IT WASN'T YOUR TYPICAL SUNDAY-school class. When New York's Cathedral of St. John the Divine announced a public Bible reading last month, 2,500 showed up to hear celebrities like Norman Mailer, Jesse Jackson, James Earl Jones, Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson read the familiar stories of Noah and the Deluge, Yaakov's Ladder, the baby Moshe floating down the Nile in his ark, and YHWH issuing his Ten Words on Mount Sinai. Obviously, it wasn't your typical Bible, either. The literati were reading from a new translation of The Five Books of Moses (1,024 pages. Schoeken. $50), a serious, astonishing and sometimes discomforting effort to join the warp and woof of ancient Hebrew to modern English. The work, 27 years in the making by Everett Fox, has produced the oddest of reactions to a Biblical translation: public attention.
In English alone, the Bible can be found in at least 40 different translations--from the stately Shakespearean diction of the 400-year-old King James version to the hip-hop lingo of "Rappin' With Jesus." Bible publishing is a $500 million retail business in the United States, and there are more than 500 editions: from denim-bound pocket Scriptures to expensive table toppers like the Oxford University Press's satin-bound, $425 volume featuring magnificent illustrations from the Vatican Library. Many Bibles are packaged for specific audiences: feminists, children, sportsmen, the bereaved, prisoners, readers in recovery programs and any other ethnic, aggrieved, vocational or avocation-al interest group large enough to constitute a market. Whether or not is read -- much less understood--the Bible is a household icon in nine out of every 10 American homes, and according to the Barna Research Group, the median number of Bibles per family is three.
Fox's Bible is different. A professor of Judaica Studies at Clark College in Worcester, Mass., Fox labored to capture--more than any other English translator--the Biblical Hebrew. For readers who think they know the Bible, the effect is often like hearing the text for the very first time. Fox's Genesis, for example, does not begin "In the beginning . . ." like most translations do, as ff we were witnessing God creating something out of nothing. Instead, Fox introduces God operating in midstride, bringing order out of chaos: ..MR.-
At the beginning of God's creating of the heavens and the 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. ..MR0-
Fox compares his translation to performance art--"more like a musician's rendering of a Mozart symphony," he says, "or an actor doing Hamlet." In part, his work is a restoration: from Abaton to Zevulun, everyone gets his or her Hebrew name. The name of God is always preceded by four letters, YHWH, which correspond to the Hebrew word for God, the pronunciation of which has been lost. ("Jehovah" and "Yahweh" are incorrect vocal substitutes,) All five books are put in verse form, thus capturing the musical, poetic flow of the Hebrew, which is often lost in prose translation. Many of Fox's stylistic effects come from close attention to alliterations and repetitions of key words and images. Thus, like the old King James version, Fox has the baby Moshe placed in a little "ark," rather than in a basket among the bulrushes of the Nile. In this way, he signals the connection between the rescue of Moses and God's earlier rescue of Noah from a similar death by water in the story of the flood. "Most Biblical translations appeal to the eye," says Jun Levenson, professor of Jewish studies at Harvard Divinity School. "This one appeals to the ear. I'd call it an imitation, more than a translation, of Hebrew speech forms."
Such close attention to Hebraic nuances has evoked high praise from some scholars. "If God had spoken in English at Sinai, this is how it would have sounded," says Rabbi Burton Visotsky, a professor at New York's Jewish Theological Seminary. But others are more restrained. "It is extremely difficult to render the Bible in a genuinely literary English which is faithful to the rhythms and expressive syntax of the Hebrew," says Robert Alter, professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley. "I respect Fox but he's not quite gotten it altogether."
Who has? Ancient languages do not readily yield their secrets to modern tongues. In the Hindu and Muslim traditions, the meaning of the sacred Scriptures is so closely identified with their original languages (Sanskrit and Arabic) that some devout scholars regard all translations as profanation. Some Jews feel that way about the Bible: "Hebrew is the language of God," says noverst Jonathan Kellerman. Others are confident only that Hebrew was the language of ancient Israel and its Biblical redactors and editors.
Biblical scholars recognize that they are translating ancient cultures as well as languages. For example, the Hebrew word for seed denotes not only semen but also the product of that seed--off-spring--as well as agricultural connotations. To choose one English word over another means choosing one range of meanings to the exclusion of others. Fox's decision to stress the aural sense of the Bible is especially tricky. "In many cases we can't recover the ancient Hebrew sounds," he says. "My translation is very much a personal performance. Given another six months to work, parts of my translation might come out differently."
In producing his own version of the Bible (he is at work on the second volume), Fox joins an illustrious list of individual translators that goes back to Protestant William Tyndale, the first English translator to work directly from Hebrew, and to Martin Luther. Most widely used English translations however, have been produced by committees, beginning with the King James version published in 1611. Advances in philology, archeology and the changing nature of the English language make translations of the Bible an ongoing enterprise. But for what purpose? It depends on the audience that the publisher wants to reach. "We put [the Scriptures] into clear English, for the person who doesn't have a background in the Bible," says David Burke, director of translations for the American Bible Society, publisher of the new Contemporary English Version.
But Alter, who is bringing out his own version of Genesis next fall, thinks English translators have been on the wrong track for at least a century. "They've had this totally clueless idea that the way to make the Bible accessible is by repackaging it as if it were written by a mid-20th-century journalist. What you are really doing is making the Bible seem terribly ordinary." Fox's new translation has at least this much going for it: he reintroduces the complexities, ambiguities--and occasionally even the mystery--that keep the Bible from being too readily grasped. And, like all literature that was once spoken, it begs to be read aloud.
And when ye will offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving unto the Lord, offer it at your own will. On the same day it shall be eaten up; ye shall leave none of it until the the morrow: I am the Lord.
-- LEVITICUS 22:29-30THE FOX TRANSLATION
When you slaughter a slaughter-offering of thanksgiving to YHWH, for acceptance for you, you are to slaughter: on that (very) day it is to be eaten, you are not to let (any) of it remain until morning, I am YHWH!
And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.
-- GENESIS 2:16-17THE FOX TRANSLATION
YHWH, God, commanded cocerning the human, saying: From every (other) tree of the garden you may, yes, eat, but from the Tree of the Knowing of Good and Evil--you are not to eat from it, for on the day that you eat from it, you must die, yes, die.