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Translating the Audience

Five times in this week’s portion, Bo, the reader, is told to tell the story of the Exodus to a family audience. But who exactly is to be told?

The word ben (offspring, traditionally son) functions as something of a refrain in the Hebrew. At its beginning (Exodus 10:2), midsection (12:24, 26) and conclusion (13:8, 14), ben (or, in the plural, banim) serves to specify the audience for recitations and explanations of the events.

As a parent of two daughters, I used to change the traditional rendering of “tell in the ears of your son(s)” to “daughter(s)” — or more inclusively “children” — during the recitation at the Seder that is based on this and on similar biblical passages. But is some such an approach, however well intentioned at Passover, appropriate when rendering the text of the Hebrew Bible itself? My affirmative response to this query is based on both the original context and the needs of a contemporary audience.

In the five verses listed above, I would unhesitatingly use “child” to render all occurrences, being sure to note the use of the singular in the first and last examples, and the plural in the verses from chapter 12: thus, “your child and the child of your child” at 10:2; “your children” at 12:24, 26, and “your child” at 13:8, 14. Compare this, for example, with the JPS Tanakh, which has “your sons and your sons’ sons,” “your descendants” (12:24), “your children” (12:26) and “your son,” respectively. (ArtScroll is virtually the same, with the exception of the more consistent rendering, “your children,” at 12:24.) The change of “son” and “sons” to “child” and “children” in “The Contemporary Torah,” (JPS, 2006), which is a self-described “gender-sensitive adaptation of the JPS translation,” marks a decided, although incomplete improvement.

Interestingly enough, Everett Fox, in his highly literal and evocative “Schocken Bible” rendering, has “child” or “children” in all these cases. Fox’s practice should silence those who see only “political correctness” at work, since Fox’s aim is to convey the very essence of the Hebrew wording as an ancient audience would have experienced it. The same can also be observed with respect to Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s “The Living Torah” (Moznaim Publishing Corporation, 1981), where “child” or “children” is used consistently (although I do not think that his “children and grandchildren” at 10:2 represents an advance over the more literal translation I prefer).

The word ben also occurs again in chapter 13, in parallel contexts at verses 13 and 15, where it presents a more subtle problem of translation. Both verses speak of “redeeming” firstborn Israelite males. In Fox, the pertinent phrase is rendered quite literally as “every firstborn of men, among your sons” at verse 13, and “every firstborn among my sons” at verse 15. With “every firstborn male among your children” at verse 13, and “every firstborn among my sons” at verse 15, the Tanakh continues what I judge to be its confusing practice of varying its translation of a key term, to the definite detriment of readers who depend on it to impart at least some of the distinctive flavor of the Hebrew original. “The Contemporary Torah” has “every male firstborn among your [verse 13]/my [verse 15] children.” Although I cannot follow this “adaptation” in its blurring of differences in Hebrew between the two verses, it does hit just the right note with “children,” bringing to seven the number of times a Hebrew — and now, an English-language — reader would see this term in connection with the Israelites in the portion.

One additional usage of ben in this section has occasioned different renderings; namely, at 12:43, where both JPS versions have “foreigner” and only Fox (of the texts we have been looking at here) alerts the reader to the presence of our keyword, with his “foreign son.” This may work for Fox, who regularly uses “Children of Israel” for bnei Israel (additionally, Fox adduces as a parallel the English expression “native son”) where most other translations have “Israelites” — although I’d prefer “foreign child” in such an instance. But for a general translation, I’m not sure I can improve on “foreigner.” (Surely, ArtScroll’s “alienated person” and Kaplan’s “outsider” are not the clearest ways to reflect the Hebrew.) However, if we feel that the “foreign child” here is indeed explicitly contrasted with “my” or “your” (that is, Israelite) child elsewhere in the portion, then we would need to come up with something that alerts the English-language reader to this. At a Seder, we might be indulged and allowed a certain degree of freedom or creativity; I’m not sure if translators of the Hebrew Bible would be well advised to do likewise.

Leonard Greenspoon holds the Klutznick chair in Jewish civilization at Creighton University and is currently working on a history of Bible translations.

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