Translation as Meditation

MFA studies at the Iowa Writing Program took Aviya Kushner from the intimate world of her close reading of Hebrew scriptures to a first time encounter of the bible in English translation. Luckily, the dissonance that she encountered, caused by translations, was met with understanding, nay happy encouragement, by her teacher, Marylynne Robinson. Their discussion led Kushner to write The Grammar of God over a period of many years. She shaped the book into a personal account of meeting an interpretive world that had only fleeting resonance with the Hebrew she knew from childhood. A poet and an exegete, Kushner reads the Hebrew in direct English interlinear translation, and comments on what the bare substitution of English for Hebrew can never reveal. She then lists seriatim, five or more differing English translations of the same text, suggesting how each attempt tries to capture what the Hebrew says.

The philological study is not barren, rather meditative and prayerful. Every reader comes to the scriptures with a history. Kushner, raised as a Chassidic Jew with family lost in the Holocaust, traces the legacy of reading to the German city where her family disappeared – to be shot and buried in unmarked graves. Her account of her upbringing – her father a theoretical mathematician and her mother an expert in Ancient Near Eastern languages – stresses the interpretive traditions of the rabbis. She was born into the dialogue of centuries of commentary. Her brother can recite whole sections of the Torah from memory, and she spent years sometimes as a poetry student of Derek Walcott in Boston, or in other pursuits in Israel, and then in Iowa in the Writing Program, coming to terms with burden of her belief, her history, and her own aspirations as a writer.

This book is an invitation to challenge readings of familiar scriptural texts. All translators betray what they attempt to convey – this is a truism. But Kushner is particularly sensitive in her desire to show how English translators through the centuries struggled to open to believers that ancient text they so revered. Quite an experience – to be brought into the scholar’s understanding of Genesis, Psalms, and the Law. But this is passionate understanding, indeed.


Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.

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