MARBLEHEAD – “Whereas translation tries very often to bring the original to the modern audience, I try to bring the audience back towards the text,” said Everett Fox, the Allen M. Glick Chair in Judaic and Biblical Studies at Clark University who will serve as Temple Sinai’s 2019-2020 Scholar in Residence.
Fox is best known for bringing a modern, English-speaking audience back thousands of years to ancient Israel through his exacting translations. In 1995, he published “The Five Books of Moses: (The Schocken Bible, Volume 1), A New English Translation with Commentary and Notes,” which tried to retain the work’s original artistry and meaning that is found in the spacing, sounds, rhythms, alliteration, and poetry of the Hebrew text.
“When I talk about the art of the story, what I mean is how they use sound, how they use repetition, refrains, how they use certain key words to clue the audience into what’s going on,” he said, noting that the Bible evolved from oral traditions dating back centuries. “It’s a little bit analogous to musical performance. There are some conductors and pianists who will stay close to the structure of the piece without interpreting.”
Fox’s goal of direct translation rather than interpretation means that he leaves names in their original Hebrew form (example: Avraham and Sarai), because he feels the original meaning of the name is lost when anglicized. “The names very often mean something,” he said. “Even though we’re used to having Moses and Abraham in the text, they’re very often interpreting puns and plays on words, so we need to know what they’re driving at.” Fox also retains the Bible’s original line spacing of words, rather than dividing sentences into thematic paragraphs more accessible to the contemporary reader. Some Hebrew words are altogether untranslatable, because they represent concepts and traditions with no true English equivalent.
“All over the middle of the Five Books of Moses, there are laws about purity, and what scholars call ‘pollution’ – it’s a ritual thing, and if you do the wrong thing, or something happens to you that’s outside the pale, you enter a state of I guess you could say ‘pollution,’” said Fox. “The adjective is ‘tamei,’ and usually translated as ‘unclean,’ but I’m not sure that’s exactly what they meant. I had to wrestle with that for a long time. I joked about ‘ritually challenged,’ but I finally decided we should leave it in Hebrew, with a note, and that way you know you’re not dealing with a 21st century American concept.”
If the result is still convoluted to modern readers, Fox argues that may not be such a bad thing. After all, the Torah was made to be puzzled over. “A difference between the Jewish and the Christian world is that in Christianity, the Bible is supposed to be brought to the largest number of people – there’s a kind of missionary desire. For Jews, the Bible is more designed to be studied, and obsessed over, and struggled with,” he said. “So my translation tries to open some of that up. If I think the Hebrew is really unclear, I’ll try and come out with an English that’s somewhat unclear.”
Fox decided he wanted to become a translator after he came across “Scripture and Translation,” a 1936 translation of the Bible into German by Jewish philosophers Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig that helped pioneer the approach detailed above. Fox published an English translation of their work in 1994. Then, while a graduate student at Brandeis University, he also was inspired by a recording of Israeli diplomat, politician, and Hebrew language scholar Abba Eban reading the Bible in both English and Hebrew.
“He read it in a much more rhythmic, grammatical way than you usually hear – you can ask an Israeli or somebody who knows Hebrew to read a paragraph of the Bible, and very often people don’t know exactly how it’s done. It’s like Shakespearean English,” he said. Fox’s translation approach also was inspired by his longstanding love of classical music and the importance of exacting accuracy in timing and composition.
Fox decided he wanted to translate the entire Bible, an arduous task that was completed in on-and-off chunks for 27 years, and has been continuing to revise ever since. He also has completed translations of prophetic and Haftarah texts. While Fox’s translation approach was controversial when he first began publishing in the early 1980s, it has gained popularity, especially in independent synagogues and study groups that are not tied to any institutionally approved translations.
Herb Newborn, a congregant and former president at Temple Sinai in Marblehead, met Fox at one of these study groups in 2005. At the time, Fox was teaching at a course on the stories of Genesis at Me’ah, the adult education arm of Hebrew College. “We were studying Jacob, Isaac, Esau and the forfeiting of Esau’s birthright. Dr. Fox showed a videotape of a Marx Brothers movie with the actors running in and out of rooms helter-skelter to try and give people the image of what was happening in the Genesis story. It was memorable and great technique in my opinion,” said Newborn, who said that Fox’s class inspired him to continue studying the Bible. When Temple Sinai was deciding who their next scholar-in-residence would be, Newborn enthusiastically recommended Fox.
As scholar-in-residence, Fox will give two talks in the fall and spring on David and Bathsheba and Samson and Delilah, respectively, and the challenge of translating their stories. His first talk on Sunday, Nov. 10, will cover the story of King David impregnating Bathsheba, the wife of one of his generals, and David’s nefarious efforts to cover up this indiscretion.
“Both David and Bathsheba and Samson and Delilah are ultimately about the kind of leaders ancient Israel has, and I’m sorry to say their failings,” said Fox. “There are lessons about what not to do in these stories. Since leadership is very much on our mind these days, I thought it would be appropriate to look at some biblical examples of that.”
Temple Sinai Rabbi David Cohen-Henriquez lists Fox as one of his favorite biblical translators, and noted that for the 10th anniversary of his ordination, the temple presented him with Fox’s 2014 work, “The Early Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings.”
“There is an expression in Italian: ‘Traduttore, traditore’ which means, ‘the translator is a traitor.’ The wordplay of these two words convey the hard challenge of having a beautiful translation that is also faithful to the original,” said Cohen-Henriquez. “I don’t believe this is the case with Everett Fox’s work.”
Dr. Fox will present on Nov. 10 at Temple Sinai in Marblehead. The event is free for members and $10 for the community.