Aviya Kushner knew the Bible in its original Hebrew by heart, but when she took a graduate course on the Old Testament, the author didn’t recognize the text she had grown up with. The experience launched a 10-year-long study of the great biblical translators in what became her book, The Grammar of God: A Journey Into the Words and Worlds of the Bible (Spiegel & Grau, Sept.) In it, Kushner spotlights the differences between translations, and in turn, uncovers thousands of years of debate on topics from creation to the Ten Commandments. PW recently caught up with the author, who teaches at Columbia College Chicago and is a mentor for the National Yiddish Book Center.
You noticed significant differences between the Hebrew text you’d grown up with and the Bible in English. What were your immediate thoughts on the discrepancies?
My immediate response was really just surprise and shock. I really did not recognize a lot of key passages in English and my first reaction stuck with me, which is this: the Bible in English is often simpler and clearer than it is in Hebrew, and that’s what surprised me. I think my growing realization that these nuanced differences affect our larger and wider culture - that’s what got me going.
What was one of your most surprising findings on the biblical translators after following in their footsteps?
First of all, I really didn’t know anything about the lives of Christian translators before starting this project. I was intrigued by their lives, their passion for the task, and the risks they took. These were often people who went against the king and against government, against their home church, and sometimes they paid with their lives. Understanding that in some ways changes the way I look at the English translation. I thought, “This is wrong, this is a misunderstanding,” then thought wait, no matter how I react to a verse, I have to respect the fact that someone put their life on the line to do this.
The Grammar of God includes both commentary on the Bible and your personal story. Why did you include yourself in the book?
I thought a lot about it, and I felt very strongly that the Bible is a living text. It’s not a dead text that’s in some dusty library, it’s something that, in [my house], we talk about, laugh about, argue about, and discuss. I wanted to give that sense of a living book to an English reader and I didn’t know how. I thought the best way to do it is to show people and show how that works.
The King James Bible puts creation firmly in the past tense with the word “created,” as if the process were over. In Hebrew, the verb “created” could be read as either past tense or as the infinitive form of the verb, opening the door to a new understanding of creation/evolution. The Grammar of God touches on this, but can you talk more about it?
I was amazed when people said that the Bible says evolution doesn’t happen, but then I saw the translations. I realized if you just read one, say King James, and you don’t read any other translations, and you don’t investigate how Hebrew grammar works or the history of biblical translation, you absolutely would think creation is absolutely over and done. It was one of my first surprises. It was hard to convey in English, but I thought it was important to show how much discussion there is about how to read Genesis 1, and it’s not just a one-way street. I wanted to show that creation is complicated, and that’s why it’s so exciting.
What is most frequently lost in translation when it comes to the Bible?
I don’t know if it’s possible to pick one, there’s not one greatest hit, but in general, I do think it’s important for English readers to know that the Jewish bible is much more ambiguous and its more multiple in meaning than the English indicates. What’s wild and cool in Hebrew is flat and simple in English, and readers have no idea that this crazy section in Hebrew exists. My sense is that what scares people is that they think there is just one way to read the Bible. I just think it’s fascinating, in so many cases there’s a lot of debate. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, I think it’s fabulous. I mean, how many other books are we still talking about?