Haggadah, New and Improved

Nathan Englander's Translation Has Many Fine Features

By Philologos

Published April 05, 2012, issue of April 13, 2012.
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The New American Haggadah, which some of you may have on your Seder table this year, has gotten enough publicity without me, thus saving me the need to introduce it. There are things I like about it, such as its stunning graphic design, and things I don’t, such as the overall triteness and sometimes irritating cutesiness of its commentaries, but I’ll stick here to my own territory — and specifically, to Nathan Englander’s English translation of the Hebrew text.

Translating a classic text that has been translated over and over in the past poses a basic dilemma. On the one hand, the translator wants to be fresh, novel, original; why translate anything for the 100th time if it’s going to sound like its 99 predecessors? On the other hand, precisely because one is dealing with a classic, the constraints are great; when every word of an original text has been subjected to as much repetition and scrutiny as the Hebrew of the Haggadah has been, the translator is operating in a cluttered space in which anything of time-hallowed value that he touches, moves or breaks will be noticed and very likely resented. And this is especially true when the text is a religious one used for ritual purposes, so that a translation of it, too, has a sacred dimension.

Englander has, on the whole, coped bravely with the challenges. His English is clear and simple, with none of the pomposity that too many translations of traditional Jewish texts fall into in an attempt to be uplifting. It wisely uses familiar Hebrew terms like “hametz” and “matzah” rather than awkward English equivalents like “leavened foods” and “unleavened bread,” correctly judging that the former enhance, and the latter detract from, the homey intimacy of the Seder. Conversely, it isn’t afraid to paraphrase other Hebrew words without telling you that that’s what it’s doing, as when, resorting to Midrashic formulations, it translates the rabbinical epithet for God, ha-Makom, literally, “the Place,” as “the One that is Space and the Source of Space, the One that is the World but Whom the World Cannot Contain.” It manages to utilize the differences between Hebrew and English for creative purposes. And it also, unfortunately, in its desire to sound new and different, sometimes seeks to exploit these differences for effect, with embarrassing results. Let me give you an example of these last two things in a single passage.

Nathan Englander
juliana sohn
Nathan Englander

Avadim hayinu l’Far’o b’Mitzrayim, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt,” the Haggadah tells us as it sets about answering the Four Questions, and it continues, “Vayotzi’enu adonai eloheynu misham b’yad ḥazaka u’v’zro’a netuya, “And the Lord our God took us from there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm.” For this, Englander gives us: “Slaves is what we were — slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. And wrested free were we, by the Lord God-of-us, lifted out of that place in the mighty hand of an outstretched arm.”

“Slaves is what we were — slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt,” is excellent. It utilizes the perfectly ordinary Hebrew construction of avadim hayinu, “slaves we were,” in which the noun proceeds its copula as it rarely does in English, to throw all the emphasis on slaves, as if to say: “We around this Seder table who think so highly of ourselves, let’s never forget who we once were!” That’s nice.

But “the Lord God-of-us”? In Hebrew, it’s true, the possessive suffix follows its noun, so that eloheynu, “our God,” is a fusion of elohim, “God,” and the grammatical ending nu, “our.” What is the point, though, of trying to mechanically imitate this with the supremely un-English “God-of-us”? Does “God-of-us” tell us anything that “our God” doesn’t? Does it make a provocative statement? Force us to rethink any of our assumptions? Give us a new insight into God or our relationship with Him? No, it does none of these things. It simply seeks to startle us with its strangeness — and falls flat on its face.

Worse yet, this elocution occurs dozens of times in the New American Haggadah, starting with the Kiddush, the blessing over the wine, with which the Seder begins. Whereas this blessing is generally translated, more or less, as “Blessed art Thou, our God, King of the universe, Creator of the fruit of the vine,” Englander has, “You our blessed, Lord God-of-us, King of the Universe, Maker of the fruit of the vine.”

“Maker,” for my money, is better than “Creator,” and there are good arguments for (as well as against) “you” instead of “Thou.” One can also, I suppose, justify “Cosmos” instead of “Universe,” although since the two words mean the same thing and we are used to “Universe,” a sensible translator, in my opinion, would have resisted the temptation to be different. But once again, God-of-us is dreadful. Why Jonathan Safran Foer, editor of the New American Haggadah, didn’t strike it out, here and elsewhere, is a mystery.

And yet why let this spoil things? Englander’s translation has some fine features: The New American Haggadah is glorious to look at; the Hebrew remains the same marvelous Hebrew year after year, and even we are only a year older than we were a year ago. God-of-me! Can a whole year have passed so quickly?

Have a wonderful Passover.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com

*A quotation attributed to Boris Thomashefsky while marketing his Yiddish “Hamlet,” which he said “fartaytsht and farbesert” (“translated and improved”) the original Shakespeare play.


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