The God In the Translation

Leviticus 26:3-27:34

By Lore Segal

Published May 27, 2005, issue of May 27, 2005.
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The sadness of reading Torah without benefit of Hebrew has small compensations: I’m forced to look for — to participate in — the struggle of translators wrestling every last meaning from the original in order not to miss the god in the detail.

The first half of the first sentence of this week’s portion offers an example of such a struggle. It is the half of the sentence that proposes the condition on which Israel’s blessed future would have depended. The Jewish Publication Society’s translation renders, “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments,” two verbs, the second lightly weighted by an adverb. Robert Alter translates: “If you go by My statutes.” (This and subsequent emphases are mine.) Should we suspect something in the Hebrew that asks for a verb of physical motion? Check the wonderful German translation of Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig. It reads, “Werdet ihr in meinen Satzungen gehen,” of which the King James version, which precedes it by half a millennium, is the exact translation: “If you walk in My statutes.” The JPS’s “follow” (My laws) and “faithfully observe” (My commandments) is rendered by three verbs in the three cited translations: Alter says “go by,” “keep” and “do”; Buber/Rosenzweig: “gehen,” “waren,” “tun,” and the King James, “walk in,” “keep,” “do.”

What difference does the walking metaphor make in the meaning? I permit myself a farfetched and personal analogy. As a child figure skater I was both diligent and untalented. I followed and observed my trainer’s commands and did just what he said, and nothing much came of it until the day he took me by the shoulders and physically turned me into the figure — walked me into and through its complications. The experience of realization — of illumination — remains with me 60-plus years later; I think about it once in a while. It’s what we mean in common American parlance when we talk of “walking the walk.”

The vision of a perfect future that depended on an Israel walking in God’s word was never realized in the real world. The potential blessings were of three kinds: prosperity, national peace and — in a curious sequitur — overwhelming military success. The land would have known nature in its orderly round, and extraordinary bounty. The nation would have experienced the absence of danger from man and beast, and out-battled the enemy, hands down. It is emphatically clear that such successes result not from human skill or heroism but by means of God’s transcendent championship of an obedient people.

There follow verses of a curiously fierce negative promise: “I will not spurn you” (JPS); “I shall not loathe you” (Alter); “Meine Seele schleudert euch nicht weg” (“My soul does not fling you away from me,” where no English synonym renders the violence of the German “schleudert”) (Buber/Rosenzweig), and “My soul shall not abhor you” (King James). There is a payoff for choosing to translate “walk in the Lord’s statutes,” where the Lord promises to “walk among” His people and reminds them that it was He who saved them from the bondage of Egypt so they could “Go upright.”

The blissful, lyrical vision of a prosperous and peaceable future serves as contrast to an even more powerful evocation of disasters when God’s “soul abhors” a nation that “abhors His judgments” and “He walks contrary” to a people that “walks contrary” to Him. Then, God, Man and Nature will be our enemy; our highways, cities and sanctuaries will be wasted, empty and desolate. A future in which the enemy who hates us would reign over us did come to pass in the real world and came to pass again in our own day till we can no longer feel a difference between persecution and the fear of it.

The ratio is seven punishments per sin. The absence of seasonal rain from an iron heaven will make an earth as brass. We sow what the enemy will eat; what we eat will not satisfy our hunger. In a sadistic enthusiasm, our imagination is commended to walk to the limit and past: We will eat the flesh of our daughter and our son.

After that, God has a hope for us. If we accept our calamities as a just comeuppance, He will remember his covenant with our first fathers. I think that to take comfort in this might require a knowledge of Hebrew.

Lore Segal is a novelist, translator and essayist. Her latest children’s book is “More Mole Stories and Little Gopher, Too” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

Winners of the 16th annual Jewish Cultural Achievement Awards in the Arts

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