. And in late medieval Europe, particularly Germany, the Bible was rendered into Yiddish and ultimately into German, following the path that Jews trod in their long journey to square tradition with the desire to be accepted in European society.
Approaches to Translation
Historically, Bible translation spans a spectrum of approaches designed to bridge the gap between source text and reader. As Bell noted, a translation can move the text toward the reader by simplifying the target language (e.g., English) so that it reads like a work written in the reader’s tongue. Such a translation might be characterized as “free.”
Another approach is to craft a rendition that is more literal, closer to the source language, in the case of the Bible, bending the target language to introduce the audience to the world of biblical expression. This particular strategy surfaced most notably in the German version by Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig (1926-1962).
In this case, the translators put a decidedly Hebraic stamp on their German version. Their approach was based on the fact that the Bible has traditionally been read aloud, not least in synagogues, and that therefore, the translation should reflect that sound carries equal weight to sense.
In practice, this meant laying out the text in lines like free verse, even in narrative and law; maintaining the same German root when thematically important Hebrew root-based words recur in the text; retaining Hebrew pronunciations of proper names, along with indicators of their meaning within the text; and, in general, paying close attention to the rhetoric and structure of the text.
My English Translation: Inspired by Buber-Rosenzweig
When I encountered this German translation fifty years ago, as a Brandeis undergraduate studying with Buber and Rosenzweig’s disciple Nahum Glatzer, I was stunned by its strangeness and freshness, and felt the need—as the translators had intended—to go back and reread the Hebrew.
My experience of the text was reinforced early on by a recording (no longer commercially available) of Abba Eban reading excerpts from the Psalms and Ecclesiastes in a manner that highlighted those grammatical features of biblical Hebrew that influence oral performance, such as long vowels and the doubling of letters. It was rather like a young actor hearing Charles Laughton or Orson Welles reading a familiar poem or script.
I began experimenting with English renditions of biblical texts that played off Buber-Rosenzweig, starting with the Akedah (Gen 22). As I expanded my translation into a new version of Genesis, my motivations were twofold: to preserve, in a small way, something of Buber and Rosenzweig’s achievement, which had faded because of the destruction of German Jewry, and to provide a corrective to the plethora of smooth translations that, in their haste to be comprehensible, lost important aspects of the Hebrew.
In my published English translation of biblical texts such as The Five Books of Moses (1995) and The Early Prophets (2014), I have sought to give the reader the possibility of experiencing the biblical text anew, not weighed down by either the noble sonorities of the King James Bible or the easy fluency of modern English versions.
A few examples from the story of Joseph in Genesis 44-47 will illustrate what can be gained by reading the Bible in this way.Parashat Vayigash, with its emotional tone struck by Judah’s desperate plea for Benjamin’s life, is a good place to begin.
The rhetoric of Judah’s speech before Joseph is best brought out by setting out the text in lines meant for reading aloud (Gen. 44:20):
וַנֹּאמֶר אֶל אֲדֹנִי
יֶשׁ לָנוּ אָב זָקֵן
וְיֶלֶד זְקֻנִים קָטָן
וַיִּוָּתֵר הוּא לְבַדּוֹ לְאִמּוֹ
And we said to my lord:
We have an old father
and a young child of his old age;
his brother is dead,
so that he alone is left of his mother,
and his father loves him.
The breathing space gives the reader the opportunity to absorb the emotional content of what is being said, and this holds throughout the speech, which runs from v. 18 all the way through v. 34.
Another translation issue concerns particular syntactical forms lacking in English. A frequently used Hebrew construction called the prepositive infinitive absolute is found in 44:28, where Jacob painfully recalls the initial loss of Joseph. NJPS renders the Hebrew akh tarof toraf as “Alas, he was torn by a beast!”
I wanted to retain an echo of the doubled root, but to translate the verb literally would have resulted in something like “being torn he was torn.” In such cases I have opted for a creative compromise: “Surely he is torn, torn-to-pieces.” This also works in the initial story in 37:33, where another Buber-Rosenzweig practice, the use of Hebrew forms of names, yields an imitation of the sound of the text: “torn-to-pieces, torn-to-pieces is Yosef” (tarof toraf yosef).
Leading Words (Leitwörter)
In his writings, Buber extensively described what he called the Leading-Word (Leitwort) style, where the Hebrew text repeats significant words or roots as thematic clues to what is happening in the narrative. On a small scale, simple repetition can set the tone and direct the focus.
In Judah’s speech, for example, the words “your servant” and “father” figure prominently, suggesting both the brothers’ subordination to Joseph and the pathos of Jacob’s losses. This is quite easy to bring out in translation, even though most translations neglect to do so. More significant, however, is the way in which, throughout the entire story of Joseph (chapters 37-50), ר.ע.ע is an important root.
Jacob to his sons (44:29)
וְהוֹרַדְתֶּם אֶת שֵׂיבָתִי בְּרָעָהשְׁאֹלָה.
You will bring down my gray hair in ill-fortune to Sheol!
Judah to Joseph (44:34)
פֶּן אֶרְאֶה בָרָעאֲשֶׁר יִמְצָא אֶת אָבִי
Then I would see the ill-fortune that would come upon my father!”
Jacob to Pharaoh (47:9)
מְעַט וְרָעִיםהָיוּ יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיַּי
Few and ill-fated have been the days and years of my life…
This Leitwort brings out one of the significant themes of the Joseph cycle, beyond that of the threat to family continuity that occurs at strategic points in Genesis: Events that appear at first to be disasters—the murderous impulse of the brothers, selling Joseph into slavery, the accusation of adultery by Mrs. Potiphar, and Joseph’s imprisonment—in the end, turn into divine rescue.
As Joseph says to his brothers in the final story at the end of the book (50:20):
וְאַתֶּם חֲשַׁבְתֶּם עָלַירָעָה
אֱלֹהִים חֲשָׁבָהּ לְטֹבָה
לְמַעַן עֲשֹׂה כַּיּוֹם הַזֶּה
לְהַחֲיֹת עַם רָב.
Now you, you planned ill against me,
[but] God planned-it-over for good,
in order to do as is this very day—
to keep many people alive.
In other words, all the “ill-fortune” experienced by the characters in two generations was simply the result of God’s manipulation, so that Joseph would come to power in the one place where he could actually save his family and ensure the survival of the present and future “Children of Israel.”
Synonyms vs. Leitwörter
This kind of reading cannot be easily sustained in English translation. The NJPS, for instance, uses a wide variety of terms to reproduce ר.ע.ע in chapters 37–50:
“bad,” “savage,” “displeasing,” “wicked,” “downcast,” “ugly,” “ill,” “evil,” “wrong,” and “harshly.”
In context, the different renderings are justifiable, but in the larger picture, translation loses the meaningful connection between terms suggested by the Hebrew.
In practice, it is not always possible, or desirable, to keep the same English word in rendering a Hebrew one, especially when a root recurs simply because there is no other choice in Hebrew. In other words, such repetition may at times be accidental.
It is only in those cases where focusing on a root expresses something vital or interesting in the text that I will attempt to bend the English a bit to preserve what I hear in the Hebrew. Hence such constructions as “ill-tempered,” “ill-humor,” “ill-fortune,” and “ill-fated.”
Biblical Hebrew, even with its limited vocabulary, is quite suggestive, and the original text appears at times to lead in several directions at once. A striking example of ambiguity occurs in Genesis 44:22. In describing to Joseph (who has not yet revealed himself to his brothers) the unbreakable bond between Jacob and Benjamin, the remaining son of Jacob’s beloved Rachel, Judah says:
לֹא יוּכַל הַנַּעַר לַעֲזֹב אֶת אָבִיו
וְעָזַב אֶת אָבִיו וָמֵת.
The lad cannot leave his father;
were he to leave his father, he would die.
The vast majority of translations expand this to “…his father would die”—which is probably what the text is driving at. Yet this is not an open and shut case since the Hebrew uses a pronoun rather than a proper noun. It is possible that Judah is referring to Benjamin, as Rashi and Ramban (ad loc.) suggest. As a result, the reader is left to ponder the depth of this particular father-son relationship. Preserving these kinds of ambiguities in the translation, not just in notes, keeps possibilities open for understanding old midrashim and creating new ones.
Unsolvable Translation Problems
Not all biblical expressions can be reflected in English. In Genesis 44:18, Judah says respectfully to Joseph, כִּי כָמוֹךָ כְּפַרְעֹה, a peculiar idiom which literally means “for like you is like Pharaoh.” I could not find a suitable translation, unless one accepts something like “for [to be] like you is [to be] like Pharaoh,” and thus I went with “for you are like Pharaoh.” Perhaps a middle ground can be found in such cases; but a regular feature of translation is that the translator must be prepared to accept “defeat” on occasion.
Attaining the “Spokenness” of the Biblical Word
When all is said and done, despite its problems, risks, and unattainable goals, translation remains one of the valuable tools in the reader’s ongoing relationship with the Hebrew Bible—even for readers who know Hebrew well. It may be most useful to think of translation as performance, in the sense that it can awaken the audience to a new appreciation of the source.
Buber hoped that the German translation would help his audience “go straight through to the spokenness…of the [biblical] word” and to lay bare the great “dialogue between heaven and earth” which he perceived the Bible to be. Those who work in English translation of the Bible may at least hope to facilitate this process.
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Prof. Everett Fox is the Allen M. Glick professor of Judaic and Biblical Studies at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. from the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University. Fox is the translator of The Five Books of Moses (Schocken Books, 1995), and The Early Prophets (Schocken Books, 2014).
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